I had to put Ali Abdaal’s YouTube video, “Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results” on hold because it evoked such powerful images of a truth that we can all confirm in our exercise and sports training. Ali is a doctor in Cambridge, England.
What is it that drives us forward on the path to progress as athletes and as people?
I remember a 90-minute run many years ago in San Francisco. I parked at the Marina Green and jogged across the Golden Gate Bridge, then ducked under the bridge and ascended a trail that led up a steep hillside via a series of switchbacks with tremendous views out over the Bay.
I came back to the bridge on a paved road with swooping, gently curving views of the bridge, the ocean, and the City.
Back on the bridge, I started a 20-minute tempo run at 85% of my maximum heart rate.
A runner approached from behind and joined me. He was about my age — I was maybe 60. I told him I was running at a certain heart rate and that I wouldn’t be able to keep him company if he wanted to go faster or slower. That was okay with him — except that he seemed to feel compelled to stay one step ahead of me all the way. If I sped up, he would look alarmed and put on a burst to be sure he stayed 2-3 feet ahead.
As we ran, he talked of his goals — of how unhappy he was that he wasn’t running at least 60 miles a week because it was the mileage that allowed him to run his best marathon time, and how he couldn’t feel happy until he’d improved his PR.
Later I thought what a shame it was that he wasn’t able to enjoy his training because his attention was so focused on the future.
I recalled marathon legend Bill Rogers, who trained year-round on a three-mile loop around a lake with a pleasant shaded path around it — because, as he said, he felt that his training was more productive when he ran in places where he enjoyed it.
After 50 years of exercising, I have no doubt that fitness and enjoyment go hand in hand.
Back to the video I mentioned at the start. It’s based on a book, Atomic Habits, by James Clear. Ali Abdaal believes we should “screw goals” and focus on processes instead. It’s a message that has deep resonance with an essential principle for having a happy life.
Like Shawn Achor, author of a now-famous book, The Happiness Advantage, James Clear and Ali Abdaal have identified the flaw in the widespread idea that we’ll be happy “when…” When we run a sub-3:00 marathon. When we’re making $100K per year. When we’ve got the house, the car, the job, the mate, the kids, the dog, good health, and the envy of our neighbors.
As I reported in Joyful Athlete, Achor found that the Harvard students who got the best grades on average were not the ones who buried themselves in the library stacks, intent on grinding out a good GPA; they were the ones who were already happy, who were socially well-adjusted, curious, and enthusiastic about their studies. They were the ones who enjoyed every day, who formed study groups and dove into their courses because they enjoyed the experience of learning.
Same for sports. Same for life. We get the best results when we have an expansive, enthusiastic attitude in the present moment.
Anything that produces health, love, strength, wisdom and joy on this day, right now, will yield the best long-term results in our training. Happiness is the quintessential catalyst; goals are just goals.