A faulty treadmill taught me a lesson on self-belief.

March 18, 2017

It’s the most boring of stories, and yet one I’d like to keep with me for a good, long while. Being an avid runner and a statistics freak, I’m constantly aiming to improve the speeds and distances at which I usually do my runs.

That means that every once in a while, I step onto the most boring of devices known to man: the treadmill. However boring, it’s a very good way to analyse your performance, as most variables from street running turn into controlled constants: there’s no wind, no traffic lights, nothing than really interferes with your previous times.

Some days ago, I got very disappointed during one of these runs; not even halfway into it and I could tell I was way more tired than usual. Slower, breathing heavier, out of shape. At about 7K with 3 more to go, I wanted out already. As I was running, I was quick to shout stories of disappointment and negativity in my head:

“That’s what you get from eating dessert on the last two dinners, you slob”.

“You haven’t been training hard enough, now look at this pathetic performance.”

“Why bother practicing? This is what you get when you’re not committed and keep making the same mistakes. You need to punish yourself for this.”

I swallowed my own guilt and picked up the pace, finishing my 10K run at the same time I usually do. However, I was way more tired and out of breath than usual, and feelings of shame and failure were creeping up on me. Just as I was cleaning up the treadmill, one of the gym instructors approached me:

“I’m so sorry, I hoped you noticed that machine is faulty. It’s stuck at 3.5% elevation even though the display always shows 0%. We’re servicing it today”.

… damn. Isn’t it incredible how a seeming failure can turn into a massive win in under 4 seconds, as soon as you get the full picture of reality? I had just stepped up my routine by a very long shot and without realising it, I pushed myself to perform really well… but that wasn’t the story I told myself during the run.

Replace the treadmill and the run with the metaphors of your choosing. Apply as you see fit. Maybe in the early days of your career your steepness level was at 0%, and now your achievements seem slower, harder, with less obvious wins to grab on to. It may very well be that you’re not actually losing your strength, your inspiration, your creativity. Along the way, in your own journey from amateur to professional, the steepness angle of your run has increased a few percentage points and you haven’t noticed it.

We are all running on an incredibly faulty treadmill. Yet we keep looking only at the digital display to gauge how we’re doing.

It’s unfair, and very cruel to ourselves, to wait until our run is over to look back and realise that the conditions have changed so dramatically. Next time you find giving yourself a hard time over not achieving enough (impostor syndrome sufferers, say hello), look back and see just how much the treadmill settings have changed from that very first day one.

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Written by Ricardo Magalhães who works for the Internet. By day, a front-end web developer with a passion for typography and design. By night, he sleeps. Follow me on Mastodon.