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Growth Mindset for Runners

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What follows is an excerpt from the Geek Out section of my book, Simple Marathon Training. Enjoy!

Growth Mindset, by Travis Macy - Ultra Endurance Racer, Author of The Ultra Mindset

Years of experience as an athlete, teacher, and coach have taught me that a subtle distinction in mindset can lead to a significant difference in improved performance, health, and enjoyment in running.

I learned about growth mindset vs. fixed mindset when I read Carol Dweck’s excellent text, Mindset. The book made such an impact that I started teaching about it every week in my high school English classes. I subsequently wrote about the growth mindset as related to endurance training/racing and life in general in The Ultra Mindset: An Endurance Champion’s 8 Core Principles for Success in Business, Sports, and Life.

Someone with a growth mindset, simply put, focuses on getting better; one who adopts the opposite­—the fixed mindset—focuses on being good. The difference is subtle, yet revolutionary.

After a D on a test, a growth mindset student recognizes that he is not quite where he wants to be in, say, math, and then he works harder. The fixed mindset student comes to a different conclusion: “I struggle at math, so I shouldn’t even try.”

A corporate professional in the fixed mindset sees her colleague recognized for excellent sales and then gets jealous and competitive, reacting with gossip, an extra drink, and web searching for a new job. The mutual colleague with a growth mindset congratulates the awardee and asks her how he can work more skillfully to boost his own numbers.

Start looking for growth vs. fixed mindsets, and you’ll see them just about everywhere in life. You’ll also see them on the roads, trails, and track as you prepare for your marathon. Early in my running career, I made some poor choices based on a fixed mindset:

  • Using training runs—rather than races—as a proving ground
  • Running too hard on recovery days
  • Doing too many runs with guys who were faster than me, which was particularly degrading on recovery days
  • Paying more attention to weekly mileage and pace (and how they looked to teammates/coaches/social media) than to how I actually felt and how I was progressing

Accordingly, I found myself overtrained, frustrated, and experiencing a plateau in performance. Shifting to a growth mindset made a big difference for me.

Like all runners, I am still a work in progress. That said, a growth mindset that has come with maturity has engendered some better decisions:

  • Racing in the races and training in the training
  • Listening to my body, resting when I need rest
  • Staying away from training that leads to injury and burnout
  • Doing most of my training according to time and perceived exertion and/or heart rate, rather than by pace and mileage (this decision is also a factor of training at high altitude on hilly, technical trails)
  • Focusing on a self-concept that is not heavily based on proving my worth through running performances

Keep this in mind: the purpose of training is to get better. This seems obvious, but if you slip into a fixed mindset, you’ll soon be using workouts to prove yourself instead of to progress gradually. If you explore running websites and articles with a fixed mindset, you’ll probably start feeling bad about yourself because you’re not as fast, or don’t run as many miles, or have less experience.

Race with a purely fixed mindset and you’ll be ruled by fear (of not making your time, of not finishing, of getting beat by your training partner, of “failing” in some other way). Race in a growth mindset and you’ll have fun, get faster, enjoy the journey, and participate in running in a sustainable and life-changing manner. It’s all about getting better, folks. Go get ‘em with the growth mindset!