Training with a Growth Mindset

I’ve saved this fortune since my first trip to Budapest.

Yesterday, Bergamot wrote about the benefits of training like an elite for every runner. She was spot on, and not just for the reasons that she mentioned, which included making the logical choice to do what has been proven to work for others and having a pro-like attitude that we use to approach workouts and recovery seriously. In addition, identifying a runner (or group of runners) that we want to be like and altering our training to be like them is indicative of a growth mindset.

And in the world of motivation research, a growth mindset is a very good thing. Discussed at length in Dweck’s Mindset, a growth mindset is a mental state where we believe that our abilities are not fixed — that with effort we can improve our performance. This contrasts with a fixed mindset, which is a mental state where we feel like our abilities are set, rooted in biology or our nature, and no amount of effort will improve our performance. Our mindset applies to every aspect of our life, from our beliefs about our ability to be successful in, say, math, and our beliefs about our own ability to continue to improve as a runner.

In a fixed mindset, we feel like our ability as a runner is set, and we won’t be as motivated to continue to improve and work harder, because we think that no matter how hard we work, we will not be able to achieve beyond our innate ability. In contrast, with a growth mindset, we believe that if we continue to work harder, our running performance will continue to improve. Identifying a group of elite runners that we want to be like indicates that we believe we can, if we take similar steps and put in the hard work, begin to move towards (and meet and exceed!) what they have accomplished.

A growth mindset is also important because it helps us to respond positively to failure. A runner with a fixed mindset views failure as evidence that he or she cannot succeed, where a growth mindset sees failure as a learning opportunity to apply to future races.

Identifying a runner or group of runners – in my case, elite ultramarathoners – that we want to be like is the first step in training with a growth mindset. Travis Macy in the Ultra Mindset (the most important book in my motivation repertoire, I own the audiobook, e-book, and have a physical copy in my bedside table), refers to this as being a “wannabe.” Very different than the high school wannabe insult, being a wannabe as an athlete means that we have thoughtfully identified who we want to be like and then — this is the important part — we have deliberately identified why we want to be like that individual.

Being a wannabe and having a growth mindset means not just that we believe that we can be like our role models, but that we have identified what it is about those individuals that we want to emulate. There is a key metacognitive aspect to the growth mindset that requires us to be intentional about how we choose to implement our growth mindset. For example, not only have I identified that I want to be like, say, Devon Yanko, I have identified why I want to be like her:

  1. She is a successful ultra-endurance athlete.
  2. She has persevered through traumatic personal events.
  3. She is a positive role model for women.

From here, I have three areas where I can investigate how Devon accomplishes everything she does: becoming the 2010 50 mile road National Champion, for example. There are many books written about how to be successful at every distance and for every type of runner, not to mention YouTube interviews and blogs. These resources become important in the implementation of a growth mindset. It is not enough to “wannabe,” we have to believe that we can be, and do the work to get there.

Implementing the “how” is the final step. Once we have identified who we want to be like and why and how they have accomplished what it is we aspire to, we have to start doing the work to get there. As Bergamot discussed yesterday, that includes how we approach our training plans and our runs, with the intention that this is just as important as our other work. That can also include how we train (perhaps we need a coach?) or where we train (time to find some hills?). And it means that when we fail, and we will, that we reflect and identify how we failed so we can adapt and adjust to do better next time.

Running better by playing pretend?  It’s not just a fantasy that motivates us to take our training seriously, it’s a fantastic way, with intentionality, to adjust our training mindset to believe in ourselves and better respond to bad runs, races, and life setbacks.

Ultrarunner, yoga teacher, academic, and feminist. I write about ultrarunning, feminism, and the intersection of running and life.

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