Relentless Improvement Towards Mastery

Mile 27 Coach Ben Duffus joins us on the blog to talk about how constantly focussing on improvement rather than results can lead to better outcomes and more enjoyment of the process.

The title of this post might sound a little contrived, but these are the 4 words that pop up on my phone’s to-do-list app each morning. Perhaps that says a lot about me, but it means that every single day I have to do something to better myself before I can tick it off. Each word has been carefully chosen: “Relentless” because it is unwavering and unceasing, “Improvement” because the aim to reach ever higher, “Towards” because there is always room to do better, and “Mastery” because I’m striving for much more than competency.

But the point of this post isn’t to let everyone know that I enjoy corny motivation slogans or that I’m lost without my phone reminding me what to do each day; it’s about how I believe that constantly focusing on improvement rather than results can ultimately make us better ultramarathon runners, while also enjoying the process more.

Some of you will already be quite familiar with concept of a “fixed mindset” versus a “growth mindset”, and for anyone interested in reading more about the topic I highly recommend Prof. Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Briefly, a fixed mindset is the belief that certain qualities cannot be changed whereas a growth mindset is the belief that they can be improved. Everybody has a little bit of both mindsets and it will vary depending on the topic, their mood, etc, but most of us have a tendency to fall into one or the other a majority of the time. Which pattern of thinking we tend to fall into can have been brought about by many different factors, such as how and for what we were (or weren’t) praised for as a child. Such details are beyond the scope of this post (but again, I refer anyone interested to Dr Dweck’s book and/or research papers).

There certainly is no “right” mindset 100% of the time, e.g. no matter how hard you believe you will grow taller, there comes a point where you will hit your genetically determined limit. However, in many circumstances a growth mindset encourages us to seek out challenges as they are an opportunity to improve, while a fixed mindset will tend to drive us more towards validation of our current ability. “Failure” takes on very different meanings in the two mindsets; in the growth mindset it is a stepping stone to success, but in the fixed mindset it is a reflection on our permanent shortcomings. “Success” also takes on a different meaning; in the growth mindset it is demonstration that our efforts were well guided, and in the fixed mindset it is validation of our greatness. Hence, a growth mindset tends to emphasise effort and the processes of reaching particular outcomes, while a fixed mindset focuses more on the outcome itself. This does not mean that results no longer matter if we have a growth mindset as misguided effort is still undesirable.

It can be relatively easy to see why we would have a growth mindset concerning our fitness as most of us “know” that if we train right then we will probably improve. However, it’s one thing to “know” something on a rational level and another to truly “believe” it on a deeper, less rational level (again, going into details about this is well beyond the scope of this post, but many popular books such as The Chimp Paradox by Prof. Steve Peters; Thinking, Fast and Slow by Prof. Daniel Kahneman; and Predictably Irrational by Prof. Dan Ariely, have been written on the topic). So, a fixed mindset can still creep in when we start to let performances define us. A common hint of a fixed mindset is when we label ourselves, e.g. “I’m a bad descender,” while a growth mindset will have us saying “I’m working on my speed downhill.”

Have you ever heard the winner of an ultra say how much they admire the runners coming in last? Sure, some might just be saying that to please the masses (and/or sponsors), but I suspect most genuinely mean it. They hold effort in at least as much reverence as results and are in awe of the effort from these runners who may be out there for over twice as long as they were. I believe that this focus on effort would have helped make their victory possible.

Every single training session is an opportunity to improve! It pays to know the purpose of each session, as even very easy days (or total rest days) can play an important role in helping us improve. With a growth mindset it’s much easier to look at the big picture and see how endurance is built up over years of consistent hard work (interspersed with appropriate recovery). If our splits in a hard session are little off, we can take a step back and perhaps identify why they might have been slower than expected, or even just shrug it off and aim to do better next time. In a fixed mindset, the same bad workout is suddenly a threat to your identity as a “fit” runner and this can lead to counterproductive responses such trying to train even harder while your body is screaming for rest. Similarly, if we feel defined by the paces we run at then it can be very tempting to push that little bit too hard on our easy days. Being slowed down by hot days, rain, snow, altitude, etc would naturally then start to cause doubts to set in, but if instead we focus on the effort of each training session (rather than pace), we’ll feel much more positive knowing that we’ve done all we could to improve.

Even on race day, a growth mindset can be beneficial. It allows us to focus more on the process of running a good race, rather than getting overly caught-up in our final finishing time and/or place. Ironically, this will ultimately make us more likely to run fast. If we focus solely on the watch and ignore our body’s warning signs that we need to slow down then we run the risk blowing up. Sometimes giving up a few minutes early on can save us an hour (or more) in later stages of the race.

With a focus on improvement, we will also be willing to challenge ourselves more as we get excited by the prospect of pushing beyond our current (proven) abilities. An analysis of both the runners I coach and myself, shows that we have won many races and DNFed at many as well. The DNFs have almost always been the superior learning experience! That does not mean you should aim for a DNF, but simply that if we want to truly push ourselves to our (improvable) limits, then we need to sometimes risk by pushing slightly too far. That being said, a lot can be learnt from successful race too as they confirm when we get things right! Rather than feeling defined by our “failures” or “successes”, each challenge can simply be a stepping stone to the next challenge. We learn what we can from each experience, then move on and ideally apply what we have learnt.

Improvement in races doesn’t have to be all about setting personal bests. Inevitably we all eventually slow down due age, time restrictions on training, etc and in these circumstances a fixed mindset could cause us to give up. On the other hand, a growth mindset offers several ways to deal with slowing down. Perhaps “growing” will just mean “shrinking less” as we stay focused on the process of maintaining as much fitness as possible, or it could mean taking on entirely new challenges to keep things exciting. Even if we run a race slower than previously, we could still pace ourselves more evenly, stay mentally stronger, keep on top of our nutrition better, etc.

Self-improvement doesn’t have to be selfish either as the desire to help yourself can (and should) extend to a desire to help others. Without the shackles of being defined by where we sit relative to others, we are unafraid to assist others raise their own abilities and in fact, this may help us raise our own either further. In a training context, this could be training partners helping each other push out that extra rep. During races, I’ve usually found that if I’m encouraging those around me, then they’ll encourage me back, which then has a positive impact on my levels of fatigue.

We all have insecurities, we all have an ego, and we all will fall into a fixed mindset from time-to-time. Simply being aware of such tendencies can help us catch ourselves slipping into those thought patterns. At the point we notice it, we then have a choice as to whether we continue with that line of thinking or whether instead we consider a more growth orientated point of view. After a while, the growth mindset may become our natural response in more and more circumstances. I hope that I’ve articulated this post well enough for you take away some useful lessons to improve your running; if not, then I guess that’s just another thing that I need to improve…I’ll add it to my to-do-list!