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Is Impatience Holding You Back as An Athlete?

A while back I wrote a piece titled, “If It’s Not Hard, It’s Not Hard Enough.” In it, I addressed the irony that people become endurance athletes because they want to do something hard, but many of them freak out when they discover that achieving their goals is harder than expected. In essence, they want the endurance experience to be kind of hard—like, six-out-of-ten hard—but not too hard.  This lukewarm embrace of difficulty these athletes in a sort of psychological gray area between the average non-athlete, who doesn’t want anything to be six-out-of-ten hard or harder, and the most successful endurance athletes (i.e., those who come nearest to realizing their full potential), who embrace any level of difficulty required to achieve their goals.

Something similar is true of patience. Endurance sports, by their nature, select for patient individuals. Instant gratification is not a thing in endurance training, and those who require it are more likely to stick with video games than to sign up for a marathon. Endurance sports also teach patience to those who are patient enough to take them up. Many, if not most, endurance athletes become more patient as they gain experience in their chosen sport.

This is not to say, however, that all endurance athletes are equally patient. No less a figure than Arthur Lydiard believed that impatience, more than anything else, held runners back from reaching their full potential. During a visit to New Zealand, American runner Andy Palmer was told by Lydiard, “Patience is one of the most important traits a runner can have. I see so many impatient runners. It takes time to build the aerobic system to full capacity. A lot of the runners I’ve coached don’t have the patience for it. They leave me for other coaches who give them a bunch of speed work, which leads to great races. But what they don’t realize is that it was all of that patient aerobic base building that made those breakthroughs possible. And they also don’t realize their improvement will be short-lived if they keep the intensity high.”

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I never had this problem as a runner, but I did self-sabotage at times through impatience. To be fair, I’m not the least patient person who ever walked the earth. You have to be pretty comfortable with deferred gratification to write a 100,000-word book or to spend eleven months training for an Ironman. But I am prone to fits of impatience, and more than once they’ve bitten me in behind.

Among my most sensitive emotional triggers is perceived time waste. It drives me berserk. In the athletic context, injuries have often pressed this hyperreactive button in my psychological makeup, causing me to rush my return to full training with the inevitable result that a small niggle became a showstopping injury.

Over time, however, I did become more patient—or, more accurately, I became better able to practice patience without actually feeling any different—and thereby reduced my rate of injury. During the aforementioned 11-month Ironman build I was unable to run regularly until just a few weeks before race day due to chronic groin pain, but by listening to my body and allowing it to dictate the pace of my progress I managed to find a groove in those final weeks and salvage a 3:17:38 marathon split at Ironman Santa Rosa, meeting my initial goal.

Today I find myself in a situation that demands a whole new level of patience. As regular readers of this blog will know, I recently returned to running after a two-plus-year layoff imposed by long covid. What’s tricky about this illness for athletes is that one of its major symptoms is post-exertional malaise (PEM), a delayed negative response to exercise. As such, PEM makes it difficult for athletes to avoid setbacks through the tried-and-true measures of listening to their body and ramping up conservatively. No matter how careful the athlete is, they may have no idea they are approaching a precipice until they’re already over it.

This is precisely what happened to me. Over the preceding six weeks, I had cautiously ramped up from 10 x 30 seconds of jogging to 30 minutes of straight jogging. Having reached this milestone with only a handful of minor PEM episodes, I decided to double down on caution and progress no further for two weeks. Alas, I was already over the cliff’s edge without knowing it. Two days after my third 30-minute jog I was hit by a wave of PEM as awful as any prior wave, confining me to bed. If past is prologue, I will continue to feel like death warmed over for several weeks, during which time any activity more intense than walking will be completely out of the question.

So really I have no choice but to be patient. Yet plenty of folks remain impatient even when they have no choice. As evangelist and author Joyce Meyer has said, “Patience it not simply the ability to wait—it’s how we behave while waiting.” Here’s how I plan to behave while I wait for some sign that it’s safe for me to attempt to run again:

  1. Accept that I may never run again. (This one’s easy, as I had already made peace with it prior to the period of improvement that preceded my ill-fated attempt to run.)
  2. Accept that long covid has probably changed my body forever, and not for the better. (Ditto.)
  3. Channel my still-burning passion for running into serving other runners.
  4. Explore other ways to improve my health and fitness (e.g., walking and weightlifting).
  5. Try to achieve something special that I would not have achieved had I remained healthy.

How would you behave in my (non-running) shoes?