A couple weeks ago I ran my first-ever 5K race – that’s a little more than three miles. To those who are avid runners, this would probably be considered a beginner’s distance. To those who don’t run at all, this might be considered ambitious … or crazy.
First, a little background information. I have actively participated in recreational sports since I was a kid – hockey, baseball, basketball, golf, bicycling, hiking – but I am not a runner. I have always gotten my cardio exercise from more enjoyable activities.
I like to joke that my relatively robust health is due to the sturdy Eastern European peasant genes of my ancestors. But since I reached my 50s, I have not been so durable. I suffered two compression fractures in my back falling off a ladder. I tore the meniscus in my right knee playing basketball. And then last fall, I tore the meniscus in my left knee.
What is still possible?
If you’re goal oriented – in your career or in your personal life – there is always another challenge. I ask my clients all the time: “What is your desired future state?” How will you figure out what needs to be done or learned if you don’t know where you’re going?
I am not yet willing to concede that my favorite recreational activities are out of reach. So, late last year I went through physical therapy for my knee, then hired a personal trainer to prepare my body for the next 20+ years. I set two fitness goals for 2022: hike to the top of Black Elk Peak (at 7,500 feet it is the tallest summit in South Dakota) and run a 5K race.
I was interested in both the physical and the mental challenge as well as what I might learn along the way. Whether working on a project or working on yourself, it is important to remain curious and seek to fill knowledge gaps – all while keeping assumptions and biases in check. Several lessons of my fitness journey seem applicable to working in marketing and design.
1. Diagnose the problem
After four weeks of daily rehab exercises and minimal improvement, I requested a consultation with an orthopedic clinic. X-rays showed no skeletal issues, but the MRI identified a complex tear of the medial meniscus, a rubbery shock absorber in the knee joint. It had been incorrectly diagnosed as a ligament strain. Once therapy began addressing the real problem, we started seeing better results.
Taking the time to diagnose the problem correctly – from the beginning – can save you both time and money.
2. A systemic approach
There is only so much you can do to repair an injured knee. It is a complex joint that is integral to mobility, but it doesn’t work in isolation. My rehab and training focused on improving strength and flexibility from the foot to the ankle, from calves to upper leg muscles and hips. The human leg is an interconnected system.
Most challenging problems don’t exist in isolation. Dig deeper to understand root causes, and not just superficial symptoms. Addressing complex systems may take longer, but you increase the chance for successful outcomes.
3. Celebrate progress
By mid-May, my knees were feeling good. I had been walking throughout the winter and spring, but was now ready for more vigorous exercise. In addition to weight training, I needed aerobic activity to elevate my heart rate. I started on the exercise bike, moved to an elliptical machine, then a treadmill – ramping up the stress on my legs every couple weeks. I mapped out a two-mile route through my neighborhood, bought a pair of shoes, and started running once per week. When I hiked to the summit of Black Elk Peak in late July, I knew it was something I could not have done only a few months before.
Breaking any significant undertaking into smaller milestones provides opportunities to recognize and celebrate progress. That sense of accomplishment can put wind in your sails on days when the big goal still feels a long way off.
4. Conditions may change
In August, as I slowly increased my distance toward three miles and the weather became another obstacle – let’s face it, at 95% humidity you’re basically running under water – my knees still felt great. But my calves and shins were getting really tight beyond two miles.
I was so focused on my knees, and getting up to the 5K distance, that I didn’t alter my training to account for this new development. And then, with the race two weeks away, I pulled my calf muscle during a training run – and had to walk and limp my way to the finish.
If you’re looking too far ahead, you may miss signs that things are changing right before your eyes. Stay aware of both current conditions and future goals – and alter plans as needed – to minimize setbacks.
5. The end is another beginning
Race day arrived. For two weeks, I worked to rehab my calves and minimize the pain from shin splints. Instead of anticipating how fast I would run, I was simply hoping my body would hold up. About two-and-a-half miles into the race, I felt something wrong with my left knee. I finished in 34 minutes.
The result was not exactly the exhilarating triumph I envisioned, but no matter how I finished there was always going to be the next challenge. For me, it’s rehabbing my knee again.
The lessons you learn are not limited to the results you seek. Outcomes are never perfect. Improvement comes from applying what you’ve learned to the next project.
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Dan Woychick is a problem solver, creative collaborator, and owner of Woychick Design. He helps purpose-driven organizations raise awareness, inspire donors, and move people to action. Connect here: Instagram | LinkedIn | Twitter