I recently completed the Edinburgh Marathon, and that provoked some interesting thoughts about the law of diminishing returns that I thought I’d share. Before I do that, let me provide some backdrop.
I entered Edinburgh (which, by the way, was a wonderfully organised event along a mainly picturesque course) as a backup to the London Marathon following a lengthy bout of illness over Christmas and the New Year that set my preparations back. I was concerned over both the loss of fitness and the speed of recovery and I didn’t want to rush and compromise my chances of performing at my best so opted to focus on Edinburgh as it was 5 week later.
So, I set out my training blocks with the aim of building consistency with more overall volume and more long runs than ever before. This was in response to what I considered to be a lack of endurance in the last marathon I raced in October, where I suffered quite badly in the closing stages.
The training went as well as it could have done and I arrived on the start line with optimism.
My race also went well, I stuck to my plan in the early stages and passed halfway within a second or two of my target. However, as the field thinned out I started to fall a little behind target to 20 miles and then lost more time in miles 24-26 and found myself scurrying through the final 200m to slide just under 2h 36 mins and secure a 36 second PB.
I was pleased with the effort, pleased with the discipline (while I lost time in the last few miles, I lost less than my last attempt at this pace) and of course pleased with a PB. I had charted new territory, for me.
But, I missed my goal by about a minute, and having trained harder, longer and sacrificed more to do so, the question inevitably became – were all those hours of extra effort worth those 36 seconds?
A – Of course.
Just as in life, continuous improvement in running is subject to the law of diminishing returns. At some point the extra effort required to achieve something is no longer commensurate to the value of the achievement itself.
So when is enough enough? To really evaluate where that diminishing return is, you simply have to ask yourself how badly you want to reach the milestone. How important is it to you?
So let’s reflect on that. What was my goal and was it worth it?
My goals are relatively straightforward. I want to learn, I want to continually improve, I want to form new experiences and I want to discover what is possible. In running that is translated into time-based goals and in the spirit of continuous improvement that is core to me as a person, I look to stretch myself each time. For me, the learning and discovery comes from both the outcome and the process itself and being analytical, I look at both for further improvements. There is always hope of an extra few seconds somewhere in all those miles and all those weeks of training as well as in the race itself.
Sometimes this desire to stretch myself means the goals are missed and that could be disappointing. However, if you hit all your goals, all the time, then the goals are probably not stretching enough. You are operating too much inside your comfort zone. With that in mind, instead of disappointment, I turn to missed goals for reassurance that I am genuinely pushing myself to the limit and so putting in that extra effort is absolutely worth it, especially if I can learn something new along the way to improve for next time.
Now, I’m aware that this is my experience and obviously we’re far from being all the same. In the context of our attitude to diminishing returns though, the questions to ask ourselves are just the same.
Start with understanding how badly you want it. To answer that, you really need to consider why your goal exists at all and I’m not talking about the rational or logical elements relating to time, often expressed as a PB or a sub-something-or-other. Time targets are just numbers. They are usually a signal of something else, something deeper that is important to you.
So when considering how important your goal is, think about the emotions that sit behind it. Consider how you will feel when you hit your goal and why? Many people are driven, emotionally, by someone (typically loved ones) who they think will be proud of them, or by people (friends, colleagues) who will be impressed by them. I always ask my clients to call upon these emotions when times get tough. They act as powerful motivators and feedback suggests they make an intangibly large difference to the outcome.
To labour this point, think about it the other way around.
If you’re not sure why your goal is important (or worse, it’s not actually important to you), what might you do when training or even the race gets a bit hard? – you will reduce your effort, and you almost certainly won’t achieve your goal.
How badly you want to reach your milestone cannot be quantified, there is no scale of 1-10. It comes from within, it comes from you. Understanding what’s behind the goal is as important as the goal itself and is actually as important as the plan to reach it.
Under these conditions, the extra effort is of course worthwhile, irrespective of whether you reach your milestone or not. You gave it your best shot and that’s all anyone can ever ask, about anything.