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Is it wrong to compare your running to other people’s?

16 March 2018

“Comparison is the thief of joy. Run your own race. Don’t compare yourself to others, compare yourself to the person you were yesterday.”

Every fitness programme, every inspirational quote on instagram, every ‘brand ambassador’ for every sport agrees: if you want to be happy, stop judging yourself by others’ progress, and keep your mind on yourself (#runhappy!).

To which I say, I have tried. I really have tried. But it’s impossible. And, maybe, it’s not healthy.

It’s important to have role models

Deena Kastor said of Paula Radcliffe in 2009 that “She makes great decisions. I don’t feel bad comparing myself to her as I believe all marathon athletes do because she’s the ultimate woman in the sport. She’s got the world record by an extraordinary amount and so it’s safe and healthy for all of us to compare ourselves in this sport to look up to her. ”

We know how fast Mo Farah or Paula Radcliffe can run. And if we run ourselves, we know where we rank compared to them, i.e. in a galaxy far, far away. We will never be the fastest in the world. And this is not depressing, because we also know that we will never be the slowest.

Every runner was once a worse runner

Unless you started competing at running aged 5, you probably once struggled to run down the street without coughing up a lung.  No matter how many breaks from running you take through injury or apathy, you will (hopefully) never find running that hard again.

I know we’re all getting older, and looking at my dad panting through a parkrun at 73, running into old age doesn’t look exactly easy. But I still think it will never be as hard as it was at the start, because we will already know we can do it.

Running is a physical struggle that takes place in your head. Every run is a battle of When Can I Stop? versus I Will Keep Going. And every time I Will wins, it makes it a tiny bit easier for I Will to win again.



Running with others is more fun

When I started running, I did it by myself. I wanted to huff and puff and huff and walk a bit and run a bit and walk a bit and then die alone.  All alone. Smartphones did not exist in 1994, so there was no thought of sharing my progress with others.

I am a selfish runner. I run to give myself time to think, time not to think, time to be outside and enjoy the seasons, to see birds and flowers and trees and views. To get fit and stay healthy, to stay sane. To have time away from my family (sorry).

I ran alone for 22 years. At the Great Eastern Run in 2016, I watched all the other women in the queue for the loo laughing and chatting to each other while I waited, dealing with my pre-race nerves alone. They were all wearing club vests. I knew I was missing out on something.

Before I joined a running club, I had never entered a race just for fun. I would never have signed up for a 5-mile cross country race, let alone 6 of them in one season. And if I hadn’t, I would never have known how my post-race low could be totally eclipsed by the high of finding out the team triumphed, despite my performance.



Running your own race is a myth

Running with – and against – other people isn’t just more fun. It makes us better runners. According to research carried out in 1968 at the University of California-Berkeley, running your own race is a myth. We run faster in a pack, and are “fooling ourselves” if we think that we can run as hard alone as we would against others.

Competition does not have to be unhealthy. This profile of Shalane Flanagan, winner of the 2017 New York Marathon, shows that it is possible to be both competitive with and supportive of other runners.

“We usually see competitive women, particularly athletically excellent women, only in one of two ways: either competing to defeat one another, or all about team over self. But that’s a flawed, limiting paradigm. The Shalane Effect dismantles it: She is extraordinarily competitive, but not petty; team-oriented, but not deferential. Elevating other women is actually an act of self-interest: It’s not so lonely at the top if you bring others along.”

The Strava Effect 


So if comparing your running to others’ gives you something to aim for, is more fun than running alone and makes you faster, why am I writing this? And why are there so many internet memes telling us to stop comparing ourselves to others?

Because of the internet!

It has never been so easy to track your performance, and compare it to your friend’s, that guy who always beats you, and your nearest Olympian’s. You don’t have to go to the track and study the split times, or wait for race results to come out in the newspaper. If you choose to, and most of us do, you can record your every move, upload it to Strava and share it on facebook before you’ve even finished stretching.

If it’s easy to share your own running, it’s almost impossible to avoid other people’s. Fitness boasts are everywhere, and I should know, I make them every week on my instagram. They make me feel good, but what if they make any other people feel bad?

One Sunday, I had just got back from one of those brilliant runs – where the sun is shining, you feel good and every step is a delight. It wasn’t a fast one – a proper long slow run that I really enjoyed. I was feeling on top of the world, logged the run on Strava and then up popped an almost identical run by a runner who is a similar speed to me – but she had run it 1 minute per mile faster.

Immediately I felt deflated. I could have run faster. Should I have run faster?

Know your limits

I should not have run faster! And I should not have felt deflated, looking at Strava that day. I should have been proud of my run, acknowledged that it was slower for a good reason, and felt happy for my friend. In a moment of strength, I would have done that. But I was feeling weak, so instead I unfollowed her on Strava and felt doubly bad – both for comparing myself to her and for not being able to ‘cope’ with how it made me feel.

Sometimes, you eat the bar, and sometimes the bar eats you. If you’re feeling good, and want to be inspired by others’ running, find new routes or just see what your friends are up to, pick up your phone and knock yourself out (not literally).

If you’re not, switch it off for a bit.

There are not two ideal approaches when it comes to comparing yourself to others: one zen like state where you only care about your own performance and don’t notice other people; and one where you know exactly where you fit but it only brings you joy. There is only one, human, approach: which one day brings you joy and the next day brings you down.

It is not wrong to compare your running to other people’s. It is just natural. Embrace it.

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