The Performance Enigma

We turn the key and expect our cars to perform – without fail. Same with our TVs, toasters, bikes, and computers.   We board a plane 99.99999+% sure all will go well. With all these machines, it’s on or off, up or down, cut and dried, no in between. The acceptable performance level is 100%.

But what about us humans – what’s an acceptable % if not 100%. Let’s talk baseball. A top hitter hits 30% and gets on base 40% of the time. A pitcher striking out 25% of batters faced is an all star. On a team level, some nights the Red Sox are invincible – Gold Gloves at every position, a Cy Young on the mound, and hits and runs mount throughout the game.   Other nights, they have butterfingers, pitchers serve up dingers like it’s batting practice, and the offense is nowhere to be found. They wouldn’t beat the Lowell Spinners, their Single A affiliate, much less another major league team. Same team, different nights.

So how does this relate to running? First, we are not machines, even if we train methodically with an eye on gradual improvement and excellence. I practice and preach this – aiming for consistent performance. But the reality is some days are tough. Last week I ran five miles where every mile got slower and harder. I had gone to the track to do 800 repeats and slogged back to the gym feeling defeated. It was a terrible way to start the workday – it was noon before I was remotely productive. At some fundamental level, this is just silly. I was out there running, working my body, not at Starbucks drinking coffee. I should have been celebrating, not moping!

Do we runners have unrealistically high standards? For many of us, the last great tempo run or race is our bar. We want to feel that way every time out! Is this bad? I don’t think so. In fact, aren’t the experiences of feeling good, or even great, at least part of what keeps us going? We’re not really satisfied jogging to cover the miles or interested in warming up on the treadmill so we can pound weights. The miles and hills are our weights. And consistency is a viable training goal. But we can fall into a trap of always expecting that. Let’s face it, life happens! And we’re fortunate it does or neither you nor I would be here! Lost sleep, work and family demands, a bad cold or the flu, a recent hard run or race, an extended trip involving air travel, etc., etc. etc.

I don’t know of any study that measures runners’ satisfaction rate of their runs or races. For me, over time I sure hope it’s more than 50%. I’d settle for 75%. That means on a normal 4-run week, three “good” days and one of those other days described above. It’s tricky. We go through cycles for all sorts of reasons. And for our own good it’s best we accept that.

I remember going to watch the Red Sox when David Ortiz was playing. Everyone in the stadium not only hoped but expected Ortiz to hit a home run. And you got the sense so did he! When he came to bat, Fenway got loud in anticipation. Of course more often than not – about 17 out of 18 times – that didn’t happen. But he was in the game giving it his best shot. That’s our choice too. David, hope to see you at the track someday!



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