Everything I Need to Teach I Learned in Marathon Training [Part I]

I’m a teacher and, much to my students’ chagrin, I’m full of ulterior motives.

Yes, I want them to understand how to construct an essay that helps them convey their best understanding in the most powerful way possible but (Shhh! Don’t tell them this part!) some things are more important than any one academic skill or set of facts.

What could be more important, you ask? (Okay, so you didn’t ask. You’re an adult and you know that plenty of things are more important to you. Probably running, for one. Don’t worry, I’m getting there!)

Newbie Note: “Everything I Need to Teach I Learned in Marathon Training” – Part I

What’s most important are those strategies, habits or capital T Truths that form the backbone of ALL learning – not just learning in school, but learning in life.

What does this have to do with running? Well, on my last long run I realized how any of these essential lessons marathon training as retaught me. Because sometimes we know something, but we don’t know it. You know?

So here they are, my first two Lessons for Lifelong Learning, as taught by my good teacher, Marathon Training.

#1. Run your own race.

There’s a well-known study showing that even when you give leveled reading groups neutral names like blue jay, cardinal, and chickadee, students always know which group is the highest level. So, rather than try to hide a student’s strengths and weaknesses in reading or any other area, I ask them to become intentionally aware of their level.

Where are you now? Where do you want to be? How will you get there? I point out that chances are, you won’t be the best at everything you do. So, don’t worry about other people but pay close attention to yourself. Be honest with yourself about where you are right now so you can make a plan to get where you want to be!

And of course, running teaches me this every day. I’ve been running on and off for 6 years and I’m still the slowest person I know. Sometimes (okay, a lot of times) I’ve let this get to me. Why can my friend train so sporadically but still run a half-marathon a solid 45 minutes faster than me?! The answer is, who cares? (Well, I do, but it doesn’t help me to dwell on it!)

The only thing that will get me to the finish line is knowing where I am right now, where I want to be, and how to get there. And it works! A week ago, I ran 16 miles. 16 miles!! For many MTA podcast listeners and readers, 16 miles is nothing much, but for some of us, 16 miles is a Really. Big. Deal. So that’s what I have to focus on: Where am I now? Where do I want to be? How will I get there? Ignore everyone else because they’re running their own race, too.

(Unless, for you, “running your own race” means actually trying to win. Because then, you know, you should probably pay attention to what that dude running next to you is doing. And maybe don’t take running advice from me.)

#2. Find your zone.

In education, we call this Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. Sounds pretty fancy, right? I like to think of it as the Goldilocks rule: The best way to get better at something is to work at just the right level. If you try to read a book too far beyond your level, your brain won’t be able to understand enough of the text to help you be a better reader.

Marathon training reminds me of this every time I try to put in too many miles or work too hard, too often. At the beginning of training I decided I would follow the MTA 5:30 goal plan (instead of the beginner plan) because it had intervals and mile-repeats – my favorite kinds of training runs! And that worked for me… for a while. But now that I’ve moved into the uncharted territory post-half, where every long run is a new distance PR, I’ve realized my body can only do so much.

As much as I love those super-intense speed workouts, keeping them in my training would make me risk missing out on opportunities for growth. My body just isn’t ready to process the work. So, rather than putting in a ton of effort and having nothing to show for it, I reminded myself to find my zone. I printed out the beginner plan and am sticking with that from here on out.

The flip-side, of course, is that if you never push yourself beyond where you are now, you won’t grow either. A fourth-grader who never picks up a book with new vocabulary won’t just magically be able to read high-school texts in 9th grade. A runner who makes every run a 3-mile easy pace won’t suddenly be able to run a 10k.

This is where I was in January of this year when I was training for a leg of the Vermont City Marathon. It was cold and snowy and I just wasn’t motivated. My training consisted of 30-minute easy runs on the treadmill twice a week – unless something “came up.” Guess what? It wasn’t my best race! I didn’t make any progress because I never did any hard work. In the end, the training that will help you the most isn’t the hardest, or the easiest, it’s the training that’s just right.

And with that, it’s time for another run! Check back soon for the rest of Lessons for Lifelong Learning courtesy of Marathon Training. And I’m not saying there will be a pop quiz or anything but it never hurts to be prepared…

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