Many look at running as a purely physical endeavour, but developing the desire to learn can make you a better athlete too. 

At its most basic level, the sport of running involves taking one foot and placing it ahead of the other. Repeat as necessary until the finish line. Change tempo accordingly. Yet it is so much more.

Developing the want to learn about your sport is key. Even if the want is hard to come by, understanding the need to learn might be enough. 

From the physiological principles underpinning the development of an athlete, the psychological skills that can lower perception or the fuelling to keep the engine roaring not to, but through, the finish line, there are always lessons to be learnt. 

As a coach, there is a responsibility to inspire this want to learn within your athletes. Especially as a coach of ultra distance athletes as the factors affecting performance go so far beyond the physiological. 

It might seem simple to just tell an athlete what they should do. When and what they should eat, how they should dress in cold weather or when to go fast and when to go easy. 

If an athlete has a willingness to learn about their sport then they can make sense of a whole lot more. As a runner, you might need to develop that want or need yourself. 

Information into knowledge

You can tell an 800m when to react or how to tactically run within a group too. That information may be taken on board and they will remember it verbatim, but can they make sense of it? Can they take that information and turn it into knowledge? 

Knowledge will allow an athlete to apply what they know to the situation in front of them, information might only apply to a single context. 

The longer the race, the greater the range of scenarios that might happen. I was talking with a good friend about how he decided he would kick with 500m to go in an 800m race recently.

Andy Kett knew he was the fifth or sixth fastest in the race so conventional wisdom wouldn’t see him the winner. Chucking the cat amongst the pigeons caught the other athletes off guard. 

They probably knew what to do when someone kicks from 400, 300, 200, 150m, but did they just have the information or had they made sense of it all? Could they apply it to the new context? Andy finished second that day, so maybe one person did. Or he was just way faster. 

How can this help me?

There is always more to learn. Whatever distance you run there is more information out there on how to better yourself. If you run the marathon or longer then that counts even more. 

Instead of just diving straight onto Google or finding some fine Fast Running training article to increase that knowledge, think about fostering that desire to learn. If you want to learn then you’re on the right path, but if you don’t see the point, then find the need. 

Do you need to run faster, do you need to avoid injuries or avoid bonking at mile 20? Find the need and it might develop into wanting to learn too. 

In this day and age, there aren’t many secrets. There’s probably too much information out there. Finding out what is important to your progression is a task unto itself and a grand place to start is always with peers and coaches. Sit down (or run) and talk about what they think is important to learn. 

Back to school

You might be lucky. At the moment you’re faster than everyone around and learning isn’t high on the agenda. More likely you’re getting on a bit (I mean you’re reading an article about learning) and need to rely on more than brute force to get faster.

Even those young, fast and carefree need to learn. Even if you are Jakob Ingebritsen, who cruised to the top of Europe at 17 years old, and Kipruto Rhonex, who ran 26:46 to win the Prague 10k at only 18. The chances of just naturally having what it takes to beat these guys in the next 10 years are slim.

As an ultra runner, I appreciate I have some natural talent. I’m not always sure what this is, be it a genetic trait of stubbornness or the right size ears for 24hr racing, but I know there’s something there. 

But relying on my ears alone will never be enough as there are far more naturally talented runners out there. But I’m happy to admit that and they don’t scare me. If I were a 5k or 800m runner then I’d likely be terrified, but I’m playing the long game.

In the marathon and the world of ultras, other factors come into play. Skills can be developed through practice, research, learning, trial and error, and just plain luck. 

Hitting the books is how I can progress. It’s how you can progress too. So rather than simply relying on trying harder at the track every Tuesday, work smarter. Develop that want or need to know more. Pick up a book and chase that PB.

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