Forget Weaknesses. Play to Your Strengths!

If you're not sure which path to choose, take it from me and go with strengths! Image via

I think I’m starting to figure this running thing out. After years of trial and error and mostly focusing on my weaknesses as a runner, I’ve finally realized that finding races and workouts that cater to my strengths is where it’s at. It’s so easy to get caught up in the stuff that doesn’t come easy to us. For me that’s hill running, running someone else’s pace and racing too aggressively. It’s harder to figure out what we’re actually good at. Looking back on the last few years I think I’ve figured out my strengths and when I’ve played to them I’ve run the best races of my life!

Here’s a little story about what didn’t work–focusing on my weaknesses–and what did–playing to my strengths!

As a weak hill runner who returns to Boston year after year I probably haven’t fully embraced the “playing to my strengths” mentality, but I am working on it. For a long time I have tried to force myself to be a better hill runner, to let others control workouts, to race aggressively, or to race in conditions that are less than ideal for me. While challenging oneself is great, and improving upon weaknesses will make you stronger, sometimes it might be better to play to your strengths.

Racing a course that plays to your strengths can result in big surprises and big PRs like it did for me at Columbus in 2010!

As I am struggling to move beyond my 2010 fitness level and fighting off injuries, over training, and a loss of drive it is good to remind myself sometimes that a lot of this does come naturally to me, and that even when I am not at my peak I do have many running strengths. And returning to these strengths is a great way to renew my love of running and continue to get better.

This spring I returned to my hilly marathon tune up 13.1 before Boston. I was under coaches orders not to race it, but I signed up anyways because it is nice to get in your long run on a race course sometimes. Clearly, this hilly half course does not play to my strengths! But this year there was no pressure to perform and I just ran by feel. In past years I have tried to force the hills to stay close to competitors (trying too hard to overcome my weakness), this year I just went with the flow and focused on the parts of the course that are more catered to me, the flats and downhills. Lo and behold though I would fall behind on uphills, I more than made up for it on the downhills and flats when I was in my element. It was a fun game to gather speed and ground with each downhill and then lose it every uphill. But I found that the energy I saved by not forcing the hills paid off in huge dividends the rest of the race. It was the first time I ran this course and didn’t feel like I had raced a marathon afterwards. Clearly other runners are stronger on inclines, but for me, saving a bit of energy on the ups allowed me to run to my strengths the rest of the course. So this was an instance where I played to my strengths to success.

Playing to my strengths on a training day at Mill Creek paid off with 2nd place (and finishing just ahead of my boyfriend)!

Here’s an instance where I didn’t. In the lead up to Boston 2011 my training partner and I had a big key workout on tap so we asked a few speedy local guys to pace us. We thought it would allow us to just get the miles in with no thought other than to follow. In theory this should work great. Just tuck in and let the guys do the work. In practice this just doesn’t work for me. I have no idea what the cause is but if I run behind another runner it makes my perception of effort go up. I feel like I am working way too hard. I feel like I am struggling. Put me in the same situation, the same pace, and let me lead, and I feel a minimum of 10 times better. I feel strong and in control. Needless to say that key workout was a complete disaster for me. I blew up and basically jogged it in. I felt awful the entire way and it took me weeks to recover from the effort. Had I been in control of the pace I would have run slightly slower initially and felt worlds better and probably done much less mental and physical damage. Because that would be running to my strength. My training partner on the other hand runs at her best when someone else is setting the pace, so she loved this set up and went on to crush the workout and her spring marathon.

And the worst thing I could ever possibly do is to go out to fast. Being aggressive at the gun is soooo not playing to my strength. My strength lies in setting a solid pace and churning it out mile after mile. It took epic implosions in 2011 at Boston and Indianapolis Women’s Half Marathon for me to really realize this.ย  Some runners can throw in some crazy fast miles and recover from them to run a decent race, but that is not for me! I need to run within myself early in the race in order to excel late in the race. It’s the races where I nail those first miles that I truly dominate. This has been true in training too, it’s taking time but I am starting to realize that sometimes a slow first interval or a slower start in a workout is nothing to fear, that indeed it will allow me to play to my strengths and complete the entire workout at goal pace or faster if I go out at a reasonable pace rather than hammering early on.

In a marathon I have to run a lot of miles like this in order to be able to race hard at the end.

This all leads me to my goal fall marathon for 2012. Year after year local runners will ask why I keep going back to the Columbus marathon. They ask why not Chicago? Why not New York? How about Detroit, or Twin Cities? I could espouse all the positives about Columbus, and I truly do think it is one of the best marathons around. But the truth is this course is made for me. I run well there every time I race, I feel strong there when others start to fade. I can run even pace the whole way. The course has just enough small variations to keep me mentally engaged. This course plays to all of my strengths. The fans are great and get me going, the music along the course makes me smile, the field is such that I can feel powerful and competitive late in the race while keeping humble and conservative the first half due to all the speedy half marathoners mixed in. The weather is perfect, and up until last year I got faster here every time. I have never left Columbus disappointed.

Even when injured and not able to "race" I have a blast at Columbus!

It is my goal this year to focus on these strengths, to try to run races and workouts in a way that make me feel like a powerful and speedy runner. I want to focus on my positives, and while I clearly am going to work on the weaknesses, I am going to try not focus too hard on those workouts or races that leave me feeling weak, and remember for every one of those workouts or races there will be another that I can dominate with my strengths.

How about you Salty Runners? What are your strengths? What weaknesses do you wish you could get rid of?ย 

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A gal on a mission to save Cuyahoga County streams one storm water facility at a time. An ex runner of many facets including marathons, pacing, ultras and more. Chronic left side issues have me cycling more than running these days but I'm attempting to get back to my running roots.

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  1. Something I get in between the lines is that you realized that figuring out what makes you happy in running is also figuring out your strengths. Good crowds, feeling in control and flat courses with a medium field where you can feel a little like the star of the show is where it’s at for you. Hills, pacers and stuff like that make you not enjoy yourself so much. I think we can all take a hard look at our running and figure out when we’re really enjoying ourselves and then from there figure out our strengths and then choose race distances and courses accordingly! I love that you’re coming back from a tough year by really figuring out who you are and what you like. Rock on!

    1. Thanks! I think there is always room for improvement but yes I do think having fun probably lies in running to our strengths.

  2. Such a good post Pepper. I love reading your blogs. I completely follow everything you are saying. I am not new to running, but fairly new to competitive running. So, I am just starting to find where my strength lies. I tend to go out too fast in any race I run, so that is definitely a weakness. I think I am stronger at the longer distances. But, what excites me is that I have so much potential that I have yet to discover. I think running such a good marathon in Cleveland this year has given me a greater confidence about what I am capable of running. I am looking forward to running a fall half marathon and hoping to PR by two or three minutes. I am also looking forward to the Akron Marathon and hopefully getting the time there, that I deserved to get in Cleveland. My weakness is that I need to get beyond the mental state of racing. I am SO mental. I find that if I can’t hit a pace I want early in a race, I just give up. I need to work on my courage and faith that I can do well in a race.

    1. Thanks Michelle! You are in a great place right now with your running. Get ready for big breakthroughs and finding out more about your competitive side! Let that mental stuff wait for when you are trying to eek out the last of your potential! Just enjoy the ride right now ๐Ÿ™‚ That may mean leaving the watch at home for a few races even and learning to pace internally from the gun!

  3. This is such a fantastic post! (which is why I love this site!!). I’ve never really thought about approaching training and racing this way, but it does make sense. Really interesting about how you feel so much worse when being paced through a workout than when doing it yourself. it’s great that you are figuring all this out.

    And look at that marathon time–are you going to try for trials in 2016? You’re so close!

    1. Thanks zippy! I think the pacing thing is a control issue. I like control, and when I am not in control I just don’t feel quite right. This transfers over to many areas of my life and I definitely need to find balance between being in control and letting go sometimes!

      yeah trials were the goal and then the dreaded overuse/stress/injury cycle began. We’ll see what the 2016 standards are and go from there! in the mean time just trying to get speedier, i’ll take any minutes (or seconds) off that time i can get!

  4. Great post! And I agree with Salty- this is one reason why I enjoy running small local races. Because I can place and feel like a superstar if only for a day! I think we all need the self-esteem boost that racing to our strengths provide.
    Then again, I also run just because I love to run, and know I will never be on the podium at any marathon- whether the course is flat, hilly, hot or cold!

    1. I think an ego boost is great! I love running a tune up race at a small event, not because I need another trophy, but because sometimes it feels good to lead the pack and feel strong! I’m more than willing to get smoked in other larger events when it pulls me to a better time, but occasionally it is nice to give yourself a bit of a boost and remind yourself that in your own small pond you are a nice big fish ๐Ÿ™‚

      I am not going to lie, I would love to win a marathon, and I think for me I’d like to save that one for a race where it isn’t just a hand out like some of the smaller local tune up races I do for fun, I want to be competing and really have to gut it out to get it. Mission break tape is still on for me ๐Ÿ™‚ It will be interesting to see who shows up at Columbus this year and if I can get fitter and give it a go! 2010 was a big surprise place wise, I knew the time was possible, but I had no idea I would place so well. Some times those unexpected achievements are so much sweeter than the ones you are actively pursuing!

  5. Oh, Pepper! From one “front-runner” to another, I am so with you! My morning training group actually makes fun of me because I just “always have to be out front.” I don’t know what it is, but YES, running from behind feels so much harder. I still remember this one run with one of my training partners. I was lagging behind her and struggling, and she said I should go ahead and lead so I could set the pace. As soon as I got out front, I felt so much better – and our pace DROPPED by about 20 seconds per mile. Must be some weird psychosomatic thing, but you’re not alone.

    When I was focused on marathons, I always did my best on hilly courses – my standing PR is still at Akron. I guess that translated well to the trails ๐Ÿ™‚