Career advice: running
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6 career lessons I learned on the run

11 May 2017

They say regular exercise is good for the mind and body, but did you know that it’s good for the career, too? Hays’ Brendan O’Donovan sees a lot of overlaps between running and his job.

Running really only enters the public consciousness during the first few weeks of January, or when the Olympics or the London Marathon is featured in the news. However, for me – slogging through dark, cold and foggy British winters, or through slightly less cold British summers – it’s a year-round thing. I returned to running a few years ago and, like so many others, found that it’s a real addiction once you get those early, wheezing, walk-run miles out of the way.

Running is a great hobby in itself, but it’s also a great complement to a busy career, reducing stress, keeping the mind sharp and – for those who travel for business – offering a great way to fit in some high-speed sightseeing alongside full working days.

As I’ve spent more time running, and reflecting on running, more subtle lessons for work and career have also become apparent.

The right type of goals

Although sometimes it can be great to simply run as and when I feel like it, there’s no doubt that signing up for a race provides an important focus, giving purpose to an individual training run and a narrative arc to whole months of them.

In just the same way, it’s important to set yourself clear career goals if you want to deliver your best performance. Knowing what achievements you’ll want to look back on with satisfaction in a month’s or year’s time, and seizing those opportunities when they arise, will help to motivate you.

Two important details about goals, though.

Firstly: each year, 30pc of entrants for the London Marathon fail to make it to the starting line, reminding us that our goals need to be realistic as well as stretching.

Secondly: when I enter too many races in a year, the importance of each becomes less, and I’ve even found myself skipping one race in favour of another a fortnight later. In the same way, setting too many disparate career goals will weaken them all.

The importance of variety

One of the great 20th-century innovations in training for competitive distance runners was a move away from focusing on amassing mileage solely through long runs at a steady pace. In the words of Sebastian Coe, “I’ve always felt that long, slow distance produces long, slow runners”. Modern runners over all distances will include speedwork such as fartlek, hills and intervals alongside more steady running.

Variety is just as important for work and careers.

On the micro-level, it is important to know when to push through a longer, less exciting task, and when it might be better to switch to something different for a time before returning to the original task, re-energised.

On a broader level, a variety of experience is critical for professional development, so never be afraid to get involved in new activities in your current role or to look for a new opportunity if you find you’re doing the same thing over and over.

The value and distraction of data

Although, at a basic level, running might look simple – right foot, left foot, repeat – most keen runners track a huge range of numbers for their training and races: distances, pace per mile, lap splits, height climbed, and more.

I’ve followed suit, going from just running to using a mobile phone to record routes, to wearing a GPS watch and paying attention to my pace from one mile to the next. That data let me know I was getting faster, but it made me faster too, showing me which days I should take it easy, where my strengths and weaknesses were, and what I needed to focus on in training.

Hungry for more, I looked beyond the GPS watch to more esoteric sources of data: DNA profiling to test my aerobic potential, and sensors that clipped to my laces and tracked the precise movement of my feet as they hit the ground. Surely, I reasoned, if some data had helped so much, more data would help even more?

Those pods and reports are now gathering dust in a drawer. While data is the fuel of good training, as well as good business decisions, what matters is having the most important data and using it well, rather than trying to know everything!

Transparency and visibility

Although pursuing even more running data might have delivered diminishing returns, one thing that did have a beneficial impact was when I started to share that data online with friends and neighbours. Strava is a global community for runners and cyclists, where people can log their training, compete for fastest times over ‘segments’, and provide feedback and support to each other.

The knowledge that other people will have visibility of my running is often the difference on a dark and drizzly morning between hitting snooze and lacing up my trainers.

In the same way, a sense of visibility to others of your targets and performance at work also encourages us all to perform better. A good manager will help by taking an interest in your goals and the work you do, but the most effective transparency comes from a two-way conversation. Never be afraid to proactively share a project or aspect of your role that your manager might have less visibility of, or to ask them about their own plans and targets.

Pacing yourself properly

As a dedicated mid-pack runner – pleased enough on the days I finish with more people behind me than ahead – the optimal pacing strategy is simple: hold my pace as steady as possible over the 10km, 26.2 miles, or whatever other distance I’m running.

In my work and career, though, I aspire to something more than a middle-of-the-road performance, as I imagine most of you do. The lesson here comes not from my own experience of running, but from watching champions competing in the Olympics or world marathon majors.

For these races, the winning strategy is rarely to run at a steady pace from gun to tape. Instead, the contenders must play a strategic game, knowing when to keep pace with the leading pack and when to break, sprinting ahead to build a defensive gap for the final straight or trying to exhaust a rival.

In the same way, pacing is important at work. It is better to distinguish between the times you should deliver a good performance and those times you must deliver an exceptional performance, rather than trying to deliver an exceptional performance all the time.

This can lead to burnout. But, even if you were physically capable of endless 70-hour-plus weeks, you would end up using energy that should have been saved for critical or transformational projects on less important ones.

How to tell the difference depends a lot on context, but the answer is often found by asking: ‘What’s the purpose of doing this, and what’s the potential impact of doing it brilliantly?’

Competition versus community

In dictionary definitions, competition and cooperation are opposites. In running and racing, the two are surprisingly blurred.

A spectator might think, seeing serious-faced runners lined up at the start line and empty podium places at the end, that the racers will see each other purely as rivals, but the truth is more complex. For most runners, the greatest competition is with themselves and their expectations. Will they finish? Will they run the time they’re capable of? A personal best, even?

In this light, the people you find around you in a race – running at your pace, suffering through the same challenge, blocking a headwind or sharing a joke – quickly become friends and allies in the competition to run as well as each of you can. It doesn’t necessarily stop you trying your best to outsprint them over the final 200 metres of a race but, at the finish, the faster will turn, smile and congratulate the slower.

It’s not just at the amateur end of the sport that we see this fusion of competition and collaboration either. There are dozens of examples in elite sport, from Alistair Brownlee helping his brother Jonny over the line in the heat of Mexico last year, to double Olympic champion Abebe Bikila’s encouragement of his friend and countryman, Mamo Wolde, to take over as he dropped out injured from the 1968 Olympic marathon.

This is the essence of friendly competition that we should aspire to at work. Try to outsell or out-deliver your peers, but in the spirit of lifting everyone’s game. And know how to come together afterwards in celebrating the resulting success of your business or organisation.

I hope that most of you already know this feeling from your work and career, but if you want to experience it in its purest form, I have no better recommendation than to get those trainers out of the wardrobe and put your name down for a race.

By Brendan O’Donovan

Brendan O’Donovan is the group data marketing director at Hays, responsible for setting strategy and developing capabilities to allow marketing teams across Hays’ countries of operation to gain more value from data. O’Donovan has a degree in engineering and a PhD in engineering design from Cambridge University.

A version of this article originally appeared on Hays’ Viewpoint blog.

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