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Short Term vs. Long Term Goals in Ultrarunning  - By Andrei Nana

July 2014

Short Term vs. Long Term Goals in Ultrarunning

By Andrei Nana

This article will discuss the short term and long term goals in ultrarunning. Like in many other situations, ultrarunning parallels life and a similar approach in both cases seems to lead to the best results. Several theories argue that people who have patience in life and are able to delay instant gratification have a much higher probability of success.

A classic example could be that of a student who pushes through many years of school to become a doctor, compared with a student who drops out from high school to pursue a career with a rock music band. While there is no right or wrong decision and in each situation, the chosen path can lead to both success and failure, the likely conclusion is that the doctor will have a more successful life than the rock musician. We can debate to no end what success means; however a common sense approach will dictate that more “average” doctors live a better life than “average” rock musicians. From a probability stand point one could argue that the chances of living an accomplished life as a doctor are higher than doing the same as a rock musician.

In the “cookie experiment” conducted in 1970 by Walter Mischel the idea of delayed gratification is tested and its correlations with life choices/long term implications. In the article The Power of Delayed Gratification[1], Alex Lickerman discusses how children who employed delayed gratification scored 210 points higher on SAT tests, making the case that impulse control is a very valuable tool. Furthermore, he explains that children employed delayed gratification by distracting themselves, i.e., instead of thinking of the cookie, they sang songs, played with toys, or looked somewhere else.

A second study[2], where the cookies were replaced by marshmallows, shows that children who were asked to focus on something unrelated to marshmallows, a different pleasure - in this case crunchiness and saltiness of pretzels, were able to delay gratification much longer than any other groups, leading to the conclusion that impulse control can be determined by our actions and thoughts.

Ultrarunning is a sport where athletes push their limits more and more and to be able to do so, it requires patience and time. While ultra-marathons are defined as races longer than 26.2miles, no serious athlete will consider 50k races as ultimate goals of ultrarunning. In fact, the majority of serious ultra athletes do not consider races under 100k or 62m as true ultra marathons. That only underscores the belief that in ultrarunning an athlete should always seek and push for more. So the question arises of how one should separate short term goals from long term goals and where should be the focus.

Based on the cookie and marshmallows experiments we can argue that long term goals will be more beneficial to follow than short term ones. To be more specific, short term goals would be finishing the first 50k, 50m, 12 hrs, 100k, 24hrs, 100m races depending on the level of fitness. Another short term goal would be increasing speed and in some cases placing on completions such as previously described. Long term goals would be being able to run injury free, to finish races as described previously in any and all conditions (especially on bad days), to move on to multi day races, and or 100(+)m races.

Looking at the ultrarunning groups formed on social media sites, we can recognize that the vast majority of “ultrarunners” have only short term goals. They seem to care more about winning a race than getting better, stronger, being capable to run more. They sacrifice long term goals for “facebook accolades.” This unfortunately creates a momentum where other runners with less experience will follow that model. It this the best approach? The answer based on the approach of delayed gratification seems to be NO, and it shows in race results.

Very few, if any athletes are able to win all races at all levels. Even fewer stay in the sport for more than just a few years, as it appears they “burn out” and move on to something else. Nevertheless, some of the athletes who have been around for decades seem to have been able to find that balance by delaying gratification. Looking at their “career paths” these athletes finish their races (DNF very little or at all) in the middle or back of the pack, they increased their distances with time, and they focused very little on speed.

Gratification can be the desire to sit down during a race/to quit/DNF - in a word to find comfort, or to win a race. Both of these attitudes seem to be counterproductive to long term goals and they can be avoided by controlling the mind and the goals. If the goal is to get stronger or run longer distances, the desire to win will decrease. Same is true if the goal is to finish a race no matter what vs, giving in to the “need” to reach comfort. By replacing a short term goal with a long term goal, the ability to run longer will increase.

What the cookie and marshmallow experiments show is very consistent with the successful approach in ultrarunning, that instant gratification is a success deterrent, that long term success can only be accomplished through long term hard work while delaying gratification.

[1] The Power of Delayed Gratification, by Alex Likerman; published in the Psychology Today, July 2012

[2] Cognitive appraisals and transformations in delay behavior by Walter Mischel and Nancy Baker; published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 31(2), Feb 1975