9 Lessons From Running That Result in Better Balance as a Working Mom

life is a marathon not a sprint - for working moms

Life’s a marathon not a sprint.

I say this all the time. All. The. Time. And as an actual long-distance runner, I could downright wear out this metaphor. Warning—I’m about to wear out the metaphor. Before you get too scared off or get concerned that I’m going to convince you exercise more, hear me out.

I want to be clear about something, I wasn’t exactly an athletically-focused child/teenager. That’s my politically correct way of saying a was a clumsy, awkward nerd (yes, that’s actually a photo of me - handed over slightly reluctantly). I’ve met some folks who seem like they came out of the womb running and that was not me. In fact, I started when I was almost 30 years old, and at that time I had no intention of “being a runner”. I often joked that the only time you’d see me run is if I was being chased by a tiger (a rare occurrence in my neck of the woods) or if I was running late and trying to catch the bus (an unfortunately not-so-rare occurrence).

working mom can see life as a marathon not a sprint

I mainly started running after my husband challenged me to consider that maybe I wasn’t a very disciplined person. I tend to focus on what I’m good at and strive to be the best at it, but if something didn’t come naturally, I’d dismiss it. He was joining a run club to train for a 5k and encouraged me to try it to. Almost out of spite, I joined the “learn to run” group. It was strategic. I figured I would sputter through the 10 weeks, realize I hated running and never have to hear from my husband that I should “try running” again.

Something unexpected happened a few weeks in. I liked it. I started to look forward to it. I got better at it. Before I knew it, I was in a 10k training program, and within a year of starting running, I was training for a half marathon. Let me reiterate, this is not a post trying to convince you to start running. It’s not for everyone. For me though, the physical act of running was a small aspect of it. It is just as much (if not more) a mental, emotional, spiritual exercise as it is a physical one. It changed my life, because it caused me to look at the world (and how I approach it) from a new perspective. 

Here are the lessons that stand out most for me:

1) Step out of your comfort zone

The idea of running was intimidating to me. When stripped to the basics, it’s an incredibly simple activity, however I very clearly remember that first training session I went to and feeling very nervous. Maybe I could just write a research paper about the benefits of physical exercise instead for the benefit of the more athletically-inclined?

But (as much as I hate to admit it), my husband was right. I wasn’t disciplined. I was hard working, competitive, and achieving, but not disciplined. And as far as I could see it the only way to increase my discipline was to try something that didn’t come naturally to me. Enter running.

The best things in my life have all come from stepping out of my comfort zone, most notably—motherhood, and my career.

2) How are you going to Set your Expectations?

Running is one of the few activities in my life that I stepped into with “beyond low” expectations. The goal was to survive. OK, that’s a bit dramatic, but the goal was to show up as scheduled, put one foot in front of the other and get to the end of our route. This was reinforced in my brain when one of my fellow “learn to run” cohorts, took a nasty fall and sprained her ankle 10 minutes into our first outing.

I had no illusions that I was destined to become an elite athlete. I wasn’t even sure that I could jog for a consecutive 5 minutes without stopping. And guess what? When I got to a point where I could jog for 5 minutes without stopping, it felt incredible. It wasn’t easy at all for me, so how I measured success reflected that. That kept me coming back week after week, because I was able to appreciate the small gains.

This has seeped into other aspects of my life. I have made efforts to lower my expectations which combats my perfectionist tendencies that often keep me from starting at all. It doesn’t have to be perfect, finishing something is an accomplishment. By lowering my self-expectations, I often get further ahead than if I assumed massive success.

3) Goal setting

Whether it was in my first few weeks of running or deep into training for a half-marathon, running was about big picture goals (i.e. getting a personal best time at a distance or finishing a race) and micro goals (ie: get to that stop sign, get to the next walk break). It was the combination of both of these goals that contributed to my motivation. If I was only thinking about the big goals (complete a half marathon in less than 2 hours 15 minutes, for example), I may have gotten halted by feeling overwhelmed or that it was out of reach. If I only had the micro goals my overall sense of purpose for running would be compromised. Having both is what got me to where I wanted to go.

improve your work-life balance by thinking of life as a marathon not a sprint

This plays out in almost every aspect of my life. For example, in getting my house organized, having the bigger picture vision of a well-functioning de-cluttered space is important, but that alone isn’t enough. The micro-goals of organizing one box of stuff, one corner of a room or a closet have helped me move my living space toward that vision. This translates into career, financial or health goals as well. A combination of having stretch goals/vision of a future outcome adds and important level of excitement and having short-term focused goals to reduce discouragement along the way can really result in long-term success.

4) Prepare

I will spare you most of the details of what I have learned about the mechanics of running (If it’s something you are interested in, I recommend The Running Room and Runners World as resources). I will say that I was introduced to whole new world of lingo, merchandise, and resources that beyond what I ever realized. As I increased my mileage, I carefully considered what I was wearing head to toe, tied my shoes with precision, had a water bottle belt with water and electrolytes, created the “perfect” run mix on my mp3 player and even had a fancy running watch that would chime to alert me of walk breaks, record my pace, distance, etc. Preparation was important. It could be the difference between endurance and injury.

I suspect it is not a tough sell to convince you of the value of planning ahead, but working moms have so much on their plates, it is easy to feel like you’re always behind. This is why preparation is extra important for us. Keep it simple. For me, sometimes laying out my clothes for the next day the night before (as well as clothes for my kids) can be the difference between being on time for work the next day or not.

5) Let go

OK. This may feel a bit contradictory to point #3, but it is point #3 that sets the stage for point #4. This has been huge for me. After doing all of the preparation I mentioned above, at some point it was time to let go and just move.

I admit, this is one of the biggest surprises and gains about running for me. I get in tune with a different side of myself. A side that wasn’t trying to control everything. I wasn’t thinking 20 steps ahead. I wasn’t overwhelmed by my own thinking. I was putting one foot in foot of the other and seeing where it took me.

This doesn’t mean that running is always easy, in fact the whole concept of long-distance running for me was very meditative. It’s about moving through the uncomfortable and not letting it control you. Sometimes I lose steam for no apparent reason. Sometimes the weather is disagreeable. Sometimes my rhythm just feels off. And I let it go and keep moving forward.

This is probably the lesson I’m having the most trouble translating into my life. When I took my mental health leave from work, I felt compelled to have my “ducks in a row”. I wanted to control whatever I could and letting go of that control was very challenging. I can recall that when my leave was extended, it took everything in me to not show up to work, call all of my clients personally and explain that I was going to be away longer. It’s this very compulsion that led me to the place of burnout to begin with. I had to sit in the uncomfortable place of letting go of control and staying in the moment. It continues to be a process. Life’s a marathon, not a sprint.

6) “Pace yourself”

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    This is probably the most literal lesson I’ve gotten from running. It gave me a new understanding of the word pace. When I was training for a half-marathon (21.1 kilometers or 13.1 miles), I needed to conserve some energy for the end of the race. If I went full speed from the start, I would likely not be able to complete, become ill or get an injury. In each of the half-marathons I ran in I wore a pace bracelet. It gave me a set goal for what time to be at for each kilometer.

    In my training group, on Sundays we would run what was called the long slow distance, added a little more each week. We were told to go at a pace that we could comfortably talk to another person. It often felt too slow, but I listened. It wasn’t until race day that I truly understood how these long slow distances were preparing me and teaching my body about pace and endurance. And it paid off. I was able to follow my pace bracelet and push myself at the end of the race to reach (exceed) my goal time and not become ill or injured in the process.

    In other areas of my life I have a tendency to go “all in” and then crash. This is the opposite of pacing. I’ll be writing a post soon about how this often causes me to have trouble finishing what I start. I keep saying yes, until I’m forced to say no (ex: leave from work). I get overwhelmed, and end up spinning my wheels. Yes, I’m mixing metaphors here. If you prefer the auto metaphor, be sure to check out my overdrive post [LINK]. We often say out loud what we most need to here (see first few sentences of this post). Pacing doesn’t just apply to running.

    7) Preserve Energy

    This goes along with pacing, but I feel deserved a point  to really drive it home. It is really easy to start off too fast in a race. The music is blaring, your excited/nervous, you’re surrounded by the energy of other people ready to go. The day you have been preparing for is here. And, it’s a sure fire way to crash and burn later in the run.

    Whether it’s a practice run or race day I take a walk one minute walk break every ten minutes. This helps me preserve my energy, fuel up (water/electrolytes) and access where I’m at. As an experiment I have tried to skip walk breaks in training sessions and compared my times to when I walked. I actually finished in less time when I took the walk breaks.

    While I learned this lesson from running, nothing taught me more about the importance of preserving energy than motherhood. I can recall people suggesting when my firstborn was an infant “nap when he naps”. That was the equivalent of my walk breaks in a race.

    Similarly, in a work environment, increasingly studies have dismissed the value of multi-tasking, and have promoted the importance of focusing on a single task and taking breaks away from your work.

    8) The importance of rest

    celebrate your accomplishments and celebrate the journey

    Each week I was doing more millage than I had ever done before and each week after the long run as I soaked in an Epsom salt bath, I was convinced that there was no way I could go any further. And the next week would come and I would go further.

    What I did after my run was just as important as what I did before and during my run. Taking time to rest, paying attention to how I would restore the nutrition I lost from the run, and of course stretching were key to being able to get out and run again and again.

    Even at my peak long-distance running, I was running a maximum of three days per week, and only one of those would be for a distance longer than five kilometers at a time. Cross-training with yoga/swimming, etc. Were helpful, but what was most helpful was consistently good sleep. 

    Additionally, I learned about a pre-race taper. A practice of actually reducing overall mileage in the few weeks leading up to a race. It seemed counter-intuitive to me—you want me to run less before a race? However, studies have shown the physical and mental/emotional benefits of the taper in race performance. I don’t like to argue with science.

    I am not going to provide you with multitude of life examples to stress the importance of rest for working moms. I am simply going to say: Sleep. Eat. Have fun. Sit down. Breathe. Take care of YOU.

    9) Celebrate (even the small) accomplishments

    In running there was always a lot to celebrate, whether it was going a distance I had never accomplished before, beating a best time, or beating my husband in a half marathon (which as a side note, I have done three times—How’s that for discipline, sweetheart?). Some of the most memorable celebratory moments were when I finished a particularly challenging run, and I still kept going.

    We have a whole post about celebrating successes, and the barriers to doing so as well as tips for how to do it, so I won’t get too redundant here. But I will say, in running, it wasn’t just about celebrating the end of the race. It was each run along the way, and often, on those tough runs, celebrating a walk break, getting to that stop sign, or simply celebrating the decision to run at all.

    I encourage you to look for areas in your life where you might already be using some of the lessons that I got from running and let us know how it’s going!

    Keep up the good work!