Letting Go of the Numbers Game



Janet has written 27 posts on Salty Running.

I'm a fitness fanatic who was born to run. I have two amazing sons, live in Wyoming (but I'm planning my escape), and plan to keep getting older without ever getting old.

Do your results define your running habit?

What happens when the numbers game isn’t your game anymore?

What defines you as a runner? Is it your finish times in races, or placing in your age group? Could it be your mileage totals, or the number of races you’ve completed? Are you a runner who meticulously logs workouts to see if this week’s speed intervals are faster than last week’s?

During a conversation between two runners, you can bet at least one of these topics will come up, because these are the most common ways we use to measure our worth as a runner.  When was the last time you opened a conversation with another runner by asking, “Hey, which workout did you enjoy the most last week?” What’s the first question we ask after a friend completes a race? For me it’s usually, “What was your time?” I don’t think I’ve ever asked if it was fun, or if my friend was smiling as she crossed the finish line. Runners seem to live and die by numbers, whether those numbers are on the clock at the finish line, on our Garmins, or in our training logs.

Have you ever wondered what will happen to your self-worth as a runner when the numbers are no longer your friend?

Sooner or later, those PR’s are going to be harder to get. The speed of your intervals is bound to get slower, and your ever-increasing mileage totals will eventually stop increasing; they might even decrease! The number I’ve most often seen associated with running improvements is 10 years. From the time you start running, you supposedly have about 10 years to reel in those PRs. I don’t know that I buy into that exact number, but I do know that at some point what used to come easily isn’t going to be so easy anymore. Is that when we stop running, or is that when we choose different ways to define ourselves?

For me, stopping isn’t an option, and I refuse to feel like a failure at something I love so much. Here are a few suggestions for looking at success through different lenses:

  • Rather than a time goal for a race, focus on running a negative split.
  • Leave the watch at home and race by feel. Let your pace be the outcome of your effort rather than the goal.
  • Social media friends don’t need to know your finish times.  In fact, they don’t even need to know you raced unless you want them to. If you keep your times to yourself you won’t feel the need to compare your performance to anyone else’s, or feel like you’re being judged.
  • Spend a season doing a lot of races, and choose them based on their fun factor.  The more you race, the less you’ll feel like you need to go for a PR every time you toe the starting line.
  • On training runs (when you’re not training for a goal race), run for time instead of distance, and let the day dictate the pace.
  • For a week, or a month, or longer if you dare, don’t record your mileage. Just run whatever distance feels right for that run.
  • Remember that each run is a gift, not a certainty, and find something to be grateful for in every run. Keep a log of thankful things, and never finish a run without making an entry.

In The Little Red Book of Running, Scott Douglas says:

“Relax, it’s just running. Of course it can be the most intoxicating, captivating, meaningful part of your life. But it’s still just running. Nobody’s making you do it, and you’re not going to save the world doing it. So find what you enjoy about running, and then follow your bliss.”

Have you slowed down by the numbers?  If so, how have you changed your approach to running and racing?



20 Responses to “Letting Go of the Numbers Game”

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  1. Garlic says:

    For me, the number I have struggled with the most is the amount of miles I think I should be able to run per week, i.e. if I was a “real” serious runner I should be able to run “x” miles per week. In my experience it’s one of the most frequent numbers other runners will always ask you about when they find out you run in order to judge where you fall in the serious runner hierarchy. I have never been able to get to the number I’ve been hoping for due to injury limitations, and have actually spent the last many months running by time increments without keeping track of pace (as you suggest) so I it’s been a while since I’ve known my weekly mileage. This has helped somewhat, though I still do think about it, especially now as a Salty blogger where my training log is public and where most of the other bloggers are seemingly effortlessly running many more weekly miles than I am. Now, as racing season approaches and I’m going to be starting to train on more of a schedule, I will have to bite the bullet and start keeping track of miles. I’m hoping I can feel good about my weekly totals, even though they will most certainly need to be lower than I would like them to be.

  2. Salty Salty says:

    Great post, AS! I am a training log perfectionist and have a tendency to beat myself up when I don’t do every training run exactly as I should. I am working on listening to my body and not second-guessing my instincts. As I’ve learned, always training in some degree of pain is way worse than running a mile less of a tempo or 10s/mi slower for a run than the training plan prescribes!

  3. Allspice Allspice says:

    Garlic, that’s where I always seem to fall short too. I’ve learned the hard way I just can’t be a super high mileage runner. Maybe that’s why I don’t have much success following a training plan – most of them require fairly high mileage. What distance races are you planning to race this season?

    Salty, you are so right about not training in pain. It seems like so many runners think it’s normal for something to always hurt, and it’s hard to back off. I always thought if it was pain I could run through I was ok, and had to learn the hard way that it’s not ok.

    • Garlic says:

      I’m also making peace with the fact that I just can’t be a high-mileage runner either. I’m working on the 5K this season – I have 3 races planned (rust-buster in late April, a middle of the season one in early June, and my goal race at the end of July). I also have trouble following training plans, even the highly individualized one made for me by my former coach, so for this season I’m loosely following a plan but with the mindset that I must be flexible about it and if I can’t hit the mileage or all the workouts that’s ok. The most important thing is to stay HEALTHY, because you can never be fast without that!

  4. I can accept wrinkles and grey hair and all that comes with aging, but slower running times are the hardest to accept. As you mentioned, with some good therapy, I can deal with slowing, but not stopping. I recently ran my slowest marathon ever in New York, but just focused on negative splits. I nailed the negative splits, and had one of the most joyous runs of my life. My watch stays home more and more. Great post.

  5. Allspice Allspice says:

    Mark, congrats on a great NYC marathon. Enjoying the race is a PR in my book. I’m with you on leaving the watch home more frequently.

    Garlic, Amen to staying healthy! I’m working on 5k’s this summer too (except for a 10k in May). It’ll be nice to have a fellow Salty focusing on the same distance.

  6. Mint says:

    This is such a timely post for me and something I was actually thinking a lot about during my run on Sunday. I was scheduled to race a 10K in the am and then add on 2 hours easy after that. As it that doesn’t sound hideous enough, it was “feels like” -5 degrees at race time. So I bailed on the race and decided to just run long. But then my long run SUCKED. I was freezing and miserable. I felt so guilty wanting to throw in the towel (and honestly it was like an act of God getting me out the door in the first place). I had to talk myself off the ledge that my numbers (e.g. race time, time running long or miles logged) are not the be-all end all. I was not having fun and allowed myself to pull the plug at 12.5 miles. I refused to beat myself up over it. Sometimes quality / enjoyment has to trump numbers. This isn’t easy for me, but we runners need to chill out on the numbers game sometimes.

  7. Allspice Allspice says:

    Mint, I love what you said about quality and enjoyment trumping numbers! Very few people get paid to run, yet it seems like we all live or die by the numbers on our Garmins or in our training logs. I admire you for doing the 12.5 on a day like that!

  8. Pam says:

    Great Post! After the 2013 MCM, I decided it was time to break up with my GPS. My training has been fun lately. I am more serious than ever. This summer I will do my first 1/2 ironman. Incorporating cross training and no watch has made me a stronger runner. This past weekend was my first race ever with out a watch. I scored a huge PR! I nocked 30 seconds per mile off my 5-mile pace to run 8:06/mile. I never thought I could do that before. The numbers were holding me back from achieving my potential. The course was challenging and winds were fast and cold, it’s Cleveland in March! Running without focusing on the time takes personal courage. The courage that many of us are looking for when we run but we may be holding ourselves back.

  9. Allspice Allspice says:

    Pam, that is freaking awesome!! Huge congrats. I honestly think racing with a watch can hold us back. I know sometimes I look at my pace, and what has felt totally manageable suddenly seems too fast. Are swimming and cycling your only forms of cross training, or do you have others you also enjoy?

    • Pam says:

      Thanks! for cross training, I joined a multisport focused gym. I do personal training which focuses on crazy strength and 2 group classes a week. One group classes focuses on running. We run stairs. Shaking it up has helped. My running endurance is improving with the long bike rides. In my heart, I will always enjoy running the most!

  10. Coriander Coriander says:

    I am a huge perfectionist and running has only made my neuroses even worse. My coach has helped me focus more on the big picture rather than “how many miles did I run today/this week/month?” Also, I really liked that you suggested not sharing finish times or even race results with social media friends. I’m keeping the rest of my race schedule and my time goals on a very secret. need-to-know basis. It helps me feel less judged for sure and it’s not anyone’s business but my own. No need to obsess over it with people I’m just acquainted with!

  11. Cathryn says:

    I love this post but feel like it only deals with half the issues. I’ve recently been trying to work out what makes someone a ‘good runner’. The obvious answer is time – running faster than other people makes you a ‘better’ runner. It also makes you feel REALLY good. I’m 39 and whilst I’m still PR-ing (due to being a late-start-runner) I know that these days are limited and sooner or later, I won’t PR ever again. And I’ve been trying to work out how I judge my self-worth as a runner when it’s no longer about time. You suggest ways of ignoring the time factor (all of which I agree with) but don’t suggest n’t other ways of judging our running selves!

    I was thinking about this recently and came up with other options about how to be a ‘good runner’.
    – Distance. (Not an option for me, due to my heart I run no further than 13.1 but new distances could be a good yardstick). Also knowing how to run different distances well.
    – Experience. Trying loads of different running things – different distances/relays/trails etc. Being a ‘good’ runner because you’ve tried lots of things.
    – Getting better on trails, better technical skills, not having to descend like Grandma etc.
    – KNOWING more about running, the theory of it, how to train well, avoid injury etc. Being a more informed runner.
    – Being a passionate runner. Helping others get started/get excited.

    None of these really get me excited though. I still judge myself as a runner by speed – i’ve had 2 PRs in the past month and I am buzzing about it. But I’ll soon need NEW yardsticks and I can’t find one that gets me excited. Any thoughts?

  12. Allspice Allspice says:

    Coriander, good for you. You’re so right about it being no one’s business but your own, and I think sometimes we judge ourselves much more harshly than others do.

    Cathryn, you bring up a good point, and it’s a hard one to figure out. I’m still struggling with this myself. Faster runners seem to be considered better runners than slower runners, but I feel there’s more to being “better” than just speed. There are so many variables to be considered.

    Something that has helped me continue to think of myself as a good runner even though my times are slowing is to compare myself to other runners my age, rather than to my younger, PR setting self. This helps me realize that even though I’ll probably never run a 5k in 21:00 minutes again, my recent PR of 23:30 was fast enough for a couple of age group wins. Winning gets me excited, even if it’s with a much slower time than in the past.

    I also set two goals for each race. One will always be a finish time, no matter how much I wish it wasn’t. I really try to be realistic with what I know I can do rather than what I want to do. The other is more strategy-based, like running a negative split, not fading in the last miles, not going out too fast. My best half marathon of 2013 was over 2 minutes off my PR time, but I paced it well, didn’t fade at mile 8, and I finished stronger than ever before. I was more proud of that race than the one in which I set my PR.

    The options you’ve come up with are fantastic, and I believe one of these (or one you haven’t thought of yet) will ignite your passion when the time comes. I think for those of who race, time is one measure of worth that won’t ever really go away, but we can manipulate it to work for rather than against us.

  13. Eucalyptus Eucalyptus says:

    I really enjoyed this post. I think numbers are just an integral part of running; I know my splits for any race (on a track) without any second guessing myself. I think one thing that’s really lucky about racing for a team/having a coach is that he or she will record EVERYTHING for you. My coach is also a pack rat, and has every split from every workout that I have ever run. Otherwise, I would be remembering and writing down every single split and every workout, and that would get obsessive and time-consuming. Track workouts are also usually my favorite workouts of the week, so they might become less fun once I have to do more of the ‘work.’

    When I run a race, I go into it with a loose time goal. For example. I want a competitive 10K in my conference when I run it in two weeks, so I’m going to go in with something that my coach and I deem to be competitive and top-7 worthy. However, I also race to do exactly that – race. If I’m in a slow race, I am probably going to run slower because others are doing so and I want to actually race them. If it’s freezing, I have to realize my legs aren’t going to warm up as quickly. There are so many outside things that influence time during a race. You can have all of the goal paces and splits that you want, but when you finally toe the line, all of that often goes out of the window.

  14. Allspice Allspice says:

    Eucalyptus, I love what you said about actually racing others (maybe instead of the clock). You’re spot on about all the things than can influence finishing time, and some are totally out of our control.

  15. Nicole says:

    Thanks so much for posting about looking at running through a different lenses. I have been really beating myself up for running alot slower than I normally do as a result of having to take time off due to injury or kind of permanent alignment really. But regardless of what I have been through trying to treat the mortons neuroma in my left foot and bursitis in both feet and possible plantar facisitis in my left foot (probably brought on by the treatment for my neuroma) I feel that my pace is just unacceptable ugh – I know I need to cut myself some slack and even the fact that I am running at all takes alot of guts (since I run long distances in Moderate to High discomfort) – also yes!!! every run is a gift – I love this – I have learned to cherish the runs I do complete and just to concentrate on my run of the day and not future trip about things I cannot control. – thanks again and love this site

  16. Allspice Allspice says:

    Nicole, you’re amazing for continuing to run with all the pain you must be experiencing. Please, please cut yourself some slack, and realize that right now your pace isn’t completely within your control. Whatever your pace is, it’s faster than the person laying on the couch complaining about being in pain and choosing not to run. Keep up the good work, and I hope you heal soon.

  17. Janet says:

    Wow- this post sure came at the right time! Nicole’s story definitely hits home for me. I was never super fast, but fast enough to win some age groups in smaller races and still get some prs. That all ended about 18 months ago when I had my second knee surgery and (probably because of my altered gait) I also developed foot issues. I logically know that I likely never be where I was before but I still get so down on myself. It’s nice to know others feel like me and you’ve all given me some positive coping skills so thanks to all who posted!

  18. Allspice Allspice says:

    Janet, sorry about the knee surgeries, but glad you’re still putting in the miles. Continuing to do what you love is the important thing; so much more important than the time on a race clock.

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