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    Hard work doesn’t scale

    On Sunday I ran the Philadelphia marathon. That's not the interesting part. This is: I got a decent result with the least training I've ever done 🤨

    3:36:19 – that's not my personal best and that's okay. How I finished the marathon is the exciting part. Alas the hard work I put in training this year ruined me legs and destroyed the chance of a personal best.

    Confused about the messaging here? Yeah me too. Sports are not like code, you don't get a compiler error that says "You're missing a comma right here you dumbass".

    A little back story

    I started running back in 2012 because ... hell who even knows anymore. Probably because living with room-mates sucks and you need an excuse to get out of the house.

    In 2014 I started running consistently and realized hey this relaxes your brain good. Pairs great with coding.

    My first half marathon came in 2015 – 1:50:35.

    Swizec at his first half marathon in 2015
    Swizec at his first half marathon in 2015

    For comparison: This Sunday I ran a full marathon at a faster average pace than that half marathon. Plus I'm 8 years older and way better looking. 😛

    The year after that I got into marathons and eventually decided to qualify for Boston. That means running a marathon in the 3 hour range. A ridiculous amount of speed.

    How hard work ruined my legs

    Boston always felt like a joke goal. No way Swiz can run that fast, but it's something to aim for. Then in 2021/22 I thought "You know ... but maybe?" and gave it my all.

    Holy shit look at that – 3:17:45 in the Santa Rosa marathon and it felt like sprinting the whole time. Sure there was blood squirting out my shoes but wow that's 9min faster than my previous best!

    Swiz at the Santa Rosa marathon
    Swiz at the Santa Rosa marathon

    A few months later I ran a 3:15:39 in Sacramento. All right this is getting fast looks like I've cracked the formula. Sign up for a bunch of marathons in 2023 and crank up the training.

    But there was a dragon hiding in the data. Look at my fitness graph from Strava. An estimate of your "shape" based on some mysterious formula and your training data.

    Swizec's fitness graph for the last 2 years
    Swizec's fitness graph for the last 2 years

    The more I train, the less shape I'm in. And my race times got way worse too. That's strange, running a lot before a marathon used to work 🤨

    How doing less made me faster

    I've run 4062km this year. An average of 88km per week. 12km per day.

    No wonder my legs are shot 😅

    When my partner hired a running coach for my birthday, the first thing he said was "Oooookay we need to cut your training in half. Good job building a great base, but I thought you wanted to go faster?"

    Matt had a point. I was training tired all the time (mentally and physically), which meant I couldn't push hard and run fast. When you don't run fast, you teach your legs to go slow.

    In a marathon, you hit a point about 3/4ths into the race where you mentally begin to struggle. You've just run a lot and it starts to get hard, but the end is nowhere near. You think there's no way I can keep this up and your legs retreat into their familiar pace.

    You want that to be your target pace. Mine ... wasn't. Because I spent all year training my legs to be slow 💩

    The dip 3/4ths into my marathon
    The dip 3/4ths into my marathon

    See what happened in the last 5km? That's all Matt. My strongest marathon finish ever. First time in my life that I was passing people left and right and speeding up like I didn't just run a whole marathon.

    That last 5k was 25:43. Comparable to when 5k is all I'm doing 🤘

    The trick? Sprinting. Lots of sprinting. Honest hardcore balls to the wall intervals on the track. You can't go fast unless you force yourself to go fast.

    The point?

    A little bit of slope beats a lot of y-intercept. But you can't grind mindlessly on steady state work. You have to rest then push hard. Rest then push hard.

    Growth comes in cycles. Recover, push, recover.


    PS: Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness talk about this lesson at length in Peak Performance, my favorite book on burnout

    Published on November 21st, 2023 in Personal, Lessons, Burnout, Learning

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    Who am I and who do I help? I'm Swizec Teller and I turn coders into engineers with "Raw and honest from the heart!" writing. No bullshit. Real insights into the career and skills of a modern software engineer.

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