Training vs. Practice: how to change your mindset for motivation

In this period of uncertainty, with very few races on the calendar, finding motivation to train can be hard. Practice your running instead.

If you’re like me, you probably think about your running as training.

There’s a goal you likely have in mind, such as a race. 

It doesn’t matter if that’s a 5 km Parkrun, a big city marathon or a 100 km ultra, you are working towards a definite deadline.

There’s a big red ‘X’ marked in bold on the calendar. 

To get ready, you’ve likely been following a specific program or running regime. Maybe you’ve even hired a coach or joined a run crew. 

But when races are cancelled, like they have been during the Covid-19 pandemic, it can be tricky (and sometimes damn near impossible) to stay motivated. 

One overpowering question lingers: what am I training for?

I have a personal goal to run a 2:20 marathon, but now it feels like I’m stuck in limbo.

Dealing with uncertainty

You know how hard you’ve worked to attain your current fitness, and suddenly there’s no end-goal in sight. It can be frustrating, discouraging, sad…. All of the above.  

So what can we do to find the silver lining? How can we stay motivated to keep progressing through this period of uncertainty? And to maintain our fitness and healthy lifestyle? 

I’ve been tinkering with one solution: a subtle change of mindset. 

Rather than thinking about my running as training, I’ve begun to think of it as practice.

Now, you might ask: how can the way you label an exercise regime make a difference to your motivation? And isn’t that all in your head, anyway?  

At a glance, it may seem like an insignificant change: one simple word. 

However, I think there’s significant value in this change. 

Don’t train, practice instead

Hear me out: where training implies a specific, short-term block of effort in pursuit of a definitive goal, practice implies something more far-reaching.

Importantly, you don’t really practice for one race, you practice to become a better overall runner. It’s less about the destination, and more about the journey (I’ll extend this metaphor later on). 

When we think about our running as practice, we can begin to focus on longer-term growth and development in the sport as a whole. 

The pursuit is not a single race, but the act of running itself. 

The objective is not a finishing time or a personal record. Rather, it’s continual improvement across varied domains: your speed, endurance, form, breathing. It’s optimising how well you tolerate pain and discomfort, how you manage injuries and external setbacks and stressors, how you incorporate nutrition and strength training. 

Okay, back to that metaphor. 

Training is like planning for (and taking) a holiday. It’s a break from the everyday routine of life. And you want it to be awesome and memorable! So you splurge and do a lot of hard work in a concentrated time period to pull it off: planning, packing, getting travel medication, booking into beautiful hotels, and getting your beach body ready. There’s a clear end-goal, and a huge sense of accomplishment when it’s done!

And then, you can press reset. 

Sadly, practice is far less glamorous. There’s no flight; no tropical beach or poolside cocktails or scuba diving. No beautiful hotels. Practice is the stay-at-home variant (somewhat fitting during this pandemic).

Practice, however, isn’t without its perks. And they’re arguably more important in the long-run. 

With practice there’s no reset button

Practice is about getting better at the mundane of everyday life; it’s about improving and optimising your thinking and behaviours and habits so you are using your time and energy more efficiently, and enjoyably. 

Importantly, when you think about running as practice, you don’t press reset. You accept that the pursuit is ongoing and indefinite. 

This can seem daunting, but it can also provide some clarity and focus — especially now. 

In a way, it can also relieve pressure. When you train for one race, so much hinges on how well you perform on the day. There’s an incredible emotional toll, both in the lead-up and aftermath.

Understanding running as practice (rather than training) allows for you to have off-days where things don’t go to plan. It allows you to better understand that growth in running doesn’t necessarily follow a linear path, but can sometimes be chaotically infused with peaks and valleys.

Practice offers endless motivation

When you think about becoming a better runner and not just smashing a particular race, you give yourself something to always be striving toward. It can bolster your motivation!  

Sure, when the time is right, you can incorporate races, and training blocks, and shorter-term goals into your running practice: that’s a great way to make the sport fun and competitive.

But when you think of running as practice, those goals can also be more varied. And you’ll know, these are just pieces in a larger puzzle of growth.  

To summarise, training relates to specific blocks of effort, aimed at definitive one-time goals. Practice, on the other hand, has a long-term outlook. It’s about sustained growth, continual improvement, indefinite timelines, and varied goals. 

A good, cross-exercise analogy is Yoga. By definition, people practice yoga. It is a challenging pursuit that requires dedication to master. When we strip away races, running is much the same.

If you’re struggling with motivation, change your mindset. It can be as simple as swapping one word.

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[…] now, running for me is about practice: prioritising long-term improvements over short-term […]

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