What Long Distance Running Taught me about Entrepreneurship

Most people who run competitively will tell you that they hate it. It’s grueling, painful, and gross (I’ll spare you the details). It consumes your social life and all of your spare time. So why would I recommend it?

As I was looking back on the few short years I ran races, I noticed that there’s a lot I had learned that’s made me a better startup founder.

Here are the major themes I realized:

1. It’s a mental game, not a physical game

Whether you’re on your 5th venture or on your 1st, you will always be the underdog. But in the end, that’s OK. It’s not about your resume, your startup success rate, or real life experience.

Your startup will succeed because you make it succeed.

In running, you might have identical training two years in a row, but in your 2nd year you might be a lot faster, simply because you started to believe you should be faster. The difference between the winner and the loser is self-efficacy. Every time.

2. Your competition is your ally

How did Facebook surpass Myspace as the most used social network in 2008? Well, partly because Zuckerburg didn’t reinvent the wheel. He just made it better.

If someone’s business model works or if their go-to-market strategy was successful, learn from them. Your competitor is simply mapping out the trail ahead of you, so that in the end you can add your secret sauce and come out ahead.

We do this in racing all the time. It’s called “sitting on” the opponent — basically you run a foot behind someone else until the last stretch when you bolt ahead. It works because you learn to match their pace, and use less energy running against the wind.

Which brings me to the next point.

3. Don’t waste your energy

There’s a difference between working hard and working smart. This was a huge point Tim Ferris made in The Four Hour Work Week: don’t work for work’s sake.

Productivity isn’t about being busy; it’s about getting things done. You don’t have to work weekends and nights if you can squeeze the same amount of work into your regular M-F schedule.

When you learn to run competitively, you’re taught to stay relaxed: loosen your fists; take short strides; breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth; never grimace or show pain in your face.

Why? Because NOT doing these things expends extra energy. And energy wasted means a race lost.

4. Rest, done right, is productive

I’ve always admired the founders that grind out 80 hour work weeks, but I fail to believe that it’s necessary. In fact, my most productive days come after times of rest (which I’m horrible at taking).

But not all rest is created equal. Things that I find to be the most helpful (and relaxing) are driving, listening to podcasts, exercise, and above all else times with friends and family.

It’s the same for athletes too. Productive rest for the runner looks like, stretching, ice baths, swimming, and even slow-paced long-runs on the off days. Yoga, too.

5. It’s a sprint AND an endurance test

The best founders are in it for the long haul. It doesn’t matter if you plan to IPO in 5 years and exit, or if you want to run the business your whole life — if you want to be successful, you have to have long-term vision.

But at the same time, you have to work really hard, probably earlier in the morning and later at night than your friends. Daily. It’s no wonder why burn-outs and whip-lash are common realities for entrepreneurs.

In long distance running, most people assume it’s purely about endurance, stamina. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

You physically sprint at the beginning and end of the race, up every hill, and whenever you pass an opponent. A successful runner knows that the only way to win is to both cruise and fly.

You’d be surprised by how much value running can have for you. I know that I was, once I sat down and thought about it.

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