The Right Amount of Effort
Running Thoughts #85
Hi, I'm Scott, and this is my sometimes weekly newsletter about life, learning, and, occasionally, running.
This week in between work, an Army Reserve weekend, and my daughter catching the latest daycare outbreak, I was able to get in my last race of 2022, the OUC Half Marathon in Orlando. Racing is always an adventure.
Question of the Week
The Right Amount of Effort
Book Notes on Effortless
Photo of the Week
Question of the Week:
Where are you trying too hard?
I was filled with anxiety Friday night.
The following morning I'd be running my first half marathon since 2018. That race had been the final straw before I relented to knee surgery four months later.
Contributing to my unease, my last month of training was poor due to the latest lingering cold from daycare, general fatigue, and a knee injury.
Would my surgically repaired knee even make it through the race after I blew it up in a slow and hilly 50k (~31 miles) the last weekend of October? The only consolation was that the knee loosened up with walking and stretching. Unfortunately, the locking up started around mile 6 or 7.
I had to run 13.1.
How should I pace myself? I just hoped not to limp to the finish or embarrass myself before leaving the race directly for Army duty for the remainder of the weekend.
In the morning, I wound my way through the jam-packed crowd trying to figure out where to start. My drop-dead goal would be two hours. I’d only run a slower half-marathon once before. I found a spot just ahead of that pace group.
On my best days, the crowd and those final minutes of waiting fill my stomach with dread. Today was no different.
I turned my headphones on.
Like most big races, the excitement of the starting gun was greater than the reality as the crowd held me to a walk through the starting line and only slowly picked up the pace afterward.
In the past, I usually start like the asshole zooming through traffic ducking in and out fighting for every inch of forward progress -- usually at a high cost of fuel. Today, I decided to coast and allow myself to slowly warm up to race speed. Besides, I figured I'd need every drop of fuel. This was about survival.
I swapped my watch's display to solely heart rate. Pace was irrelevant to me. I watched my heart rate slowly climb as the crowd allowed gaps to form. I drifted to the left side of the pack where the empty sidewalk provided an easy passing lane around runners on the road.
I normally train around 75% of my max heart rate -- the pace may vary, but it's an easy enough effort that I can normally hold the pace and feel good when I finish. I decided at the moment to push to 85% and see where that got me.
I should be able to hold that.
As I passed the race clocks along the course, the pace was faster than I expected. A lot faster and far ahead of anything I’d run during my individual training.
Even more shocking, I felt like I could hold it.
Before I knew it, I was at five miles.
Past the halfway mark, I was holding strong. A few times my heart rate actually started DROPPING and I had to pick up the effort. This included momentarily drafting off the 1:45 pace group that was well ahead of where I started and expected to be.
They were too slow for me.
When was the blow-up going to happen?
Unintentionally, I was following the 85% rule based on 100-meter sprinter Carl Lewis. He was usually in last place at 40 meters. At the 50-60 meter mark, while most sprinters were baring down, he still wore exactly the same expression from the start. He was comfortable, relaxed, and running at optimal effort. By the end, he’d win by 10 meters.
Doing anything with 100% effort is a pressure cooker and leads to a blow-up. Aim for 85% for best results.
The 100% pressure cooker was how I blew myself up with legs blazing the downhills at the previously mentioned 50k. I was straining just to walk for long stretches of the final 12 miles of that race.
This morning, I could feel the calm intentionality on my face. After passing 10 miles, I only had to hold this pace for three more miles. I'd run that distance a million times.
I came through the finish at 1 hour and 41 minutes. I was 19 minutes faster than my worst-case scenario, more than a minute per mile faster than any of my training runs. I was only 5 minutes off of my personal record at the same race 8 years earlier when I was in better shape and racing every month.
Without monitoring pace, the final 11 miles were each completed with a pace within an 18-second range (the first two miles were slightly slower as I eased my way through the crowd). Shockingly consistent.
It was just the right amount of effort.
Here is what I learned: trying too hard makes it harder to get the results you want. Here is what I realized: behind almost every failure of my whole life I had made the same error. When I’d failed, it was rarely because I hadn’t tried hard enough, it was because I’d been trying too hard.
✍️ My Top 5 Takeaways
What if the biggest thing keeping us from doing what matters is the false assumption that it has to take tremendous effort?
Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential.
In order to succeed at something, you have to get it done. That could mean starting with a "zero draft" which is so bad it wouldn't even qualify as a first draft, having a clear definition of done, and remembering there is rarely a need to go the second mile.
To maximize gains from long-term practice, individuals must avoid exhaustion and must limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.
Every relationship has a structure. A low-trust structure is one where expectations are unclear, where goals are incompatible or at odds, where people don’t know who is doing what, where the rules are ambiguous and nobody knows what the standards for success are, and where the priorities are unclear and the incentives misaligned. Low-trust relationships generally happen by default.
For an excellent set of meta-questions or more highlights, visit the notes page.
Photo of the Week:
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