How the right environment makes all the difference

In March, I ran a 10k training run (a little more than 6 miles) in just under 50 minutes. That’s slightly faster than a pace of 8:00 minutes per mile.

March 10k Training Run Time

That was almost six months ago.

Then I stopped running more than 5 miles at a time and started training for shorter distances (like a mile) and just trying to get through the miserable Florida summer.

The first signs of Fall have arrived, which means race season is coming up and I need to start training for longer distances if I want to run a half marathon this year.

So I decided to try a 10k training run this weekend to see how it felt. I ran the same route as I did in March, but this time was significantly faster: It only took me about 48:30, which is a pace of 7:44 per mile.

October 10k Training Run Time

Ninety seconds is a pretty big improvement considering I hadn’t run that far in six months. That’s a big improvement over my previous personal best, and it felt great to run such a good time. 

Can you guess what I did differently to run so much faster this time?

Think about it for a second, then scroll down to see the answer.

Spoiler below!

Are you ready?

The answer is: Nothing.

I’m pretty sure the difference was the temperature.

When I ran that 10k in March, it was 79 degrees outside. When I ran on Saturday, it was only 72 degrees.

There are lots of studies showing that race times improve as temperatures drop (to an extent, of course).

So it feels good to run a personal best, but most of the improvement was just the lower temperature. My job was to train hard enough that I could finally take advantage of the improved running conditions once the weather cooled off.

Sometimes, the conditions just aren’t right to get the result you want. But as long as you keep preparing and putting in the work, you can make sure you’re ready to capitalize once the conditions are right.

Here are some other examples that come to mind:

  • Starting a business
  • Getting a raise
  • Running for office (a different kind of running, har har)
  • Inventing something
  • Planting plants

For all of those and lots of other things, timing is often the crucial ingredient that dictates success or failure.

Learning a skill, practicing, looking for ways to improve, waiting for the right moment to capitalize is often the key to success. And a big reason to keep working is that it’s not just doing the thing, but being prepared to do the thing when the conditions are right that makes all the difference.

I ran all summer in hot, humid weather, just waiting for it to cool off. I called those runs “maintenance runs”, and my goal was usually to run at an 8:00-per-mile pace regardless of the distance.

Maintenance runs were not fun and it often took a few hours to fully recover from them. But I knew they were helping me build strength and endurance that I could use later on when the conditions were right.

Sure enough, the weather cooled off and I smashed another personal best. That gives me confidence going into race season, where I’ll be able to capitalize on favorable running conditions after all those months of training in the Florida heat.

Before you write something off as a failure, consider whether the conditions are right for success. If they’re not quite right, keep working so you’re ready to capitalize next time there’s a good opportunity.

The breakthrough that helped me smash the six-minute barrier

Earlier this week, I ran a mile in under six minutes for the first time. It felt really good for a couple of reasons.

First, it’s nice to achieve a challenging goal and it felt good to cross it off my list and see some results from all the hard work I’ve been putting in.

Second, I had already tried and failed to run a six-minute mile twice—both of my previous attempts were about 6:11—and that was really frustrating. I had been so close yet I felt so far away and it really stings to be totally exhausted without much to show for it. But not this time! This time I got it done.

What’s even better is that I had a significant breakthrough with this particular goal, but it’s difficult to describe without some context.

My one-mile run in almost-real-time

Before this attempt, I made a lap-by-lap plan so I knew exactly what I needed to do. It’s one thing to know I have to do four laps in 360 seconds. It’s another to know exactly what I needed to do on each lap to make that happen.

Here’s a summary of how I felt throughout the run—I took this down as a note on my iPhone once I managed to catch my breath and stave off some leg cramps:

First lap—1:27 I wanted to start fast because I knew that I could go much faster than the 90-second pace that I required. I added about 10m to that first lap to make sure I ran a full mile, so I wanted to be sure that I got around with time to spare on my 90-second-per-lap limit. That would give me some cushion if I slowed down later.

Second lap—1:28 I already felt tired, but I knew that would happen and had already prepared myself to just keep pushing and try and maintain the same pace through the second lap.

Third lap—1:32 This is when the mental fatigue really hit me. By this point in my run, my brain was repeatedly shouting STOP THIS RIGHT NOW!

I told myself that I was going to finish running a mile either way and if I just kept going at this pace it would be over quicker.

For the final 100 meters of the third lap, I basically had to get myself to focus on a six-minute pace again knowing I had been gradually slowing down and that I had probably used up most of the cushion from the first lap.

Fourth lap—1:26 I actually felt pretty good going in because I knew it was almost over. I’d also kept some energy in reserve, which I think was a result of my recent training to keep my legs working when I’m tired.

I started picking it up with about 300m left and began kicking with about 200m left. I went pretty much all-out for the final 100 meters although I never got into a full-on sprint.

My six-minute mile time with 400m splits

Even though I had been monitoring my time after each lap, I was really surprised to see a final time of about 5:54. That’s a significant improvement over my previous times. I actually had a little left to give at the end and the overall run went about as well as I could’ve hoped.

Before I say any more, take a minute to look back at that recap and see if you notice a theme.

My big breakthrough

Do you see it? There’s almost nothing about the physical difficulty of running a mile. The entire recap was almost entirely about my mental state throughout the run.

I started fast because I knew I had to. I got tired, but I knew that would happen so I just kept pushing. I told myself I would finish the mile regardless of how long it took, so I might as well just get it over with. I felt great and had some left in the tank, but I may have left some time on the table because I relaxed a little when I realized I had hit my goal.

It was all mental.

The last two times I tried to run a sub-six-minute mile, I lost too much time on the middle two laps. Those two laps are really tough because the initial adrenaline rush has worn off, yet there’s still a long way to go.

I expected to lose time in the middle due to physical fatigue, but I had also lost time due to mental fatigue because I wasn’t totally prepared.

I suspect I’ve been physically ready to hit this goal for over a year now. I just had to try it a couple times to see my own weaknesses and find a way to work around the mental fatigue that slowed me down.

And now, of course, I’m wondering if I can get that time down to 5:45. We’ll see.