What marathon training can teach you about your career

by | Dec 21, 2021

Darcy Luoma is one of America’s most highly credentialed coaches. She’s worked in 48 industries, with more than 500 organizations, and has impacted tens of thousands of leaders and employees.


I collapsed in a heap, panting.

After 26.2 miles, I had finally done it. I finished the 1998 San Diego Rock ‘n Roll Marathon! I felt a mixture of euphoria, exhaustion, pride and pain.

To say that the first marathon I ever ran was challenging is an understatement. Not only did I feel sore during and after the event, but I also had to train for months in order to develop the endurance needed to even stand a chance at completing the race.

I’ve since run six marathons and have no intention of stopping any time soon 🙂 Though as a busy single parent I’m more inclined to do 5k and 10k races or sprint triathlons at this life stage.

But rewinding to the moment I decided to start marathon training for the very first time, I remember the sense of incompetence and hopelessness I felt. I had frequent sabotaging thoughts like “Pff, you’re not a marathon runner” and “There’s no way you’ll be able to run 26.2 miles.” I had to be able to overcome those thoughts just to be able to enter the race, let alone finish it.

The same was true when I started my coaching and consulting business in 2013. I had come from a political background, so self-critical thoughts like “Who do you think you are to run a company and employ other people? You don’t even have an MBA.” were commonplace.

Over the years I’ve spent coaching executives, I’ve noticed that the process of dealing with sabotaging thoughts in business is very similar to how I overcame the physical and mental challenges needed to run a marathon.

I’ll give you four concrete examples to show you what I mean. Let’s take them in the order you’d need to successfully train for and complete a marathon—in life and business.


1. Find your training partners

As a runner, there will be days when you want to hit that snooze button, skip this morning’s marathon training, and stay in bed. Take it from me: no-one is immune to this.

You can reduce your chance of succumbing to temptation by finding running partners to train with, so  you’ll keep each other accountable. Or, to take things to the next level, you might consider seeking out a running coach.

Business is the same. If your mission is on your shoulders alone, you’ll fail and eventually give up. But if you create a network of like-minded accountability partners, peers, coaches and mentors, you’ll increase your odds of success significantly.

I’m particularly fortunate in this regard to have a team of coaches at DLCC who I can always bounce ideas off and learn from. We have a collaborative and mutually supportive culture here, and we’re always learning from one another and pushing each other to grow.

2. Map out your route

Before running a marathon, it’s wise to look at the terrain ahead of time. That way, you’ll know which parts of the race have the steepest incline, which sections have the best running surface, and where you can get your drink breaks.

Psychologically, it’s also helpful to know roughly where you’ll see your friends and family cheering for you, so you’ll have something to look forward to when the going gets tough (which it will).

The same is true in business. If you don’t know where you’re aiming at, you won’t get anywhere. So make a vision board and tweak it as your understanding of your mission deepens over time.

Since going from 0 to 100 is just as overwhelming in business as it is in running, you’ll also need to establish checkpoints and milestones along your journey to keep engaged. These might be financial — I remember my first 6-figure year in business and then my first 6-figure month, for example. But they could also be as simple as “release new version of website” or “incorporate LLC.”

From a neurobiological point of view, hitting your checkpoints will give you the dopamine hits needed to sustain your motivation during challenging times.

3. Take it step-by-step

A common credo among runners is that you should stay in the moment and just focus on putting one foot in front of the other. If you allow your mind to wander too much, and especially if you think too much about the fact that there are still 16 miles to go, you’ll drain your mental reserves.

In business, I’ve seen numerous executives obsess over hitting 5-year goals in five months. While such levels of ambition are admirable, they’re also a recipe for burnout and frustration.

A better approach is to focus on what you can control on a daily basis. Go ahead: keep that ambitious 5-year goal, but break it down into steps that you can do every month, every week, and even every day.

Trust me: if you know that what you’re doing day in, day out is contributing to your overall mission, your daily motivation levels will be much higher.

4. Endure through the pain

For even the most experienced of marathon runners, there comes a time in every race when your legs cramp up and you start to feel pain (enter lactic acid).

At this point, it’s human nature for your motivation to tank. Self-sabotaging thoughts will start to arise, such as:

  • “I need to stop.”
  • “I can’t do this anymore.”
  • “Why did I enter this marathon in the first place?”

If you take a moment to create some awareness around these thoughts, you’ll find you can reframe them to something more affirming.

So “I need to stop” becomes “I need some Gatorade so I have the strength to continue.” “I can’t do this anymore” becomes “This is hard, but I trained for it and know I can keep going.” And “Why did I enter this marathon in the first place” becomes “This was a great way to keep me accountable to my goal of being healthy.”

In business, it’s also likely you’ll hit obstacles and your resolve will be tested. Perhaps your customer doesn’t pay on time, your supplier sues you on spurious grounds, or your government launches a well-intentioned new regulation that makes your life harder.

None of these situations are easy, and it’s human nature to feel frustrated, exhausted and even angry. It’s also human nature to have thoughts of quitting or of “I’m not good enough” (thanks for nothing, Little Miss Perfect Pants!).

What matters is how you approach your inner dialog about these challenges, and how you frame them. Know that in every problem resides the seeds of opportunity and growth.

Core workoutOne-minute-workout

So the next time you need to endure through a business challenge, try the following core workout:

  1. Pause: Whether it’s overwhelm, anxiety or frustration, take a moment to feel whatever you’re feeling right now. Close your eyes if it helps you to be mindful and present.
  2. Think: If this were a marathon, how would you approach this problem? Can you lean on accountability partners or work towards a milestone? Can you break the issue down into smaller steps to work on daily, or reframe the challenge as an opportunity for growth?
  3. Act: Choose one of the solutions you thought of to make the challenge easier, and execute on it.

An important part of marathon training is also taking time to rest and recover. So as we enter the holiday break and transition to the new year, may you find time to unplug and relax. Happy holidays!

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