By:Lieutenant Colonel Kyle Phillips
There is a perception of isolation and loneliness with endurance sports. Competing in marathon, triathlon, and ultra running seems a wholly individual endeavor to an outsider. There is only one way to reach the finish line. Keep moving. Perhaps the segment in the Movie Forest Gump is responsible for perpetuating the theme of the endurance athlete as a loner. Almost mindlessly continuing the physical struggle with no other purpose than to run. The San Francisco Marathon confronted this premise of the introverted martyr in a blog in 2016 entitled “The Loneliness of the Distance Runner (Is a Myth).” Taking a closer look at endurance sports, especially at the amateur level, reinforces the importance of the “team” and dispels the idea of the “loner” athlete.
The reality of endurance racing is success requires surrounding yourself with a solid team. Training (and racing) with teammates involves two very different forms of performance growth. The first is accountability and the second is selflessness.
Easily recognized and the more obvious, accountability involves the real or perceived feeling of personal responsibility to a task. 4:30 am wake ups for a long run with pace work when it is 30 degrees outside? Being accountable to your team and training partners provides the motivation to show up and perform even in the most difficult circumstances. Accountability allows athletes to hit their goal paces on those hot, humid, track workouts in the dead of summer. Your teammates (or Strava) will hold you accountable without even saying a word. It is the attachment to the team and the individual and collective goals that accelerate this feeling of accountability.
There is a second aspect of a close team relationship that leads to performance growth. Focusing on your teammates instead of yourself can actually increase your own performance. Kiera Carter’s article in Runner’s World, “The Science Behind How Sportsmanship Helped Desiree Linden Win Boston” describes the psychological aspects of dissociative thinking. When Desiree Linden, who went on to win the 2018 Boston Marathon, stopped to wait for Shalane Flanagan for a 13 second bathroom break, Linden did so out of an act of selflessness and bond toward her friend. Dissociative thinking “essentially means Linden may have stopped thinking about how much the race sucked and started thinking beyond the pain.” The article continues that, “’[a]ssociative thinking means you’re thinking about performance like evaluating your form and tracking your pace…’ [w]hen Linden shifted her focus from wanting to win the race to wanting to help Flanagan, she switched to dissociative thinking, which can reduce the perception of fatigue…” Carter’s article describes the brain’s release of endorphins, serotonin and dopamine when you help somebody. Additionally, your brain also releases oxytocin when there is a strong bond with someone. Put simply, helping others out can make you feel and perform better. Being a good teammate is good for your friends and yourself in reaching your goals.
In addition to the very real performance enhancement that accompanies connection to a team, there is the additional aspect that goals are simply more meaningful when accomplished with others. In the book, “The Push: A Climber’s Search for the Path” Tommy Caldwell was almost within reach of his goal when he describes turning back to help his teammate. Despite the risk of failing in his attempt to free solo up the Dawn Wall in Yosemite’s El Capitan, he circled back to a section of the wall where teammate and friend Kevin Jorgeson was stuck. The motivation? Caldwell sums it up in his book. “I want it, but I want to do it with him.” After returning to Jorgeson, both eventually successfully completed the climb, making the incredible endeavor undeniably more meaningful, as well as personally and professionally fulfilling.
So as the summer heat may be pushing the motivation out of you…remember, be a good teammate and allow others to reciprocate. Helping others, and having your teammates help you, may go a long way for everyone to reach their goals.
http://www.thesfmarathon.com/blog/2016/02/22/the-loneliness-of-the-distance-runner/ (accessed June 21, 2018) “The loneliness of the Distance Runner (Is a Myth)” Contributed by Erin Garvey.
https://www.runnersworld.com/training/a19862759/sportsmanship-desiree-linden-boston-marathon/. “The Science Behind How Sportsmanship Helped Desiree Linden Win Boston” by Kiera Carter (Accessed June 18, 2019).
Tommy Caldwell, “The Push: A climber’s Search for the path,” Penguin Books, NY, NY, 2017, page 317.