A focus on PBs


This morning’s visit to Lyme Park parkrun is actually my first run of 2019. During the NYE Bowstones race my heels were still playing up which bothered me. I also had a busy workload on New Year’s Day, so whilst many runners were taking advantage of an extra double-parkrun day I couldn’t take the time out to participate. Anyway, I managed a course-PB today. But given it’s only the second time I’ve run this particular parkrun the chances were that I’d do it better than the last time I tried.

Goals goals goals

At the start of any year, you can normally find a theme weaving through the social-media of runners. It’s all about targets for the year, races to complete, PBs to shatter. And certainly skimming through the Twitterverse over the last couple of days, 2019 is no exception.

It did get me thinking about a point I discussed before during the #REDBED Challenge. It’s something systemic in modern life, the whole world of goal-setting. And whilst it is important and definitely has a place, I do wonder if it’s tackled the right way. Let me explain.

Having a focus on where one is trying to get to, be it in running, work, or anything other part of your life is really important. Without an aim, we’d probably shuffle through life without much purpose and there’s a risk that actually, nothing would get done.

My concern, especially in running circles, is where that ‘aim’ becomes an obsession.

PB-chasing. The beginning

Regularly I read comments about people wanting to beat their PBs at different events. A chance to improve oneself definitely has a positive vibe. So surely this can’t be a bad thing, right?

When you start out running events, improvements often come at a regular rate. Which isn’t a great surprise if it’s the first time you’ve done say a 10km race. Even the second or third time you’ll possibly be getting quicker. This is simply a function of you getting fitter and better at it; you’ll no doubt make some decisions early on which, not long afterwards turn out to not be the right ones. So you’ll tweak your approach and it’ll be better next time. Then you might try a different distance race and you’ll go through the same process, finding out what works and what doesn’t. For you, as many of these things are very individual.

But over time these improvements become more marginal. You’re already in a decent shape and your routine is honed. And this is where I think people can lose their focus.

A Personal Best, PB is just that. Once you’ve moved on from the getting-quicker-because-you-know-what-you’re-doing improvements, actually your PB is a good time for you. It was probably set on a quick course when the weather was right and you were feeling good. Your PB occurred where the planets and stars aligned and you banged out a great race.

What this means is that this PB is going to be tough for you to beat. Not only do you need to get all the planets aligning again, but things have to be even better still.

When it all gets a bit obsessive

So why am I saying this is a problem?

What seems to happen is that people get so obsessed with beating that time, that actually nothing else features. A well run race that doesn’t garner a PB is disregarded as a failure. Not because it was a bad race, because it wasn’t. No, it’s deemed a failure because that time displayed at the finish wasn’t better than a time written on your whiteboard at home.

iAre you obsessing about your goals?

Are you obsessing about your goals?

Worse, it can mean that a runner will only do events that maximise their chance to have a go at toppling that PB time. Because nothing else matters. Beautiful location? Great race organiser? Not noticed!

The result could be that the PB isn’t matched and the runner gets disillusioned. Or injured. Or probably both. None of which meets that lofty goal or aspiration we started out with.

Recognise what you can control (and what you can’t)

From my own experience, most of the PBs I’ve smashed have come out of races where I was more absorbed in the race rather than my min/mile splits on my watch.

3 years ago, I was running the Anglesey Half Marathon and things were feeling quite good. I’d previously set my 92 minute PB in 2012 and had been dreaming of going sub-90 minutes ever since.

At the outset there was nothing amazing going on but the race seemed to be going quite well. My one concern was  the first few mile splits were quick; seriously faster than I’d normally take a HM. But I felt good and in the end stopped looking at my watch and just ran. Because I felt good and was in the moment and enjoying it. It was only as I reached the mile 12 marker, when I looked at my watch and I realised that the sub-90 was on. The last mile was a blur; literally in some ways as it was one of the fastest splits and I set a PB over 6 minutes quicker than my previous best.

I’ve not come close to since!

Is that a problem? Not at all.

Because on the day, everything came together. I was relaxed, running well, the weather was kind and my fitness was there.

But the flip-side is that to beat it, all of that has to happen again, plus I’ve got to be quicker!

Rather than worrying about it, instead I draw what I can from the situation. In order to go after that time what I want to try to do is to create the opportunities for as many of these factors to occur as I can. So I can work on my fitness and on my diet. I can try to find ways to relax so I’m in the right frame of mind. But I don’t have control over everything. What if the weather is dire? What if I’m not 100% on the day for whatever reason? I can’t do anything about these things, they are what they are. So the best I can do is get myself to a start line I want to be on, in the best shape and state of mind I can manage. And then go out and enjoy the race and the moment. If my race time is a PB then fabulous, but I certainly won’t be writing off a race simply on the time alone.

A tale of two 10km races

I’ve only once run a PB which I ‘forced’.

The fact it was a PB wasn’t a huge surprise because I rarely race at the 10km distance. My previous 10km was over 3 years earlier and when I was a lot less fit.The PB I had set in 2013 was 41:04.

However, I wanted to beat the 40 minutes barrier and that became the focus. The entire focus. I picked a flat and straight race which was uninteresting purely to maximise my chances at sub-40. It’s a course I had previous said I’d never run because it didn’t appeal to me. On the day I even ran with a pacer (first time for everything)! And whilst I managed to duck inside 40 minutes, I felt completely flat. The whole euphoria was lost on the fact that I’d hated every second of the course, I’d been tense worrying about if I could stick with the pacer. What should have been an amazing moment was horrible and empty.

5 months later, I did another 10km on a windy country lane course, having spent way too much time with my running group taking selfies at the start-line. 39 minutes and 8 seconds later I’d smashed the dreary summer PB out of the park despite thinking I wasn’t in the best of shape. I’d not even considered I might run sub-40, let alone a PB. This was a much sweeter experience!

So in summary…..

Dream – dream big. Have some crazy goals in your life. Have those as an overall target, because that’ll give you the direction to aim at. But don’t get lost in the hard cold numbers. Have good races. And less-good races. Get out there, race, enjoy and learn what works for you. Try different courses, different terrains. Try something because you can. Go somewhere new. Do it because you want to do it. All these factors build up a more rounded runner which will increase the opportunity for those planets to align when you least expect it. And that’s when the magic happens.


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