On Making Comparisons: Your Mileage May Vary

Tea competing in the 2014 CIM where she qualified for the Trials. Tea in focus and runners around her blurry.
It only matters what I do and what I’ve done when I’m on the race course.

This week, I posted my first training log with a little bit of hesitation. You might look at my training and think it’s a lot. But sadly, I look at it and think it doesn’t compare to what my peers are doing.

It’s the Internet’s fault. I’ll be scrolling through other runners’ Twitter, Instagram, or blogs and suddenly come across posts, photos, or workouts that make me feel really bad about myself. How can so-and-so run those workouts? That many miles each week? That fast?

I don’t mean superstars like Shalane and Desi. Obviously I can’t do what they do, so I look at their posts with pure admiration. But I mean the women I’m supposedly close in ability to, other Trials qualifiers with marathon PRs similar to mine. They all seem to be logging much higher mileage, running more workouts, doing more pull-ups (I can do exactly zero pull-ups), just absolutely crushing it day after day after day. It’s hard for me to look at the mileage and workouts others do and not feel totally inadequate.

For years, I thought there was no way I—or anyone—could qualify for the Trials on less than 90-mile weeks. In general, the more you run, the faster you’ll be. To me, 90 seemed like the magic number everyone else was hitting. It’s not the 100-plus weeks that the professionals do (although some of my non-pro peers do over 100 as well) but it was the next tier down. The tier I assumed I’d need to be at to get to the Trials. I told myself I wouldn’t make it on my “measly” 70-mile weeks.

A page from Tea's training log showing she ran 80 miles.
Years ago, psyched for my first 80-mile week.

So I kept gently bumping up the mileage. And ended up burnt out, feeling flat, or, worst of all, hurt. I am not an “in general” case; I’m not faster on more miles, I’m broken. When I went back to focusing on nailing the hard workouts and taking it easier on the others, I ran better. I did qualify on 70-mile weeks.

Any good coach will tell you that you need to individualize your training to what works for you. But that’s easier said than done, especially for the uber-competitive types. I often feel like my training is so inadequate it’s embarrassing. I’ve never hit 90 for a single week. I still take a day off every week. When this somehow comes up when talking to other qualifiers, my admission of a day off is met with silence that I feel acutely. A day off? Every week?? I jump in to explain myself, “Yeah, I know it’s nuts … hahaha … but I’m just coming back from injury…”

In my head, I start making excuses: if only I had all the luxuries that pro-runners have, maybe then I could do it. But my teammates, all non-professional runners with seriously time-consuming day jobs, can do back-to-back long runs and I just can’t. We debate the Saturday verse Sunday long run; I always pull for Sunday because I need to take Saturday off, after a long-ish run Friday. I feel like an overprotected child that isn’t allowed to cross the street. Oh sorry, Mommy says I can’t do that because I might get hurt.

But why do I need to make excuses? And why am I so embarrassed by what I need to do to stay healthy? Fixating on these things devolves into thinking I’m not good enough or I can’t be at this level. Obviously there’s a lot of insecurity here (clearly these girls are going to kick my butt on Feb. 13!!) and a hefty dose of jealousy (why can’t I run that much??). I tried to explain these insecurities to my husband and he didn’t get it. Because, obviously, it shouldn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. I am at this level aren’t I? I may run less, but I still made it. And do my teammates really care or think I’m a baby? No. Is the silence following my day off admission all in my head? Probably.

If 70 mile weeks with 6 days of running gets me to the Olympic Trials starting line, then who cares what other runners do!
If 70 mile weeks with 6 days of running gets me to the Olympic Trials starting line, then who cares what other runners do!

It seems obvious, but sometimes we get so caught up in comparing ourselves to others, being wowed by what they can do, that we forget to be proud of what we can do. Seventy-mile weeks was not something I would have dreamed possible years ago, and now I’m complaining about it? Really? I’ve come so far as a runner, and I’ve learned along the way what works and what doesn’t work for me. Knowing my limits is an asset, one that will hopefully carry me to the Olympic Trials starting line injury-free. Comparing myself to others serves no purpose but to make me feel bad about myself. And running is such a mental sport, getting down on myself will only hurt me. So I’m trying—really trying—not to do it.

And I urge you not to do it either. Stop comparing; stop feeling like less of a runner because of what someone else is doing. Your mileage may vary, and you have to do what works for you. Not what works “in general,” but what works for your body, your schedule, and your personality.

If you run ten-mile or 100-mile weeks, go three days a week or every day for three weeks, great. If you like strength training or hate it, like running in the cold or prefer the treadmill, enjoy double days or would rather just shower once (an under-appreciated perk of single days!), that’s fine. Don’t let what you read make you feel bad about what you’re doing. There will always be people doing more and other people doing less. But if you find what works for you, and stick to that, you’ll get a lot farther than if you try to force yourself into someone else’s training plan. Do your own thing and be proud of where it takes you.

I'm a science journalist with a background in neuroscience and a love of running marathons and baking marathon-worthy feasts. I started out as an over four-hour marathoner but whittled my PR down to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Trials. I write about the importance of chasing big dreams and -- as I'm currently pregnant with my first -- getting ready to chase around a little one.

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25 comments

  1. This is a great post! Being healthy, consistent, and able to enjoy the training is going to take a runner much further than being injured and dreading every run.

  2. Thanks for being so candid about this. I always had a hard time posting training logs here, and I eventually stopped (sorry Salty and Cinnamon!) because the pressure of posting what I was doing and making comparisons when reading what others did distracted me from focusing on my own goals and feeling good about my own achievements. Your post has some great advice for anyone at any level.

    1. Don’t feel bad, Garlic. I’m the Queen of low mileage. If you look at my logs, you’ll see a number of sub-10 miles weeks. Before my trip, I made an effort of posting my meager miles into the training logs because I wanted to show readers that not everyone is doing mega miles week in and week out.

    2. For what it’s worth the point of logs is to show all the different ways we train and cope, etc. I support you in not publishing if that’s what YOU need, of course! But I don’t have us do training logs so others can judge us, it’s so others can learn 🙂

        1. As just a reader of this blog I’d like to tell all the bloggers that your training logs have all inspired me. From the highest mileage to the lowest.
          I used to have an Instagram account and deleted it b/c I found myself constantly comparing myself to other runners that would post garmin pace pics. Just yesterday as i was running I was wondering why am I chasing a marathon PR- am I even capable, am I doing enough, am I working hard, and is this realistic.
          I am going to really try and stop the doubt talk in my head and trust that what I’m doing will work.
          Again, I appreciate this blog and all the advice and real- ness that comes with it. You’re all superstars to me.

        2. Tea: Thank you for this post. I read training logs, posts and tweets, see Instagram photos of slick, perfectly-formed running women, and consider training programs with increasingly high mileage, strength work-outs, hard intervals, etc., and think: What am I doing? There is no way that my body can handle these types of pace, mileage, exercises—which must then mean there is no way that I can consider doing PRs, being even competitive in AG, right? But I must listen to my body and realize that I can only do what is best for me. Do I still drool with some envy when a Salty says she ONLY ran 50 miles last week? Yes. Should I take it in stride, as you suggest, and not compare myself to others? Yes. Will I continue to compare even though I know I shouldn’t? Probably. Hard to change but know I should. My husband would second what your husband says: Why does it matter what others do? Just think where you are now compared to even a year ago. He’s right, of course. Self-reflection might be better tool than comparison. Always learning!

  3. Hallelujah! I love your message and how you framed it. I’m a big believer of best practices and empirically-supported evidence, but there’s also a lot of individual differences. What works best for the “group average” in a controlled setting doesn’t always translate to the every day messy life of an individual.

    I most appreciate how you presented your point of view. You could have had this same message, but framed it as “Think you need to run 90 mpw to OTQ, well, you can do it in 70!” I dislike preachy posts, particularly when someone generalizes to the entire population based on solely their own personal experience.

    I love this post and will be sharing it.

    1. We all have different styles here, but one thing that is consistent is that what we say is open for discussion and that the discussing it is really how we can help others like us. If you feel like someone here is over generalizing or that there is an exception to a rule not mentioned I for one would love to hear your point of view more! Even when I disagree on the facts of something, I support you and respect your opinions.

      1. The comment on preachy posts was about blogging in general, not specifically about SR.

        I do strongly feel that one shouldn’t write that there is only one way to do something. For example if I were writing about how to break 2 hours for a half, I would never say (or at least I try not to) the only way to break 2-hrs is by doing lots of speed work and no long runs because that’s how I did it when I did my first sub-2 hr HM. This is what I meant by preachy. I could write the same type of info, but frame it differently by saying it’s possible to break 2 hours without long runs. Here’s how I did it. The latter approach is what Tea did and I greatly appreciate it.

        I don’t always comment (either to agree or disagree) if I feel that my viewpoint has been expressed by other people several times and I don’t have anything new to add. This is simply my own predilection.

  4. Great post! I think almost all of us struggle with this. To be successful in the sport, many of us have to come to terms with our insecurities and learn to accept ourselves, our bodies, and our limitations. It’s a struggle, but it’s one of the ways competitive running makes us better people. I’m glad you’re getting there!

  5. Great post! I totally agree. It’s easy to get caught up with what all your peers and training partners are doing, but ultimately you have to do what is best for you. Not listening to my body and pushing myself beyond my (current) limits gave me a bum butt and ultimately landed me with a hospital stay the day before my marathon. Thank you for sharing! Good luck at the trials!

      1. I am, thank you! Back to running 35-40 mile weeks. Unfortunately, I had to miss a marathon I had trained really hard for, but it’s ok. It was a good lesson and wakeup call. I’ll have a re-do at some point. 🙂

  6. I love this post! Thank you for being so honest. I am no where near your level but pretty sure I ended up with a bad injury – which led to missing a half I was really looking forward to – because I was doing what I thought I “should” be doing after seeing what others were doing. As a matter of fact, a good running friend (you know who you are 🙂 recently told me I needed to get “should” out of my vocab.

  7. This is an awesome approach to this topic! I started running with a friend this year who is much stronger and faster than me, and her body simply doesn’t seem to need recovery like mine does. In fact, she was killing double-digit runs at MP within a week after we finished the Houston Marathon. My highest mileage week ever was 40 miles (that’s not a typo!), and I’ve felt similarly shameful/jealous of the “real” runners who knock out 50 – 100 mile weeks on the reg, but it really is a sport that supports every level of ability, desire, and recovery. I love running because it doesn’t let you lie: you HAVE to do exactly what YOUR body needs and wants, or it will kick your ass. Great post!

  8. Ohh, Tea! You have planted a ton of ideas in my head with this post! It is so nice to hear a voice of moderation from someone at your level– “Not everyone has to run 100+miles/week to super-excel?! Sweet!” My training last year focused on quantity over quality, this time around I’m focusing on hitting quality workouts… and seeing results (knock on wood). Can’t wait to cheer for you at the Trials!!

  9. This is an awesome post! I admit, yesterday when I read your training log, I felt inspired and inadequate at the same time! I cannot even fathom what it will feel like when I’m pushing 60 miles in my peak week of marathon training later this spring, much less what 70, 80 would feel like. This is a good reminder to let ourselves feel inspired by others and pushed to grow if the growth is needed, but also to keep our eyes on our own training. I have never been a high mileage runner for a number of reasons- a couple of injuries that held me out of running for several months at a time, work/home/parenting balance, a love for cycling and other types of exercise. I don’t know if consistent high mileage would ever fit my personality and lifestyle, but it is my goal for this training cycle to see what my body does with high mileage and careful attention to keeping easy runs easy and hard runs hard. That’s the best thing about this sport is that we can grow and improve in so many ways beyond just pace or mileage.

    And also, when I read this post, I thought “Elite runners: they ARE just like us!” haha!

  10. I love this, especially as someone who has always been relatively “low” mileage compared to others. It gets hard sometimes, not to compare and feel like I need to be doing more- but it’s also hard to justify making big changes for me when the current way works and I can hit the goals I set. I get inspired reading others training logs, but like pumpkin said sometimes it makes you feel inadequate! I want to drop my times more and know I am capable of faster and I do feel that adding some more miles is the key. So, I slowly add and try not to freak when I see people running 50 mile weeks one cycle and 80 the next…because I can’t do that…. or I should say I’m not willing to try that big of a jump at once.So many people told me I needed to average more than 60 for a sub-3 and I hit it with a 49 mpw average- so I’ve just gotta remind myself that if it works…it doesn’t matter who is doing more.

  11. The comparison game goes both ways — I feel the opposite!

    I’m one of those runners without much natural talent and the talent I have responds to piles of miles. Although I really do like running, I wish I could achieve my results with fewer miles.

  12. Ah! I am willing to be most of those other OTQs are jealous that you get a day off! They’re not thinking less of you, they’re wishing they WERE you! Qualifying off of 70 mile weeks? You jerk!

    But, it’s so refreshing to be reminded that all of us, at every level, need to do what works for us, not what works for someone else.