You’re Improving While You’re Resting, Not While You’re Running

When I started to run, about 10 years ago, I plunged right into it. Heads on, daily runs, complete involvement. I set up a very tight routine, basically running every day, and didn’t skip a run. For a while, maybe a couple a months, this worked out, somehow. I was there, increasing slowly the distance, going from 1km, to 3km and then 5km. But then something annoying started to happen.

I started to get mild injuries. Either one of my ankles was getting a little stiff, or one of my hamstrings was pulled, or my calves were arguing. They were not full injuries, I wasn’t debilitated and I was still out running (or waking, crawling or whatever I was able to do in that state).

Again, for a while, I just took these small injuries as part of the process. No pain, no gain, you know? I somehow accepted them and tried to push forward. Until I realized I was making little, if any, progress. I wasn’t becoming faster, more resilient, or for what matter, not even fitter: I almost didn’t lose any weight whatsoever, after 4-5 months.

At this point, I started to read about running. Because when I started it, I took it somehow for granted: it’s just running, right? How difficult could it be to get better at it? Just do it over and over and over, and, eventually, you’ll get better at it. Theoretically, this was true. In practice, well, it turned out that I ignored something very important, something that could have save me probably half a year of training, and prevent a lot of micro-injuries.

Improvement Is Created After The Challenge

It’s a process called “super-compensation”. It’s how you actually get better at running and it’s counterintuitive. Because super-compensation happens when you’re resting, not when you’re running.

In a very simplified form, here’s how it’s working: during running, you’re applying stress to your body, to your muscles. You’re literally tearing down muscular fibre. Once you’re done with it, the built-in body recovering processes kick in, and the broken fiber gets replaced. In this process, somehow, the body replaces more fiber (or different kinds of fiber, according to the type of effort you exerted) because now “it knows” there might be some peak in the near future. It’s like an insurance: ok, we’ve been through some intense activity, and, by the looks of it, we may be doing this again, so we’d better get prepared.

That’s super-compensation and that’s how you actually get better.

To get back to my running routine, I started to run every other day, instead of every day. It was frustrating in the beginning, because during the rest days I was feeling like I was doing nothing, I was afraid that I’m stagnating, or even getting worse. But, to my surprise, after just a few weeks in this new routine, I got rid of those mild injuries completely. Because the body had at least a little bit of time to recover after each run, I didn’t have to run on broken gear, so to speak. Even more, I finally started to see some progress. I got a bit faster and I could easily run further, 5km, 8km, 10km, and more.

In less than a year I finished my first marathon, then a few ultra-marathons, the longest one being more 200km. And, 10 years after, I still run ultra-marathons. But that’s another topic.

The main takeaway from this story is that you need some time for integration, for regrouping, for healing, before you actually get better. Each challenge that you’re facing – and overcoming – comes with a cost. You tear down some “muscle” in it. So each time after that, you should take a step back and allow your persona to do a little bit of super-compensation.

You moved out to another country? Great, now take a few weeks without any plans whatsoever, just enjoy the process an try learning from it.

You finally finished a book? Great, now take a step back and never think about writing a book for a few months.

You’re finally in a healthy relationship? Great, just don’t rush it. Don’t try to make it “even better” right off the bat, give it some time to soak in, to pervade both of you and to do whatever work it has to do for both.

Because you’re not improving during the storm. During the storm you’re barely surviving. You’re improving after it.

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