Self-control has long been touted as something almost everyone needs more of. We tell ourselves that we lack self-control in our diet, in our routine, and generally in our day-to-day lives. If we only had more of it, we would be better at almost everything. But self-control, including in the context of running, can be over-done. The principle that if a little is good, a lot is great doesn’t apply here. When you move from self-control to over-control you can hurt your results instead of helping them.
Penny Werthner is a former Olympic track and field athlete who is now the Dean of the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary. She consults with many of our Olympic athletes and coaches and says there is always the possibility of trying to control too much. “I think athletes and high performers in general are driven, committed individuals. While self-control is an excellent characteristic, you can overdo it.”
Self-control is certainly an important aspect of running. If you don’t train, and train consistently, you won’t see improvement in your results. But lots of the athletes Werthner sees don’t lack self-control, they lack the ability to put the run to bed once it’s over. “They sometimes do not understand the critical importance of recovery. You can be focused and driven, and you can reflect on your training, and then you need to put it aside and do something different, enjoyable, and fun. You need to give your brain and body time to recover – that will ensure the next week of training is even better.”
Werthner explains that continually dwelling on training is a product of trying to control everything. When a runner is looking to have a handle on all aspects of their training all of the time, it can negatively impact their performance. “When you’re trying to control everything, all the time, two things often happen – you get stressed psychologically and physiologically, your body reacts by getting physically tight, you don’t breathe well, and you can’t relax and recover. Tightness in the body, a very normal physiological response to stress, can eventually cause fatigue and injuries.”
If you’ve set lofty training goals for 2019 and are concerned that you might be slipping into the realm of over-control, getting sick and disrupted sleep are two clear indicators. “Learn how to compartmentalize your training. Go for your tempo run or weight session and then be done with it. If you’re thinking about running all of the time, you’re not recovering.”
If you have set specific running goals and really want to run faster this season, Werthner says that you’re not necessarily looking to achieve an absolute balance in your life. “The balance isn’t necessarily 50/50 for everyone, which is how we usually think about the word balance. There are some individuals, like professional runners, whose lives might be highly focused on running. But even the best runners have other interests in their lives. And these other interests are an important part of performance. They allow you to be focused, at least for some part of each day, on school, work, learning something new or reading a book.” It seems counter-intuitive, but sometimes, the best running training has nothing to do with running at all.