Marathon runners know the key to persistence in the face of hopelessness

One step at a time.
One step at a time.
Image: Reuters/Ruben Sprich
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Every Sunday, I go out for my weekly long run, usually between 10 and 20 miles. And without fail, there’s a moment, usually about halfway through, when I feel panic creep in. I start to think about how far I’ve gone already, and how tired I am, and how much farther I have to go.

These moments make me want to quit—both the run and the hobby altogether.

That’s not unique to running: with any long-term project—like completing deliverable for work or inspiring a policy change—there will be moments of overwhelming anxiety that distract us from our ultimate goals. Luckily, distance running has solutions backed by psychology to avoid getting derailed by doubt and hopelessness.

First, we have to reframe how we think about obstacles. “Being resilient is being able to persist through those tough times…[and] to know this is a short-term problem,” says Christine Weinkauff, a graduate student in psychology at Claremont Graduate University in California (and recreational long-distance runner). Rather than thinking about the entire project looming ahead, focus on the fact that it will end—and in the meantime, control smaller parts of it. This is an especially helpful trick if the endpoint is a goal with no definite timeline, like achieving political change; simply getting through a duration of time, like a particular presidential tenure, can be easier because there is a known endpoint.

“It can be really frustrating to not really know your progress to a big goal, but if you set incremental goals, it helps,” Weinkauff says. This could be focusing on just one section of a presentation, one chapter of a book, one local political cause, or the next mile. That makes it a lot easier to see progress, which can bring you enough satisfaction and inspiration to fuel you for the next step. Segmented goals are easier to achieve and lower-stakes: failing at one doesn’t mean your whole effort is shot.

It’s also important to accept that in any long-term endeavor there will be setbacks along the way. You may develop a cramp that slows you down, miss a deadline, or simply fail to achieve a short-term goal altogether due to forces beyond your control. In these moments, you can’t let your disappointment in one small failure break down your entire endeavor.

Acknowledging frustration is important, says Weinkauff, but you should try to take emotion out of it. Once you’ve recognized how you feel, start focusing why you feel that way. Ask yourself what you can actually do to solve the problem in front of you, rather than indulging your anxiety further.

Ultimately, it’s all about pacing. “You just have to know how to back off at the right time,” says says John Henwood, a former Olympian and now full-time running coach. He often tells his runners that if they’re in a race and feel uncomfortable at a particular pace early on, they need to slow down and let their bodies adjust before they push themselves again. Although it may be tempting to plow ahead, this mentality creates more problems down the line—like injury or burnout.

This lesson—basically, taking the time necessary for self-care—is useful for anyone working on a long-term project. Self-care could mean just taking care of the basics, like eating, sleeping, or going for a walk around the block outside. But it can also mean taking a break from the news for a day, reading or watching television, or catching up with friends and family. Whatever gives you a mental break so you can come back to work with fresh eyes.

Running is “a war of attrition,” says Henwood. Your body has finite resources of energy and mental stamina. If you don’t pace yourself, you’re bound to run out of one or the other before you hit the finish line. If you are trying to stay politically engaged, remember that you also have finite resources, like time and emotional capacity, to apply to the project, and these need to be effectively managed.

When I’m running, I always tell myself that I have to get home somehow. May as well keep putting one foot in front of the other.