Risk and Performance Rewards [An Excerpt from Make the Leap]

One of the topics I find myself referencing frequently as I write articles or talk to runners is the concept of risk. Great performers are willing risk-takers. But they aren't reckless about it. They are calculating, bold, prepared.

I've decided to publish this excerpt of Make the Leap to have an online reference available. This is the middle section of Chapter 10 on how to think better about mistakes. One of my Optimal Training principles is "making mistakes is an effective way to learn and improve."

The chapter outlines the difference between mistakes of commission and omission, the four types of mistakes we all make, and how risk can lead to both mistakes but also breakthroughs. Here's the portion on risk.


Risk and Performance Rewards

Striving mistakes are a risk every athlete must accept. Doing something you’ve never done involves risk. But that’s ok. Risk is tied to reward.

The above chart visualizes the relationship between Risk and Performance. Risk is divided into three sections: Conservative, Bold, and Reckless. Performance has two thresholds: Good Enough and Breakthrough. 

The solid line shows the potential reward for the amount of risk you take on. 

Risk versus performance diagram showing conservative, bold, reckless outcomes

The Risk Line and Performance

Good Enough signifies any performance that won’t get you criticized after the fact. You cruise because you have no competition. You are training through. You went for it and struggled at the end but hung on well enough. Whether or not you are happy is more a function of your expectations than the outcome.

Breakthrough means everything went as well as you could have hoped. You did something special. You approached your potential for that day. We often think of this as norm-referenced success (faster times, a better place) but it doesn’t have to be. My breakthrough race showed me how much discomfort I could put myself through.

“Striving” is about taking on risk and pursuing a breakthrough. In the short term, that means a personal best or a great finish. In the medium term this means making a leap. 

Our ability to make a leap is tied to our ability to manage risk.

How Much Risk is Too Much?

Conservative: Being conservative does not mean “going out slow.” It means trying to eliminate the downside over pursuing the upside.

In the long term, conservative runners don’t increase their mileage, avoid races against superior competition, and set only “realistic” goals. In the short-term, they run at a “manageable” pace, don’t chase the leaders, and aim to ensure a Good Enough race.

They tend toward making mistakes of omission, because they are avoiding the risk that comes with bold action.

The biggest problem: conservative runners never learn anything about themselves. They execute comfortable race plans to achieve Good Enough results. But why?

If you are too conservative, it’s for one of these reasons:

  • You have a fear of failure
  • You have a fear of pain
  • Your goal doesn’t feel realistic in the moment

If you have a fear of failure, change the goal. In fact, stop focusing on the final place or time altogether. Judge the performance on how well you execute the plan. Free yourself from the tyranny of norm-referenced expectation!

If you have a fear of pain, well, you may have chosen the wrong sport… More seriously, be confident that increasing your risk isn’t the same as being reckless. You won’t crash and burn. Your natural conservative tendencies will ensure that doesn’t happen.

Lastly we all set (or agree to) goals we don’t truly believe we can accomplish. We have to be mentally ready to do what we set out for. How many elite athletes ask for a fast rabbit but then don’t follow them from the gun? What seems bold before the race can seem reckless on the starting line. If you find yourself making last-minute decisions to be more conservative, you need to set better goals.

How to tell if you’re too Conservative:

  • You expect the worst in your races
  • You won’t take a chance even when a race isn’t going well
  • All of your races can be described using the words “decent,” “ok,” “solid,” and “not that bad”
  • Your training log shows the same training year after year after year
  • You know you can accomplish all of your goals


Reckless: Switching to the other side of our risk spectrum, we find the Reckless runners. In the long-term, Reckless runners over-train, set unrealistic goals (and often only unrealistic goals), and train by emotion rather than reason. In the short-term, they enter races with no strategy, run at the front no matter who is in the race, and approach the day’s race with an “all or nothing” mentality.

Whereas Conservative runners overthink their races, Reckless runners rarely think at all. As soon as the gun goes off, they get swept up in the moment. They tend toward mistakes of commission, doing or trying too much.

When they rein that emotion in, they can produce excellent results. When they can’t, they get passed by everyone in the field. Perhaps most frustrating is their typical response when you call them on it: “You don’t understand, I felt so good out there. It wasn’t until the end that I felt terrible.” Duh.

When it comes to racing, however, Reckless runners have an advantage over Conservative runners. Reckless runners put themselves in position for a breakthrough performance every time. (They typically believe every time will be that time.) Most of their performances will be far better or far worse than those of Conservative runners, with a few being Breakthroughs and many being complete disasters.

How to tell if you’re too Reckless:

  • You lead every race, but blow up in many of them
  • You never know if today’s the day for a PR or DNF (but you accept these as likely outcomes)
  • You rarely win but always get your picture in the newspaper because of your blazing fast starts
  • Your teammates wager on which lap you will fall apart
  • You don’t stick to your training schedule because you often “feel good”


Bold: It can be hard to see the difference between Bold and Reckless, especially for those of us stuck in a Conservative frame of mind. But there is a difference. 

Reckless is emotional. Bold is rational. You can plan to be Bold. You can acknowledge that a Bold race is what it will take to achieve your goal and you can prepare accordingly. You can imagine scenarios and create contingency plans for them.

Will everything go as planned? No. But if it goes badly, you will still run Good Enough. That will be baked into the plan.

If you’ve prepared and you believe you can do it, then you will put yourself in position to have a breakthrough. And that is all you can do. If it doesn’t happen, you chalk one up to experience and try to learn from it for the next race.

How do you know you’re a Bold runner:

  • You often run personal or seasonal bests, and rarely have terrible races
  • You are willing and prepared to make a decisive move mid-race
  • You know exactly where you want to be in a race and have a plan for getting there
  • You are considered an aggressive runner who is always in control
  • You seek to increase your mileage and intensity over time
  • You have borderline unrealistic goals, but you have a clear plan to achieve them
  • You refuse to settle for “Good Enough”


Strategies: I was too conservative when I was racing competitively. I sacrificed the potential for a great race in order to avoid a terrible race.

Many of my teammates were too reckless. They went for the great race and often finished terribly. Perhaps if we’d considered the relationship between risk and reward better we would have been able to change some of our tendencies.

Here are a few ideas that may help you overcome your tendency to be either too conservative or too reckless, to find that Bold middle ground.

  • After you set your race goal, commit to making it 4/5 of the race at your goal pace or in your goal position. Even on a bad day, you should be able to make it 4/5 of the way.
  • Practice different behavior when it doesn’t matter. Small invitationals are a great place for conservative athletes to be a little reckless, and reckless athletes to be a little conservative. Since nothing crucial hinges on the results, use the opportunity to try something new.
  • Then again, when everything is on the line, there is a lot of opportunity for someone willing to take a risk. The more important the result, the more conservative people get. Underdogs create upsets by realizing they have nothing to lose and taking a bold risk.
  • Anticipate and accept the possibility of failure. Risk and failure also go hand in hand. Evaluate your performance on your effort and execution, not just the final time or place.
  • Don’t equate how you feel in practice today with how you will feel in a future race. (Rarely a problem for Reckless runners!)
  • Consult with your coach and develop a racing strategy you believe in. Utilize your strengths (i.e. thoughtfulness for Conservative runners, aggressiveness for Reckless runners) but make sure they don’t dictate your strategy.
  • Talk to teammates who have figured it out. Ask them how they approach their races.

One more thing to keep in mind: being conservative to avoid mistakes is often the riskiest thing you can do.