The Livelihood Mindset Vs. the Hobby Mindset

Running is a hobby for the vast majority of runners. Only for a tiny fraction of the runner population is the sport a livelihood. Because the pros depend on their race performances to put food on the table, they typically do everything in their power to maximize their performance. This no-stone-unturned approach to running is what I call the livelihood mindset.

Even the most competitive recreational runners can’t always justify doing everything the pros do to maximize their performance—things like flying to Phoenix for an appointment with physiotherapist-to-the-stars John Ball or doing three weeks of altitude training in Mammoth Lakes, California. They have to set limits on the lengths they are willing to go to run faster. I call this the hobby mindset.

The thing is, competitive recreational runners often exercise a hobby mindset unnecessarily, not doing things they easily could do to improve. But they set these artificial limits only half-consciously or even unconsciously, unaware that they are making a hobby-minded choice when they have the opportunity to make a livelihood-minded choice that would help them get to the finish line of their next race faster.

I’ll give you a personal example. This past summer I spent three months in Flagstaff training with HOKA One One Northern Arizona Elite, a team of top professional runners. The whole point of this experience was to treat running as if it were my livelihood for a short period of time. Prior to relocating to Flagstaff, I had pretty much given up on seeking medical help for running-related injuries. It was just too much of a hassle. But during those three months of living like a pro I made liberal use of the resources available to me. I dealt with two significant injuries while in Flagstaff and I am certain that my experiment would not have ended as successfully as it did (with a PR at the Chicago Marathon) had I tried to manage these problems on my own as I do at home.

Among the most common situations in which I see recreational runners exercise a hobby mindset unnecessarily, and to their own detriment, has to do with marathon fueling. One thing I’ve noticed in interacting with elite marathon runners is that they all take in lots of carbs during races in the form of sports drinks and gels. On the one hand, this fact is unremarkable. Research has proven beyond any doubt that the more carbohydrate a runner consumes during a marathon, the better he or she performs. But on the other hand, the fact that all elite runners consume lots of carbs during marathons is noteworthy when you consider that many recreational runners take in little or no carbohydrate because sports drinks and gels don’t agree with them.

Where are the elite runners with whom sports drinks and gels don’t agree? They do exist. But they consume large amounts of carbs during marathons anyway, either by simply putting up with GI discomfort or by relentlessly experimenting with different products and fueling strategies until they find something that works for them.

Consider Shalane Flanagan. In 2010, Shalane made her marathon debut in New York. At the first elite aid station, located at 5K, she drank a few ounces of the sports drink she had chosen for the event. Unfortunately, it upset her stomach to the point that she was unable to drink any more for the remainder of the race, finishing second nevertheless.

All too many recreational runners who have this type of experience decide that taking carbs on the run just isn’t for them and fuel subsequent marathons with water only or with dubious alternatives such ketones or medium-chain triglycerides. In more extreme cases, they may go on a high-fat diet to ensure they don’t “need” carbs during marathons (a misguided notion if there ever was one, as all runners benefit from taking in carbs during marathons regardless of their fat-burning capacity—it’s not about “needing” them).

Shalane, however, understood that her livelihood depended on finding a way to successfully absorb more carbs during future marathons and she put a lot of effort into this project. I know because I happen to be one of the experts she sought out for advice. When Shalane returned to the New York City Marathon in 2017, she consumed four ounces of Gatorade every 5K run and a gel packet every 45 minutes—and, of course, she won the race.

There are lots of other ways in which recreational runners routinely hold themselves back by exercising a hobby mindset when they don’t need to. Among them are doing strength exercises (e.g. chest press) that make a person look better and run slower, racing too often, avoiding unpleasant workout types, and overdressing for cold-weather races. I’m not saying that any of these performance-sabotaging choices is inherently bad. I’m just saying that you should make them with open eyes, fully aware that you are sacrificing performance for something else (such as comfort in the case of overdressing).

Occasionally the pros slip into a hobby mindset too. When I was in Flagstaff, NAZ Elite member Rochelle Kanuho confessed to me that she had always wanted six-pack abs, not because they would help her running but because she liked how they looked. In pursuit of this look, she did a ton of core work. No matter how hard she tried, however, she couldn’t get her abs to show. Frustrated, she stopped doing core work, which caused her core to weaken, which caused her to develop a low-back injury.

We’re all human!