Mar. 14, 2006 The Law of Dimishing Returns Leave a CommentIt's a hard lesson to learn, particularly in athletics, but more is not always better. There comes a point in nearly every endeavor when investing additional time, effort or money no longer yields a better product, or outcome, or performance. In some cases, the potential gain just doesn't seem worth the added effort. In other cases, there are limits to the effort, be they internally or externally imposed. The tricky part is identifying the point where "just a little more" is actually "too much." Unfortunately, with most sports and running in particular, that point is usually obvious only in retrospect and often from the vantage point of burnout, injury or illness. That's when it becomes obvious that the additional 20-miler, or the fifth consecutive 100+ mile week, or that last eight mile fartlek, wasn't such a great idea.
by Laurel Park
Many of these limits are learned only through experience, and what works for one runner doesn't necessarily work for others. I've known people who have raced extremely well on as little as 35 miles/week, while others wouldn't consider themselves "race ready" until they'd logged several 100 mile weeks. I learned long ago that my body just wasn't strong enough to handle high mileage. Even when racing half-marathons, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I exceeded 60 miles in a week. But, ultimately, even that proved to be too much. As my husband's college coach used to say, better to be slightly under-trained and in the race than in awesome shape and on the sidelines.
This "law of diminishing returns" applies not only to physical preparation, but also emotional and psychological investment. The bottom line in any activity should be fun, and even though that fun might not be apparent every day, in the final analysis, if you don't get some enjoyment from what you're doing, there's no point in doing it. Even the most dedicated athlete goes through periods of "burn-out", but when the burn-out persists and the activity becomes a burden rather than a benefit, maybe it's time to take a step back or try something different. Sometimes the mind and the body just need a break, particularly after several years of intense training or at the end of a long competitive season. In 1999, I ran the Broad Street 10 Mile, a race I had wanted to do for several years. I was in good shape and ended up doing very well, placing second and winning enough cash to cover my travel expenses. Yet I remember feeling flat and "detached" through the whole race. I went through the motions, but my brain was a million miles away. While I was pleased with how I had run, when I crossed the finish line I didn't have the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that I usually felt after good races - I was just glad it was over. I realized that I just didn't want to race anymore; the tank was empty and it was time to back off. After a few months of taking it easy and running purely for fun, the motivation for racing returned.
The concept of "diminishing returns" is also important in terms of priorities, and where running (or any other endeavor) fits into peoples' lives. Sacrifices that are perfectly acceptable to some people may seem completely unacceptable to others. I've known several runners who've happily forgone financial security in pursuit of their athletic goals - circumstances that I would never even consider. But for them, the trade-off was worth it. Yet one of my college teammates, a superbly talented middle-distance runner with the potential to become world-class, spent one post-graduate year on the "professional circuit" before retiring from competition. She wasn't injured, and she had a shoe contract so money wasn't an issue, but she just didn't want to compete anymore. For her, the prospect of making it to the Olympics wasn't worth the effort and sacrifices required to get there - she had other things that she wanted to do in her life. That may sound crazy to the scores of post-collegiate runners who are living three to a bedroom and subsisting on generic macaroni and cheese, but it made sense to her. On the same note, the "starving athlete" lifestyle might be acceptable for a few years, but most of the runners I've known got pretty tired of it after a while. Eventually, the idea of a 40-hour work week wasn't so repulsive, particularly if it included a steady salary, health insurance, and paid vacations.
"Too soon old; too late smart." For most of us, that's more than just a cliché. Experience is often the best teacher. Hopefully, the experience comes without regret. What's done is done and nothing will change that, but the wise runner puts the experience to good use and doesn't make the same mistake twice. Identifying one's limits can be hard, but is usually one of the more valuable lessons we learn.
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