Learning the Limits of My Experience

athletics CrossFit distance running endurance training humility road races running

Road races and 5ks are probably the most common competitive athletic event most Americans partake in. They are accessible and it is relatively easy to develop a good deal of proficiency. My personal experience with distance running began in high school, when I ran varsity cross country as one of our top three athletes. Since then, I'd been running consistently through most of college and even participated in a race in which I ran about 18 minutes. I don't really consider 5k's extremely long distance, nor do I consider them the most grueling physical activity.

Yet today I was floored. A kid 8 years younger than me passed me handily on the third mile, as well as several older men. I was gasping for air, barely managing to trot along, and eventually stopped to walk. I do CrossFit, for crying out loud, literally the most intense form of exercise in existence, by design.

A Completely Different Animal

The truth is, if you're not used to something, it will always be difficult. It becomes very easy as an athlete to overestimate your abilities. This happens all the time with bodybuilders who get into pullup competitions with apparently diminutive gymnasts. It is something I've learned in the past whenever I try to tackle CrossFit workouts that seem easy but very quickly start to add up.

The body is a wonderful adaptor. If it is freed from the necessity of doing something, it will quickly and happily shed its ability to do that thing. This is done to save resources and energy, but it makes it frustrating to an athlete trying to keep up his abilities in so many areas. And the body is also very good at making fine distinctions between various requirements. A 5k run is a different animals than a 1 mile run, and even if you're really good at the latter, you may suck wind attempting the former.

The lesson I took from today's experience is this: just because you're really good at one thing doesn't mean you'll be good at another thing, even if they are fairly similar. The scrawny old man who runs 5 miles every day but can't pick up a garbage can could still whip me in a road race.

The Expert Fallacy

This is a lesson many experts tend to forget. It is a known phenomenon that experts in one field, used to being an authority, assume their expertise translates to other fields. You get medical doctors giving financial advice, and corporate lawyers trying to give you child-rearing tips. Besides being obnoxious, it also leads to problems as these people are not qualified to provide advice outside of their field.

It pays to remember what you're good at and not make assumptions about your other abilities. This will spare you embarrassing posturing as well as help you better prepare for the challenges you do take on. I was prepared to do poorly today (though I wasn't sure how I would do, a good indication to be conservative), but if I had had more than two days to prepare for the race, I would have actually gone and run the distance. Instead, I simply approached it as a new challenge, which was better than assuming it would be a piece of cake.

Do you ever find yourself making claims or assuming your proficiency in areas that you are not actually experienced or trained in? Just being aware of your actual abilities will help you fill the holes in your knowledge.