Sisyphus and the myth of linear progression

I named this blog “Sisyphus AC” as an expression of my frustration at the up-and-down nature of my training and running performance. You see, the way I see it, we train to get better, faster, leaner, until we reach some optimum state (based on each person’s inherent ability and genetic make-up) and then try to maintain our fitness at that level (or not too far from it) and then manage the inevitable slowing that comes with ageing. Granted, there is periodisation in training, rest periods, etc, but the overall trend should be upwards.

It doesn’t quite happen like that in my world however, and that drove me mad.

Since I started running regularly, seven years ago, there always seem to be times when “things” keep happening that keep me away from regular training for varying periods of time, and in doing so interfere with the journey of constant improvement which is my goal! This has been a cause of much frustration and disappointment for me, as I have felt that it meant that I would never be as good as I otherwise might: just as I was flirting with a 5k PB in May, or again in November last year for example, I would have a month or more when for whatever reason I did not dedicate the time I needed to my training (and these could be happy reasons, we are not only talking about illnesses or injuries here), and felt the consequences when I got going again! Down Sisyphus’ proverbial rock tumbled, and back I was at the bottom of the hill, slower, fatter, less fit and trying to cover the lost ground instead of setting a new PB and then going after that.

Now, more reasonable readers of this blog have already diagnosed the problem: it is called “life”, and it afflicts almost every non-professional athlete (and quite a few of the pros, I am sure). I too am awakening to that realisation. I don’t necessarily like it, I wish I could be on an ever-improving trajectory (in running as in everything else in life), but I am beginning to appreciate that that’s not quite the way things work.

And, you know, it could be an age-thing, but I have begun to find some comfort in that: If our fitness improved constantly until it peaked, then it follows that after we reached our physical peak… well, it would be one long downhill! How sobering a thought is that?

(The same, of course, holds true for all areas where we have come to expect a linear progression: careers, relationships, health, fortunes…)

I think it has helped that in the last year my approach to training changed subtly: I have matured as a runner from a “person-who-runs-to-train-for-a-race” to simply a “person-who-runs”. I still follow time-bound plans with specific training objectives and I still like to race, but these are almost incidental to my enjoyment of running, rather than the things that get me to go out for a run. Don’t get me wrong, I have not lost my motivation (anything but), the need to be fitter, leaner, faster, or the thirst for long-term improvement: I just know that this will come with ups and downs. And runners know all about ups and downs!

I suppose it’s easy to be more sanguine about ups and downs when you are on an up: last month I unexpectedly bettered my 4-year-old 10k PB on the same course it was set, and I have just started a new, exciting job. But it’s usually from an up that we can best observe our journey to date, and give it context, not when we are in the depths of disappointment or frustration.

To return to the Sisyphean allegory then, my Sisyphus is no longer a man condemned to forever roll a huge rock up and down the same hill: Instead he is taking his chosen load on a long run along an undulating, pleasantly challenging path!

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