It’s been a long time since I trained for a full marathon (the half is plenty of running for me), but the lessons I learned all those years ago have stayed with me. The marathon is everyone’s favorite analogy for a long haul, and with good reason. It’s easily recognizable, clearly communicates distance, and evokes images of endurance and perseverance. Which is why – at the risk of overusing the trope – I think it’s an excellent way to think about your career.
Let’s face it, most of us will be in the workforce for at least 40 years, likely more. That’s a long time. You want to get to the finish line (aka retirement) with enough energy to get celebratory mimosas with all your buds, right? The key to a successful training cycle and marathon (or career) lies in three areas:
- Adequate preparation
- Sufficient rest
- Substantial fuel
Adequate preparation is the work. The time on your feet, in the trenches, chipping away at the tasks at hand. As you go through the years of your career, you’ll get better at what you do. You can do more in less time. You are capable of things you weren’t capable of when you began. What once seemed insurmountable is now something you can do with ease. It isn’t a quick process, but the progress is undeniable.
It’s important to mix things up from time to time as well. When training, you don’t just do long run after long run. You do short, easy runs. You do speedwork and run hills. Sometimes you run on trails, sand, pavement. You gradually increase the distance of your long runs. The same goes for your career. In order to stretch, you must take on different projects and roles. Some days you are on fire and can knock off miles/projects like it’s nothing. Other days, everything is a slog and it feels like your walking through mud. The goal isn’t to run down your full energy every day, but rather to build strength over time and modulate the time and intensity you put in so that you can make it through the long haul.
Sufficient rest is CRITICAL and often ignored (by both runners and workaholics). If you don’t take breaks, daily in the form of a good night’s sleep and throughout the year in the form of vacations or time off, you will burn out. Rest is absolutely necessary for both the human brain and body. There’s no way around it. Sometimes you may even need to take a step back, whether it’s from injury, circumstance, or loss of motivation.
Finally, you’ve got to fuel that engine. In the marathon, this means eating lots of nutritious foods throughout your days, and easy-to-digest sources of calories while you’re on the course. If you’ve ever tried to finish a marathon without taking in some calories along the way, you’ll know it isn’t pretty. In the same way, we need to fuel our careers with “food:” professional development, mentorship, learning new skills. You need to build tasks and projects into your life and work that are fulfilling and “feed” your mind and spirit. (You also, literally, have to eat to survive for 40 years, but we don’t have to talk about that.)
It’s important to remember that neither training for a marathon, nor navigating a career is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Many people will take time off from their careers to be caregivers at some point. Some will switch from one race to another that has more favorable weather conditions or a course that seems more interesting. Whatever race you’re running, make sure you’re paying attention to all three areas of a successful cycle.