athlete runner doing YOU training

On the Importance of “Doing You” As an Athlete

Every once in a while a podcast host will ask me to name my favorite writer or to recommend a book to listeners. It’s always an awkward moment for me because it all but forces me to admit that I don’t read many books about endurance sports. Almost none, in fact. To be clear, I love to read and I do so voraciously, but I’m mainly a fiction guy.

I’m also an endurance guy, though, and when I read fiction I often discover surprising relevancies to sport. One example is a priceless bit of prose that I ran across in the novel Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy: “There has to be some way to be a father and a good man, and still be me.” As good fiction so often does, these words capture a sentiment I’ve often felt but with a degree of precision that my own experience lacked. Whenever I stumble upon a passage that hits me in this way, it alters my future experience of the same phenomenon, lending it a degree of depth and clarity it had previously lacked, and this has certainly been the case with McConaghy’s gem.

Since my arrival at middle age I’ve thought a lot about the burden of personality. Through these reflections I’ve come to see my own psychological makeup as being like a set of ingredients that don’t quite match the dish I’m supposed to make with them. In this analogy, the individual ingredients are elements of my character, and the dish I’m supposed to make with them is my definition of a good person. For example, I am extremely self-absorbed by nature, and have been for as long as I can remember. How the heck am I supposed to cook up a good person with this dubious constituent?

The obvious solution of not using an ingredient that doesn’t belong in the dish you’re trying to prepare isn’t an option where personality is concerned. As another great fiction writer, Amor Towles, put it in reference to a character in his novel A Gentleman in Moscow, “Nina Kulikova always was and would be a serious soul in search of serious ideas to be serious about.” Nina could no more expect to “cook” without her inborn seriousness than I can expect to “cook” without my hardwired self-absorption. Nor is it a viable solution to add ingredients to those you were given at birth or developed in youth. A man who has been utterly lacking in patience for the first 50 years of his life, for example, cannot hope to suddenly acquire it at 51.

If it sounds like I’m suggesting that each of us is stuck exactly as we are, I’m not. Quite. Although we humans are required by the laws of psychology to cook up the best version of ourselves using all of the personality ingredients we currently possess and only these ingredients, it is possible to learn to fiddle around with portions and combinations and to process ingredients through life experience in ways that enable us to become better and better versions of ourselves. A list of ingredients is not the same thing as a recipe, after all, and each of us has the power to create the optimal recipe from the ingredients we’re stuck with.

running athlete

You might be asking yourself what all of this has to do with endurance sports. (It’s funny how often I am obliged to pose this question on my readers’ behalf some 500 words into a blog post!) The goal of succeeding as an endurance athlete is not so different from the goal of being a good person. Both require a degree of conformity to standards that seldom align perfectly with one’s nature. For example, success in endurance sports demands an application of discipline and consistency that doesn’t come easily to some. In fact, this post was inspired by my work with an athlete I work with who has a restless spirit and struggles to stay in a smooth groove in her training. She has many of the ingredients that are needed to succeed as an endurance athlete: passion, talent, toughness, intelligence. But it’s fair to say of this athlete that she always has been and always will be an impulsive soul in search of impulses to act on impulsively.

This is not a criticism. Few athletes possess the perfect character for success in endurance sports, whatever that is. As long as you have enough of the right ingredients and not too many of the wrong ones, you can cook up a rewarding athletic career. But to do so you need one thing besides enough of the right personality traits and not too many of the wrong ones, and that’s self-knowledge. Specifically, you need to recognize your strengths and weaknesses so you can exploit the former and mitigate the latter. To this end, I recently had a frank conversation with the aforementioned athlete about these matters, out of which came a heightened self-awareness on her part and a better shared sense of how to work with what she’s got.

On a practical level, this mutual understanding manifests in a variety of ways. For example, in the past we treated each of her sudden larks—buying a used van and embarking on a weeklong solo road trip, making a quick stop in Iceland to bang out a race on her way to France for her most important event of the year—as a one-off, the relative wisdom of which we would assess on its own terms. Now it is understood between us that she must indulge in a certain number of these larks to be happy with her running, and like any runner she must be happy with her running to run well. But we don’t try to kid ourselves that such whims don’t come at a cost, so we greenlight just enough of them to keep her happy.

Your personality and goals may be completely different from my athletes’, but the general concepts I’ve discussed in this post apply to everyone. Study yourself. Identify your key ingredients, and assess whether each contributes to or thwarts your success as an athlete. Then come up with a recipe that optimizes these ingredients, training and competing in a style that exploits your strengths and mitigates your weaknesses. Don’t worry about whether the recipe you come up with is abnormal.

To close with a cliche: Just be yourself. Do YOU.