Coronavirus, Running, and How I Learned to Let Competitiveness Go

Like so many others dealing with the current pandemic, I’ve been trying to find ways to stay healthy and active. I normally get most of my physical activity through team sports. I love being able to compete alongside others; it makes exercise easy and enjoyable and helps me relieve stress.

Unfortunately, with most of America under stay-at-home guidance and practicing social distancing, team sports aren’t an option. That leaves individual sports and activities, a group of things that I’ve never been able to get excited about. This is especially true about running — what should be the easiest and most accessible form of exercise has always seemed like a daunting task.

Running feels like a competition I can never win. I usually run with Strava booted up so I can track how quickly I’m going. There’s nothing as discouraging as going for a run several times a week (for many weeks in a row) and not seeing any improvement. I noticed this trend even when I pushed myself. I would do longer and shorter runs, some faster and some slower, but no matter how hard I pushed my body, I could never get much faster.

For many years, this led me to conclude one thing about myself: I don’t like running.

Getting Running All Wrong

Enter the coronavirus pandemic. Since I’m living in a space without much room for home workouts, I wasn’t left with many other options. If I wanted to stay in shape and exercise, I was going to have to run.

So, a few weeks ago, I did what I hadn’t done for a long time. I charted a course on Strava for two miles (thinking that was a distance I could tackle) and went out. I started at an easier pace but quickly tried to pick up speed. About a mile in, I was heaving and already sore. After a mile and a half, I stopped. I walked the rest of the way home and again felt confirmation that running wasn’t for me.

Later that week, I was on the phone with a friend when I mentioned being envious of the way she actually enjoyed running. She responded that running for her wasn’t about improving her time or a constant struggle to be better. It was an excuse to be outside, enjoy the day, and get some exercise. She ran because it made her feel better, and she intentionally ran at a pace that made running feel comfortable, even at longer distances. Running was a time to decompress and appreciate her surroundings.

At first, I was skeptical. What was the point of running if you weren’t trying to get better at it? Was it even worth going for a run if you weren’t going to measure how fast you went?

That’s when I realized that I was looking at running all wrong.

What Running Really Could Be About

Obviously, there are people for whom running is inherently competitive. They find joy in competing, even if that competition is only against themselves.

I am not one of those people. I knew that, but I was still treating running like something I had to get better at. I was letting the competitive spirit that I feel during team sports — which I love — keep running from being relaxing and restorative.

Maybe I could find running enjoyable, I realized. Maybe if I left my phone at home and didn’t check Strava along the way, if I didn’t keep track of my time, and if I intentionally didn’t push my body to its limits, I could enjoy the run. I could focus on what was around me and just be glad that I got to be outside.

That’s what I’ve been doing for a few weeks now. And as much as a younger me would hate to admit it, I like this kind of running. It may never be an activity that I can truly say I love, but it’s something that I now look forward to — and that alone is a huge change from how I used to feel.

Competition… All the Time?

As I was thinking about running and my competitive spirit, I came to a realization. Being competitive is absolutely not a negative thing, but I was letting my competitiveness take root and spoil other areas of my life. I saw this primarily in two ways: how I spend my free time and how I view my career.

Coronavirus Free Time

For the first few weeks of stay-at-home, I’d been beating myself up about not being more productive with the extra free time I had. More free time should mean more progress on personal goals, side projects, or some other tangible thing, right?

But when I looked back, I saw myself going in and out of routines, struggling to find a sense of comfort, and generally spending most of my time hanging out with housemates and playing a lot of Animal Crossing. I was angry with myself. How could I waste so much of the extra time I’d been given?

This was entirely the wrong mindset. Time used learning to appreciate the things we do have access to is well spent. And even if I hadn’t been able to learn that, I still wouldn’t have been wasting time.

As we’ve all been adapting to our current circumstances, sometimes the best thing we can do is just get by. If you’ve been able to learn new skills or spend time working on a hobby lately, that’s fantastic. But if the last few weeks have felt mostly like coping, that’s okay.

Our life does not need to be a constant competition against both others and our past selves to see how much we can grow and do. Time spent being around people we love and taking care of ourselves is also time well spent.

My Career

I also realized that I was seeing my career as a competition — against others and against my own expectations.

I’m not saying that competition should be totally absent from the idea of a career. Much of business depends on competition, and many people’s work success is measured by how they compare to others.

But we shouldn’t define our career by competition. I don’t need to beat myself up for not getting a certain role or responsibility as quickly as someone else did. And I shouldn’t feel like I’ve failed if I do a job differently than someone else does.

I’d been thinking about this idea last year when I wrote about learning to use my strengths at work. I realize now that a lot of what I wrote was really about trying to overcome my own competitiveness. Learning to use my strengths meant trying to form my role at work around the things I was best at, rather than trying to make it look exactly like how someone else performed it.

Viewing work this way — as a path with many potential outcomes — inherently meant viewing it less competitively. When work is a way for everyone to contribute their own strengths and talents, you create the kind of atmosphere that leads to great teams and happy people.

Final Thoughts

Learning to enjoy running hasn’t been a life-changing experience for me, but it helped me learn to appreciate things I’d been missing.

It helped me find value in time spent with others that I otherwise might not have. And it helped me appreciate the teammates and coworkers I get to work with, and how Atomic fosters an environment of collaboration and growth instead of competition.

I hope you’ll find value and joy in some of the small things you’ve been missing as well.