Running is a somewhat odd activity. It's a selfish endeavor, and many of us leave our families for hours every day, plunging ourselves into an activity that benefits no one but ourselves. Sometimes we're helping a team or a running partner, but for the most part, it is something we do to satisfy our own desires. It's a financially draining sport. Sure, I win a little bit of money on the roads now and then, but that money doesn't even cover my shoes, let alone the rest of my gear, my race fees, or my running related medical bills. Even many professional runners aren't making enough to live, and they have to have another part-time job on the side. It's a punishing activity, bringing with it the physical pain of effort and injuries, and the mental anguish of heartbreak. Yet for whatever reason, we all continue to do it. So while you read this post, I'd like you to start thinking about the answer to the question: Why do you run?
Obviously, we run because we love running. If you're not passionate about the sport, you're clearly wasting your time. The vast majority of us aren't going to make the Olympics or make a living out of this (myself very much included), so you've got to love it. Otherwise, you're making a lot of sacrifices for nothing. But we all have goals, and that's what I'm going to cover in the rest of this post.
The answer to why each of us runs is very personal, and it changes over time. Additionally, it's multi-faceted. Very few people have only one goal. Instead, most of us have a number of different reasons that we run, some of which are more important than others. One mistake that is often made is losing sight of which goals are important to us, and allowing a less important goal to take priority over a more important goal, sometimes even at the expensive of the more important goal. Just to be clear, I'm no psychiatrist, and I'm not trying to get into the deep meaning of why we run (acceptance, self-worth, etc), but the simpler answers to these questions, as you'll see in the paragraphs ahead. Additionally, I'm referring to priorities within running, rather than the balance between running and other facets of life (family, social life, work, etc).
I run because I want to see how fast I can possibly be. Now, I'm sure some of you are thinking, "Duh, who doesn't run to get faster?" And no doubt, speed is somewhere on just about everyone's priority list. However, I'm going to go out on a limb here, and say that it's not #1 for many people. Here's an example for you. Obviously, to get fast, you need to stay healthy. However, someone who places speed above everything else pushes limits and puts themselves at a greater risk of injury than someone for whom running healthy is numero uno. On the other hand, many runners set the goal to still be running when they're seventy (or eighty or ninety) as their top priority, and will therefore train differently than someone who is constantly skirting that line between their best possible training and being injured.
My friend Karen came to me last January with the goal of getting faster, PRing in the marathon, and qualifying for Boston. However, at the time, one of her big goals was weight loss. Unfortunately, ideal marathon training and having a top goal of weight loss are not compatible. After a few conversations, I convinced her to temporarily shelve her weight loss goal and focus on her marathon training. The result was that she gained some weight, but ran a 9 minute PR and got her Boston qualifier. Had she continued to limit her caloric intake, I don't believe she would have gotten her qualifier, and there's also a greater chance that she would have gotten injured during marathon training and perhaps not even made it to the starting line. However, did she achieve her primary goal? Yes she did, and not only did she run a lifetime personal best, but she smashed her old PR and ran minutes faster than her Boston qualifying time. So while it's possible to switch priorities around, you have to make your primary goal your primary goal, and not let other secondary goals get in the way.
Another goal that seems to be more common today is "strengthening your feet." Ignoring the limitations of this goal for a minute (strengthening feet does not correct overpronation for some people, depending on the reason why they overpronate, for example), it's useful to decide why you want to strengthen your feet. Again, what's your primary goal, assuming the primary goal isn't just to strengthen your feet for the heck of it? Is it to prevent injury? If so, you may be better off doing theraband exercises, which isolate certain muscles and do not carry the same risks as running in minimalist shoes. Is it to run faster? Structural changes happen more slowly than cardiovascular changes, so most people will be able to train much harder with more support and cushioning, since support and cushioning in a more traditional trainer will assist the small intrinsic and extrinsic muscles of the feet when they get tired, and allow the runner to continue to train the heart and lungs with less risk of overuse. Is it because you think minimalist shoes look cool and want to wear them? It may work or may not work, depending on your bony structure and the laxity of your ligaments, which cannot be changed by strengthening. Is it to make your feet more attractive? Sure, I've heard that some people's feet look nicer after some strengthening, so that might be worth a try.
It's often easy to lose sight of what your big goal is. I admit that I have been guilty of this at times, for various reasons. One of my biggest issues is that I'm a numbers chaser. I run high mileage, and for the most part, high mileage works for me. I got faster off of big mileage weeks, and it seemed like the higher I pushed my mileage, the better I got. If I'm not careful, I end up playing the numbers game, where a shorter run might be better for my overall performance, yet I force myself on a longer run anyway, because somehow I temporarily delude myself into thinking that big numbers equal fast times (not necessarily true), and I therefore like seeing my mileage total for the week rack up. Or something will hurt, but I won't cut back because I need to get these miles in, and my training will be irrevocably damaged if I take a day off or cut a run short (even though it won't, but don't try to convince me of that). While mileage is a large part of my primary goal, it is not my primary goal, and it's in my best interest not to lose sight of that fact. Another common problem is the weight game. Runners get it in their head that they have to be skinny to run fast, so they try to lose weight, often at the expense of their training. Inadequate caloric intake results in a lack of energy and poor training, as well as increased risk of injury, since the body is unable to repair itself and make training adaptions.
It's important to keep in mind that you can only have one primary goal at a time. Everything else is secondary. If you attempt to have too many big goals, all of them will suffer and there is a good chance that you will fail at one or more of these goals. Take some time and figure out what the most important focus of your running is, and cater your training towards that goal. And every so often, assess yourself and make sure that your primary goal is still your primary goal. And be honest with yourself! Don't try to convince yourself to go for something else because you think a different goal is "right," because one goal isn't necessarily more noble than another (with a few obvious exceptions, such as someone with an eating disorder whose primary goal is that of weight loss, which is way outside of what I feel qualified to talk about in this blog). If you really want to lose those last 10 pounds, this year isn't the time to train for a marathon. If you're training for a big marathon, maybe you should tell your friends that you can't run 5Ks every weekend with them like you did in prior years. If you're trying to increase your mileage, don't worry about your 5K time until you're satisfied with your base. If your big goal race is next weekend, you probably want to skip that half-marathon today, even though you have a good shot at the prize money. If you want to run a marathon in every state, maybe you shouldn't also be trying to PR in the 10K. If you want to start a serious marathon training cycle, now isn't the time to go mess with your shoes and try to go minimal. You only have a limited amount of time to spend running. Use that time to focus on your primary goal, whatever it may be. Make it count.