blog post 2023 05 01T130104.690

Separating Want from Need in Training and Racing

You want perfect weather conditions for your half-marathon PR attempt on Sunday.

But do you actually need perfect weather conditions?

You want to beat your average pace from your last tempo run in today’s tempo run.

But do you really need to beat it?

You want to avoid niggles and minor illnesses in the remaining five weeks before your big race?

But did you truly need to?

The answer to all of these questions is a definitive no. If the weather doesn’t cooperate on race day, you can still race to the best of your ability and take satisfaction in knowing you would have PR’ed in better conditions. If you fail to show improvement in a workout, you can let it go and move on, knowing improvement will come if you stay the course. And if you develop a niggle or a minor illness during the last six weeks before a big race, you can handle it to the best of your ability and still go after your goal, assuming nothing. Yet, despite the incontestable nature of these facts, athletes routinely mistake wants for needs, fixing their minds on the notion that certain things have to happen, or else—or else what exactly?

Closely related to this conflation of wants and needs is the tendency to assume that if certain undesirable events transpire, the athlete has no choice but to react in a particular (negative) way. For example, a runner who is coming back from a long injury might refuse invitations from a friend and former training partner to resume running together because the two runners used to be exact equals but now the friend is much fitter. In this scenario, the runner assumes she has no choice but to react to running with her fitter friend with jealousy and self-pity, just as many athletes assume they have no choice but to react negatively to bad race-day weather, a disappointing workout performance, or an untimely niggle or illness.

One could make the case that there are no true needs whatsoever in endurance sports. Even the need to be healthy enough to participate in them can be considered a want. I myself am not healthy enough to participate in endurance sports (for those of you who were cheering on my recovery from long covid, I’m sorry to report that I’ve relapsed big-time). But I don’t believe that I have no choice but to be depressed or bitter about my poor health. Instead I choose to remain as involved as I can possibly be in endurance sports short of actually doing them and to find satisfaction in helping others enjoy the doing.

Stoics, Buddhists, and other spiritualists argue that the key to happiness is reducing our wants, aiming to get as close as one can to perfect overlap between wants and needs. But this strategy doesn’t work very well in sports, which are all about chasing unneedful wants (i.e., goals). One of my favorite Ben Franklin quotes address this very issue from a uniquely American perspective. I believe Franklin has material wants in mind mostly, but his advice applies to sports.

“There are two ways of being happy: We may either diminish our wants or augment our means—either will do—the result is the same; and it is for each man to decide for himself, and do that which happens to be the easiest. If you are idle or sick or poor, however hard it may be to diminish your wants, it will be harder to augment your means. If you are active and prosperous or young and in good health, it may be easier for you to augment your means than to diminish your wants. But if you are wise, you will do both at the same time, young or old, rich or poor, sick or well; and if you are very wise you will do both in such a way as to augment the general happiness of society.”

An athlete who heeds this counsel will go ahead and set goals that represent unneedful wants—qualifying for Boston, breaking 11 hours in an Ironman triathlon, whatever. Having set their goal, they will then focus entirely on augmenting their means—i.e., making themselves capable of achieving this goal. They will not supplement the one big want with lots of little wants that are based on a desire to minimize the amount of means augmentation they must do to achieve their goal. These lesser unneedful wants are little more than infantile wishes that the road to goal fulfillment will be smooth and downhill with a tailwind at their back the whole way. They betray a weakness of character that no athlete should be content with. In essence, they want their goal to meet them halfway, High-character, mentally strong athletes want one thing only: to achieve their goal, and accept the responsibility to reach that despite a bumpy road that’s entirely uphill and a powerful headwind hitting them in the face at every step.

I realized only now that I’ve essentially just rewritten a prior post, “If It’s Not Hard, It’s Not Hard Enough.” What can I say? I’m becoming quite the stoic in my old age.