Let me start with an apology. This post is not about sex. It’s actually about hermeneutics, or the discipline of textual interpretation, as it applies to endurance training. I knew that if I promoted a post about hermeneutics on social media, no one would read it, so I deliberately mislead you. Dastardly, I know, and I won’t hold it against you if you stop reading right here and move on with your day. If, however, you are open to learning more about hermeneutics as it applies to endurance training (or if you are embarrassed at having fallen for such shallow clickbait and now feel obliged to redeem yourself by suffering through this boring, sexless post), I welcome you to stay with me.
Interpretation is an integral component of all communication. Every spoken message is interpreted by its hearers and every written message is interpreted by its readers. If human language (including nonverbal communication) were not inherently ambiguous, there would be no need for interpretation—each message would have only one possible meaning that every hearer or reader understood. But language is messy, and therefore everything is open to interpretation. For example, I might say to a pair of twins, “You two look like you could be twins,” and whereas one of them might interpret the remark as a silly sarcastic joke, the other might interpret it as evidence of my stupidity.
Hermeneutics comes into play when the need arises to determine whether one interpretation is better than another. It is self-evident that, like anything else, interpretation can be done either poorly or well. What does it mean to be good at interpreting? Philosophers, religious scholars, and others have been discussing this question at least since Aristotle penned On Interpretation in 360 BC.
You might be wondering what the heck any of this has to do with endurance training. A lot! Human beings are meaning-making machines. We find meaning in absolutely everything we experience, and this includes our experiences as athletes. We find meaning in every workout and in every race. But we don’t all do it in the same way. Like those hypothetical twins I mentioned earlier, any two athletes may interpret the same experience in highly disparate ways. The most successful athletes are adept at finding helpful ways to interpret what they perceive and feel, less successful athletes not so much.
Take choking, for example. Athletes who tend to choke in competition do so because they give the race a meaning that place them under undo pressure not to fail. In How Bad Do You Want It? I share the example of Siri Lindley, a professional triathlete who choked in a pair of qualifiers for the 2000 Olympics because she suffered from low self-worth and chose to believe that she had to succeed as a triathlete in order to see herself as a person of valuable. Only after she realized this and relaxed, choosing to strive for success in triathlon purely because she enjoyed it, did she rebound to become world champion.
The importance of athletic hermeneutics is not limited to big moments. It extends to every moment of every training session, and indeed to every moment in which you are operating in an athletic mode. Here’s a recent personal example: A couple of weeks back I performed a bread-and-butter moderate-intensity run that I revisit a few times each year: 2 miles easy, 6 miles at lactate threshold effort, 2 miles easy. Having suffered a foot injury eight weeks before this particular revisitation, and having returned to full and unfettered run training only two weeks earlier, I knew that I would not feel as good or perform as well in the session as I had when I last did it. This tamping of expectations was a way of contextualizing the workout to ensure I interpreted my subsequent experience of it in the most helpful possible way.
Sure enough, I felt meh throughout the threshold portion of the run and my average pace was a good 10 seconds per mile slower than it had been the last time. As a coach, I can tell you that most runners in my place would have let the situation get to them. They would have pouted internally about how meh they felt and repined over how much fitness they had lost in the past two months. I did not. The temptation was certainly there, but I made a conscious effort to resist it by reminding myself of the context; by drawing encouragement from the fact that, thanks to aggressive crossing-training during my injury recovery, I hadn’t lost even more fitness than I had; and by telling myself that the next time I did this workout I would surely reap the rewards of having muddled through it this time. “This is a steppingstone,” I said to myself, over and over.
It worked. I didn’t enjoy the run as much as I enjoy most runs, but I enjoyed it more than I would have done otherwise, and I finished it feeling good about how I had hadn’t it mentally. This is hermeneutics at work in the endurance training context. Now it’s your turn. As you move forward with your training, don’t allow yourself to lose sight of the fact that you always have the power and freedom to interpret what you’re experiencing in manner of your choosing, and your choices have consequences. Your goal is to become a better athlete. Becoming a better interpreter will help you become a better athlete.