Lesson 3: Extracurriculars   

Editor’s Note: Lesson 1 (Consistency = Endurance = Success) and Lesson 2 (run-ning n. (see camaraderie)).

By Patrick Xu

Summer training always exposes a more personal side of running for me. In season, competition is the focus. The next race is always on the horizon, the center of attention until it comes, goes, and is replaced by the race after that. In June and July, the fall seems so far away and running is just about running. I wanted to write this Summer School series to give myself a chance to solidify my understanding of the sport. Hopefully, by the end of this summer I’ll have a better grasp on the lessons running has taught me and in the process help you see what makes this sport so special too. 

Searching something like “How to be a better runner?” or “How to run a faster marathon?” will bring up result after result from YouTubers and bloggers discussing stretching, training methodology, nutrition, etc. Most of this content makes valid points on things someone can do to improve. But while these articles and videos claim to have the keys to improvement, they really only discuss surface level actions, leaving out the key underlying factor that leads to progression: a person’s availability.

I believe strongly that availability is a person’s most valuable trait. This applies both within and outside of running. There always seems to be so much stock placed in a person’s potential to improve or the accolades they’ve acquired as a demonstration of their likelihood to succeed in the future. People like to sit within the theoretical, thinking about what could or should be. But the reality is, none of those possible outcomes will ever come true if that person isn’t available to perform.

This idea comes up a lot in sports when an athlete is injury-prone or seems mentally uncommitted. If a person can’t compete or isn’t engaged they won’t be successful in their role regardless of their natural talent or previously demonstrated prowess.

I’ve learned the hard way to buy into this idea during past summer training blocks. I’ve often sat at either end of the spectrum of commitment. For certain periods, I’ve been completely consumed by the sport, over-training, ignoring my body, and pushing myself to the extreme. In others, I was completely disengaged, running sporadically while allowing my physical and mental strength to diminish. Both circumstances limited my availability, either leaving me too fatigued to contribute at the end of the season or unprepared to perform when my name was called. Worse, they seemed to create a feedback loop, trapping me in a cycle that kept me from being at my best when it mattered most.

It’s from these experiences that I learned the importance of making time for “extracurriculars.” In January, I moved to the Czech Republic for four months. Combined with my time away from school during the summer my travels meant that I would be away from my teammates for eight months. When I first got there I fell back into old habits. Without the structure of teammates and practices I began to shift towards one extreme, grinding through mileage on my own and breaking myself down mentally.

A month in, I was cooked. I contemplated letting myself go and to stop running for a while, but it didn’t feel right. I knew that if I stopped running, I’d get frustrated and eventually ramp up my training again until I burned out. So instead, I decided to make a change. I reduced my mileage and increased the training I was doing outside of running. I allowed myself to take days off when I knew my body needed it and gave other parts of my life a chance to take precedent over my training when it became overwhelming.

Since returning to the U.S., I’ve had my strongest summer training block of my career. I feel fresh, prepared for the season ahead and more motivated than ever to compete. While my training has been more intensive than when I was abroad, I’m still carrying the lesson I learned there. By giving myself the space to participate in extracurriculars, I’m coming into every day as a better, more available athlete.  

Patrick Xu is an intern for VDOT O2. He currently competes for the NYU Cross Country and Track & Field teams and is majoring in Media, Culture, and Communications.