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Blog: Marathon Lessons for the Corporate World

Novice runners often make the mistake of training hard all the time, assuming that the harder they work, the faster they will become. But competitive runners learned long ago that achieving top results requires disciplined, “periodized” training. The same principle can be applied to business, but many companies and employees still make the same mistake in the office as novice runners do on the road.

The man running near the river
Yagi Studio | Getty Images
The man running near the river

I ran my first marathon at age 13.

I started off fast, steadily slowed and eventually had to walk much of the final ten miles. I finished the race in 5 hours 21 minutes, in last place.

Over the years, I learned how to train better and ran my fastest marathon this year, at age 43, finishing in 2:58.

While working at Intel Corporation over the past fourteen years, I raced in five Ironman triathlons, competed in numerous full and half marathons, ran 46 miles across the Grand Canyon and back in one day, and took a sabbatical to cycle 2,500 miles over 67 days across Japan on connected bicycles with my eight-year old son. As I struggled to train for these physical challenges while meeting my responsibilities as a husband, father and full-time employee at Intel , I began to notice parallels between endurance training – for marathons in particular — and business success.

Competitive marathoners train in phases. It is not possible to deliver peak performances every day of the year. And without adequate recovery, running harder actually reduces an athlete’s performance. Here are the four phases of an effective marathon-training regimen:

  1. A base phase to condition your body to handle sustained running.
  2. A build phase to condition your body to run the marathon distance at a target pace.
  3. A peak phase with high intensity training and a short taper just before the race to ensure that you maximize your performance on race day.
  4. And a recovery phase, typically up to a month long following a marathon.

In addition to training in phases, getting adequate rest is as important as high intensity training. Some people brag that they are too busy to get more than a few hours of sleep per night. But depriving your body of a good night’s sleep is the equivalent of eating junk food every day – nothing to brag about.

If a runner feels lethargic or suspects he is getting a repetitive stress injury, he should skip planned workouts until he feels better. If he tries to “run through it,” he is likely to get an injury or illness that will reduce his performance much more than skipping a few planned workouts would. You may know a runner who is constantly struggling with injuries. Some, like a sprained ankle, are just bad luck. But other injuries are often the result of ignoring the importance of rest and recovery. Too many runners think that nagging injuries just come with the territory when running regularly. They don’t.

Finally, competitive marathoners recognize healthy nutrition as a performance-enhancing tool. Maintaining a healthy weight, eating moderate amounts of actual foods (not what Michael Pollan calls “edible foodlike substances”), taking in fluids and carbohydrates during extended exercise, and consuming protein-rich food shortly after a workout are key elements to maximize performance and recovery time.

How are these principles applicable to business success? Many companies and employees make several “novice runner” mistakes. For example:

1. An employee keeps her mobile electronic device on at all hours, attempting to respond to e-mails and text messages as they come in. At night, she catches up on work on a laptop while in bed next to her spouse. This is like a runner who trains hard all the time. This behavior might be justified if there is an important impending product launch or major presentation (like the marathoner peaking for a big race), but should not be part of a person’s normal daily routine.

2. A company reduces headcount, but leaves the workload unchanged, expecting the remaining employees to cover the extra work. In addition to affecting workplace morale, this shows that the company is not disciplined in prioritizing its employee deliverables. This is analogous to attempting to run though an injury as if nothing is wrong.

3. An employee puts in 100-hour weeks at the office and doesn’t take vacations. In Japan, it is not uncommon for business people to refuse to take the vacation days that are allotted to them, as a demonstration of their commitment to the company’s success. This is the equivalent of expecting peak performance year round. It is likely to result in less efficiency and poorer results.

4. A company emphasizes the number of hours their employees work rather than focusing on quantifiable and meaningful results. This is like a runner who hopes to do well in a race, but focuses simply on running every day instead of developing a phased training plan. Face time in the office should improve an employee’s ability to meet specific deliverables. Sometimes getting away from the office is the most effective way to finish a project. If you need to write a thoughtful analysis, being interrupted every few minutes by the phone, e-mail or a co-worker poking his head over your cubicle, is not likely to produce the best result.

5. Exhausted from never-ending and overwhelming demands at work, an employee uses caffeine to “stay alert” and alcohol to relieve stress. This is like the runner who ignores the importance of nutrition and rest. Rather than coffee and Ritalin, try eight hours of sleep every night, a bowl of fruit for breakfast, and a weekend without e-mail.

Charles Scott is an endurance athlete and family adventurer. He spent 14 years working at Intel Corporation before deciding to focus his energy full-time on writing, speaking and doing endurance challenges with his family linked to environmental causes. At age 13, he ran a marathon with his father. While working at Intel, he competed in five Ironman triathlons, eight marathons and many multi-sport and adventure races. At age 42, Charles ran 46 miles “rim to rim to rim” across the Grand Canyon and back in one day. In the summer of 2009, he and his eight-year old son Sho rode connected bicycles the length of mainland Japan, covering 2,500 miles in 67 days. They were named “Climate Heroes” by the United Nations and received worldwide press coverage, as they raised money for a global tree planting campaign. And in the summer of 2011, he cycled 1,500 miles around Iceland on connected bicycles with his ten-year old son and four-year old daughter, once again sponsored by the UN as "Climate Heroes": www.icelandbikeadventure.com. Charles is writing a book about the Japan ride called Rising Son. If you would like to receive a free excerpt and receive updates on his latest writings, send an e-mail to icelandbikeadventure@gmail.com.

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