Other runners can be a great source of motivation and support. Oh yeah, and stress, frustration, jealousy, worry and a whole, long litany of the less-noble emotions.
If you're prone to runner's envy, don't be embarrassed: you're in good company. Runners are, by nature, very competitive people. We challenge ourselves to rise before dawn and run 8 miles, complete grueling speedwork routines, and persevere over rock-strewn trails in the pouring rain. It's the spirit of competition that drives us.
Of course, we turn our competitive streaks outward, too. Races wouldn't exist if we were only satisfied with challenging ourselves. No; we're programmed to compete with other runners.
Competition has its benefits. Perhaps most importantly, it inspires us to re-evaluate what we consider our "best." It gives us the external push to go longer, go faster, break past our barriers. If it weren't for competition, we'd run the risk of becoming complacent, a trait that rarely begets improvement, in running or in life.
So when does competition begin to be a problem? It's a problem when you constantly compare yourself to other runners. If you can no longer take satisfaction in your runs or your performance or are worried that you're not as good as those around you, then competition has reached its point of diminishing returns.
How do you quiet the relentless voice that tells you that you're not good, fast enough, or that you don't have what it takes to measure up to those "better" runners? Here are some tips to remember:
Every runner is different. We're not all meant to be running sub 6-minute miles, or else we'd all be Olympians. Embracing your limitations is not accepting defeat; rather, it's a sign that you're attuned to your body and what it can accomplish.
Improvement is relative. Every runner can improve his or her performance. Your improvement, however, may be very different from someone else's. Set ambitious, but reachable, goals. Perhaps you've never run more than 7 miles, and would like to to double this number. Develop a plan that is customized to your needs and ability. When would you like to reach this goal? How will you achieve it? Formulating a clear-cut plan will help you meet your objectives.
No runner is truly thrilled with his or her performance. At least not 100 percent of the time, anyway. Even the most decorated runners feel inferior sometimes. Competitive people will always challenge themselves, and will thus always have moments where they're unsatisfied with what they've accomplished.
Watch and learn. Pay attention to how other runners' run. How is their form? Pace? Stride? Watching other runners can provide you with helpful visual aids for improving your running.
Or, don't watch at all. If watching other runners puts you in a panic, or distracts you too much from your own run, shut them out. Run with headphones, or on less-traveled routes. If you're out on a casual run, remember that it doesn't matter if another runner is faster than you, or looks like a seasoned pro. You're a runner, too. Own this title.
Jersey City Running Examiner Lauren Leatherman is a writer and runner living in Jersey City, New Jersey.