Friday, January 3, 2014

Work and play

I wouldn't be the first person to draw parallels between running and work but my personal experience has lead me to focus on other similarities than the more commonly touted synergies.

A few months ago, Josep Ajram - the self-styled extreme endurance athlete - came to give a talk at my work at the invitation of the head of Human Resources, José Luis Goméz Alciturri, himself a two-times finisher of the fabled Maraton des Sables. Two themes were elaborated upon in particular - firstly, the setting of challenging objectives both in sports and in work and, secondly, the importance of a team spirit. Perhaps having to share a jaima as well as your food and water with other runners is more similar to the tradeoff between personal goals and company goals in the workplace; my experience of endurance sports has been much more of a selfish one. In fact, this is exactly what I like about sporting challenges is that they are to my way of thinking "pure" in that they depend on you and only on you. Similarly, "real life challenges" like those we confront at work are rarely so well defined that it is clear what steps have to be taken, who is responsible for taking them or whether indeed the goal has in fact been achieved or not. The equivalent would be a race in which the finish line could be extended indefinitely (or you could be told at a moment's notice that the race had finished some time ago), not everyone agreed on the direction to run in or even on whether it was permitted to use some other means of transport and, finally, where some were running with other people's race numbers or none at all. Again, what I like about sporting challenges is that there is no room for interpretation: the first person to cross the line is the winner. (This is also why I have little interest in team sports or endurance sports such as the Tour de France in which subjective elements like etiquette and drafting come into play.)

I do, however, see parallels between training the body and training the mind: in sports we are largely concerned with physical performance (although there is, of course, always a mental aspect); work - or at least for office workers like myself - is mostly mental. Work can be very stressful and I consider this to be the equivalent of a tough training session or race, the difference being that I may not have any control over when this happens or to what degree. To the extent to which it can be anticipated (for example, an important and potentially conflictive meeting on the horizon) it can be prepared for in just the same way as a race can be trained for. If it is an unexpected load, then the best approach is to be sure to have a sufficient background training volume to be able to take the strain and avoid "injury": this is the equivalent to endurance and is more comonly called "resiliance". Another consequence is that it important to have rest days - especially the weekends, for example - where you disconnect completely.

As I have said, it is much more difficult to measure how you are doing in most real life work challenges than it is, say, to guage your progress on the treadmill. But there is an element of faith here too: when you are in training you are constantly tired and, as your body is adapting to the stresses you have subjected it to, you are simultaneously increasing the level of stress, so you don't know for sure how you are doing until it comes to race day. Through experience, you can compare yourself to how you were in the same part of the training cycle in previous seasons and base your confidence on this. The takeaway is that planning, having faith in the plan and following the plan step by step is the key, whilst drawing on past experience to make adjustments to the plan if deemed necessary.

For me, these two aspects - stress management and planning - are the greatest cross-over benefits from all my training and competing in endurance sports. The more obvious parallel between becoming fitter and learning isn't so new to me but, as I have got older, avoiding injury and stress as well as having to plan because I no longer have a coach or a teacher have become more important. It's not to say that I don't continue to improve and learn, it's just that it's at a slightly slower pace.

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