Read the Introduction to Make the Leap!
There are countless running books that give you training programs, workout templates, and conversion tables. Others are filled with heartwarming stories and philosophical quotes.
This is not one of those books.
This book focuses on the most important aspect of running that nobody seems to talk about: how to think about training. Everyday countless runners put in the work to get better and yet they unknowingly hold themselves back. It’s not the workouts! It’s our approach to them.
I assume you’ve got the physical part of training covered. I want to help you improve the mental part.
Mental Training Matters
This book is based on one simple premise: the better we think about our training, the better we will train. Think better, train better.
Our brains are prediction factories, and our expectations are their outputs. We input raw materials: future goals, prior experiences, belief in our abilities, cognitive biases, enjoyment, doubt, responsibility, fear, motivation, and concentration. We turn the dial to some point in the future, the end of the season or next weekend’s race. Then whirrr: out comes a shiny new expectation.
We create expectations about literally everything: the weather, the food we eat, other people, the news, the latest films, and everything in between. We get some new info, turn the dial and whirrr goes the factory.
This whirrr occurs in our training, too. We set expectations about what we will do, how it will feel, how important it is, what others will do, what our coaches think, what our coaches think we think. The minute you think about an aspect of your training, you’ve already formed an expectation about it.
So why does this matter? Because our expectations set the ceiling for our achievement.
“Our expectations set the ceiling for our achievement.”
Our expectations guide how we train. How hard we work. How anxious, stressed, or excited we feel. How much we prepare. How much (and how) we analyze our performance. How we interpret success or failure and how we structure our days around our training program. Expectations influence everything.
As dedicated runners, we put in countless hours of hard work. We can’t let our expectations limit our potential. We need a mental framework that ensures our expectations are guiding us toward excellence.
I will give you that mental framework.
Naive Beginnings (Running Without Expectations)
I was always a talented runner. Running came easy to me and I enjoyed it. Over three years in high school I set a bunch of school records, won some league championships, and got noticed by colleges.
But my success masked a bigger failure: I didn’t improve much over those three years. I was “the best in school history” after one year, improved a little the next year, and then stalled out there.
The reality is my mental frameworks for learning and training were broken. The way I thought held me back.
The clearest example: I did all of my runs with my shoes untied. For three years! I decided that tying shoes was a waste of time (in general) and I treated practice just like the rest of the day. If we weren’t doing intervals, I just ran at “untied shoes” pace and called it a day.
I share that story because it seems so colossally dumb now. But I wasn’t a dumb kid. I did great in school, picked up new concepts quickly, did well in sports, and got along well with everyone. I seemed to have it all figured out, and yet I so clearly didn’t.
The truth is, school and sports came too easy to me. I developed a mindset that my talent determined my success. For me, the challenge was the opposite: to succeed while putting in as little effort as possible. That was the best way to demonstrate how talented I was. I thought it made me look better if I won despite never tying my shoes.
I eventually walked-on at UCLA. When Bob Larsen called me and said he would have a spot for me, I signed right up. I knew next to nothing about his or the program’s storied history, just that they had Meb Keflezighi, who was the best collegiate runner in the country.
My first run with the team was a wake-up call. Guys were talking about their summer training, and many had run 100 miles per week. I had done my typical summer training of…lightly jogging occasionally. The workout that day was a 9-mile tempo run. Nine miles was the farthest I’d ever run in my life. Meb and some other guys were running between 5:00 to 5:15 mile pace. That was my 3-mile race pace. (Gulp.)
As we walked to the start one of the guys said, “You gonna tie your shoes?”
I played it cool. “Oh…yeah, haha.” I laced them up. I felt way way way out of my league. And yes, that first run was a debacle. But I survived and learned my first two lessons. College runners run a lot and serious runners tie their shoes.
I spent my first year injured. The following two years I was a solid contributor. I made the traveling squads. I finished seventh at the PAC-10 Championships 10,000 meters. In cross country, my best finish at the NCAA Western Regional Cross Country championships was in the high 40s.
I wanted badly to be better, but I struggled to reconcile two competing ideas. I still believed performance was a reflection of talent. I trained everyday with national champions like Meb Keflezighi, Mark Hauser, and Jesse Strutzel, who did workouts I couldn’t dream of doing. The rest of us were a couple levels below them and we accepted that as our reality.
On the other hand, there were guys I beat in high school who had made a leap and were better than me. A couple were even competitive with Mark and Jesse. I didn’t believe they were more talented than me. But if not, why wasn’t I running at their level?
What I didn’t know, what I couldn’t really conceive at the time, is that despite how hard I was working, I wasn’t getting anywhere close to 100% out of myself.
By the end of my third year, I was trying to set higher expectations for myself. But I still had one problem. I didn’t believe in them.
A Better Prediction Factory
The idea of our brain as a prediction factory is what’s called a mental model. A mental model is a way of simplifying real world situations to better understand them.
We all know how factories work. We can use that concept to better understand how our brains create expectations.
If you want to improve the product made at a factory, you have a few options: improve the machinery, improve your processes, or get better materials. In the context of expectation-setting, you can improve brain health, improve the way you process information and make decisions, or input better thoughts and beliefs.
Let’s start with brain health. If you are too tired, undernourished, dehydrated, over-stressed, and consistently distracted it puts a large strain on your brain. Part of keeping any factory running smoothly is keeping up with the maintenance. The same applies to how you think.
The way we process information and make decisions is our main focus. Some machines make higher quality widgets than other machines. Similarly, some thought processes result in better outcomes. Part of making better expectations is having the right mental frameworks for understanding the world and knowing when to use them.
But having the right frameworks in place isn’t enough. How we use them is equally important. When do we turn them on and off? How do they connect with each other? What are we doing to calibrate them? We need effective processes and systems in place to ensure we get the most out of ourselves.
Lastly, we can input better thoughts and beliefs. You can’t source crap materials and use them to create a luxury product. No matter how much you try, the result will be obvious. The same goes for our approach to training. If you input flawed ideas and unproductive beliefs into your head, you will produce unproductive expectations.
Here is the good news. We have a lot of influence over all three of these areas. We can live healthy lifestyles that keep our brains well maintained. We can gain a better understanding of how the world works, how our brains work, and how our thoughts tie into our real world results. And we can cultivate productive thoughts and quickly identify unproductive ones.
When we create habits and systems around all of these areas, we build high quality expectations into the core of our training routine. The improvement that follows can be almost immediate.
My First Leap
The spring of my third year I enrolled in Education 80, a course focused on the college experience. It was my first introduction to social psychology and the theory of learning and achievement.
The class changed my life. It introduced me to frameworks and concepts to better understand my own performance, both in the class and on the track. I took many more courses in these areas and have pursued a lifelong interest in learning and achievement theory.
The principles, frameworks and mental models I learned in those courses forced me to challenge my assumptions. The way I described it to a friend at the time was feeling like Neo in The Matrix when he sees walls of 1s and 0s and intuitively understands how the Matrix works. I felt similarly empowered (minus the cool visuals).
I made a few changes:
- I reframed my understanding of ability and potential, which raised my expectations
- I identified and corrected key negative habits and thought processes, and
- I began to appreciate the relationship between engaging in a subject and developing mastery and expertise
I have to note here: I was not discussing this with my coaches. I was still doing the same workouts, just thinking about them differently. And then making better decisions about how I spent my time outside of practice.
The improvements in my running were immediate. I made a dramatic leap. My junior year I finished in the top ten in every cross country race, and qualified for the NCAA Championships as an individual. I then dropped over a minute in the 10k and finished 3rd at the PAC-10 Championships.
I also saw remarkable improvement in my studies. I put the same amount of effort into my classes, but my grades went up and my learning increased. This was all a bonus for me, as I wasn’t focused on my academics at the time. But I noticed it happening, and I could tell the two were related.
My senior year was tougher. I had injuries, illnesses, and my father passed away after prolonged health problems. But despite it all, I won my first (and only) collegiate cross country meet and I qualified again for NCAAs. I also ran close to my personal best times on the track that spring.
At the time, I felt extremely frustrated. I had expected the leap to continue. That didn’t happen but I also didn’t regress. I had established a new “normal.”
After graduating I stopped running competitively. But I didn’t stop using the mental approach that helped me to make a leap. In fact, I found it to be applicable to every area of my life.
I used it to learn two languages (Japanese and Italian). I used it to excel at graduate school. I used it to navigate complex consulting projects at Fortune 50 companies and later applied the mindset daily to excel in my career at Apple. I used it to organize international conferences and even launch a startup. I now teach these concepts at one of Japan’s leading universities.
The mindset I cultivated to run faster ended up improving every aspect of my life. The more I research it, the more I find that great performers in all areas use these same principles to achieve their success. Great performers think alike.
There are two reasons why it’s critical for every athlete to improve how they think about training. First, it makes you better, faster. It is the low hanging fruit of improvement. Second, adopting it in one aspect of your life will make it available to you to use anywhere. Unlike physical skills, it is universally transferrable.
Reason #1: Mental Training is Low Hanging Fruit
You may have heard the expression “low hanging fruit.” The low hanging fruit is the easiest to pick from the tree. It gives the most benefit for the least effort. More bang for your buck.
Mental training—improving our prediction factories—is the low hanging fruit for aspiring athletes. Countless athletes—perhaps even you—are working hard, doing good workouts, and trying to improve. But something isn’t clicking.
The workouts are not the problem. Having a better mental framework to understand training is what’s missing. It doesn’t matter how good the training plan is if you are holding yourself back mentally.
“It doesn’t matter how good the training plan is if you are holding yourself back mentally.”
Here’s what happens when you train how you think. You engage more. You prioritize better. You take more responsibility. You focus on the quality of your effort. You learn better from mistakes. You train purposefully. You systematize your life. And you raise your expectations.
Any one of these improvements can lead to better workouts. The combined power of these positive changes is a profound increase in the quality of your training. And that will lead to a big leap.
Here’s the best thing: you don’t even need to change your workouts. The leap comes from optimizing what you’re already doing.
Reason #2: Mental Training is Transferrable
This brings us to the second (and biggest) reason mental training is important: it is transferrable. Running faster and making a leap is the short-term benefit. The long-term benefit is in what thinking better will do for the rest of your life.
The physical skills and specific knowledge we get in sports rarely transfers outside the sport. They only truly get used while we do the sport.
But thinking better transfers to any field. More and more research is showing how experts in numerous fields use the same fundamental approach to succeed. You can, too.
So if these ideas apply to every field, why focus on running? Why not write a general book for a general audience? Two reasons.
First, running is special to me. My success in running, modest as it was, made me the person I am today. I want all runners to maximize their abilities and get the most out of the sport.
Second, abstract ideas are useless. Ideas have to be applied. Running provides the perfect setting to practice these concepts.
- Success is clearly defined and unambiguous
- You are already motivated to get better
- You have countless daily opportunities to test small changes, and
- Running faster is by itself worth the minimal investment of reading this book
Once you apply these ideas, you’ll see immediate improvement in your running. It will validate the approach. I don’t have to sell you on the long-term benefits. You will get those for free.
Here’s what you can expect. Each chapter is centered around an Optimal Training Principle. There are 11 in total. These principles are core beliefs shared by champions and experts in every field. I introduce them, explain them with some details, and then give some tips for how to integrate them into your training.
The book is split into two parts. Part 1 focuses on Attitudes, Beliefs, and Values. Part 2 focuses on Effort and Behavior. Mixed in throughout are shorter chapters I call Spotlights. Here I introduce powerful ideas that I’ve found to be helpful in my own improvement.
I should also note: I’ve made a supplementary Think Better workbook that includes actionable questions and activities you can do to apply the concepts in the book to your training. If you have the workbook, I recommend reviewing those questions at the end of each chapter. If not, no worries, you don’t need it to make a leap.
Before we get to the Optimal Training Principles, however, let’s review what it means to “make a leap.” It’s not just a catchy phrase. It’s the natural, predictable result of a specific kind of training process.