Playing the Long Game
by Vanessa Fraser
The ‘Long Game’ Defined
So what exactly is this ‘long game’? According to Jeff Moreno (physical therapist and co-founder of PWR Lab), playing the long game means you are “showing up each day with the conscious decision to always make it to the next day.” He says that the long game necessitates “an ability to never stop the process” and is “based on consistency and discipline.”
From my days as a naive high school runner, motivated to compete and get better every day, to now as a professional athlete, on a mission to search for my ultimate potential in this sport, a commitment to consistent, uninterrupted training and an enjoyment of the day-to-day process have been key themes in playing the long game. While everyone has a different story and different lessons to be learned from those stories, I believe my story of playing the long game can be useful to any runner with a goal, regardless of the runner’s ability or the magnitude of their goal.
It is easy for members of the runner breed to be overzealous with training and chase large improvements right away, but this strategy usually backfires in the long run. “Remember, you’re in it for the long haul,” my high school coach, Doug Chase, would say to me after many practices out at the dirt track at Scotts Valley High School. It was a constant reminder that good things in this sport take time and that there can be negative effects to being short-sighted and pushing limits too hard too soon, especially during developmental teenage years. At the time, I don’t think my high school coach or I knew exactly how long I would continue to run competitively, but I’m thankful for learning this lesson early on because I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for playing the long game throughout my entire athletic career.
Longevity Makes All The Difference
After graduating high school in 2013, I went on to run at the collegiate level for five years at Stanford University, where I was a 10-time NCAA All-American in Cross Country and Track & Field. In July of 2018, I signed a professional contract to run for Nike’s Bowerman Track Club, and I’m continuing to pursue new, long-term goals in the sport. Though I fully bought into the idea of “being in it for the long haul” at the age of 15, truly understanding why it is so crucial to play the long game was a perspective earned gradually over the last 9 years of competitive distance running.
Photo by Spencer Allen, 2018
Leading up to my debut as a professional runner, I only once had to take as much as a week off from training—and never more than that—due to injury. Running-related injuries have a lot of complex underlying causes, and I am not at all suggesting that we always have the power to prevent them. I do believe, however, that my ability to focus on the long game is a large reason why I have stayed injury-free despite training at a high level for years. Staying healthy with consistent, uninterrupted training has enabled me to have year-over-year improvement in the sport. Looking only at my last 4 complete outdoor seasons (2015-2018), my 5,000m personal best has improved by an average of 14.8 seconds per year (see the chart below).
5,000m season-best performances as of July 2019
Playing the long game helps enable sustained improvement, and I believe it is anyone’s best shot at finding out what their potential in the sport is. In an effort to summarize the insights gained on my competitive running journey, I’ve come up with 5 P’s of Playing the Long Game.
5 P’s of Playing the Long Game
Good things come to those who wait. Having patience in this sport means putting in consistent efforts day in and day out for extended periods of time before seeing results. It means being able to do this for many years before reaching your ultimate goal. It means being okay with having a slower rate of progress than someone playing the short game to produce dramatic results very quickly.
Perspective is what helps when it feels hard to be patient. Remember where you want to be in the long term and that there are no shortcuts. This also means that no single day makes or breaks your ability to improve. My coach at the Bowerman Track Club, Jerry Schumacher, often reminds us that we never needed to hit any single workout out of the ballpark. It is the total body of work that adds up over time and enables growth. The process doesn’t need to be perfect; you just need to continue doing it.
3. Process-Oriented Mindset
A process-oriented mindset comes from the ability to have perspective. A process is constructed with a long term goal in mind. A commitment to the process means showing up every day with purposeful intention to execute the goal of the day. The hard part about the process is that you can’t feel like a hero every day. In fact, you can’t feel like a hero most days. The purpose of most of my days is to simply run at an easy recovery pace. Some days I have to remind myself to run slower so that my body can recover. These days are just as important in the process as the track sessions where I am grinding out mile repeats and going lactic. I appreciate how important each type of day is to the process and I enjoy it too. One of my college coaches, Chris Miltenberg, helped me to develop this mindset of having purposeful intention every single day. He would always remind me how simply continuing the process in this way, consistently and purposefully day in and day out would undoubtedly yield improvement year after year. It finally clicked that I didn’t have to do anything special to get better. I just had to commit to and trust the process, and enjoy it along the way too!
4. Prioritize Health
It’s hard to prioritize health without having the previous 3 P’s. Prioritizing health must be factored in as a part of the process. It takes patience and perspective to understand that taking an easy day in order to prioritize your health is what will ultimately allow you to continue the process of training in the days that follow. There are times that I have to ask myself, “do I want to have a perfect day of training or do I want to prioritize my health and back off a little today because I’m feeling under the weather?” or “because my Achilles is bothering me?” The answer has always been and always should be the latter. Prioritizing health means being in tune with your body, listening to its feedback, and making the difficult decision to be conservative with your training at times.
5. Preventative Physical Therapy
Finding out your personal physical strengths and weaknesses, and learning exercises to better control these strengths and weaknesses, is incredibly helpful for staying healthy and playing the long game. I was lucky enough to meet Dr. Jeff Moreno after my freshman year of high school. Based on my running form and physical assessment, he identified that I was “blessed” with hips that structurally turn in significantly more than turn out. The term for this is femoral anteversion, which makes my knees turn in more than the average runner. He explained that this is very normal, but it is important that I work to control this motion by strengthening my hips and glutes to help reduce the potential for knee and lower leg injuries. 9 years later, I am still working on this, among other things, because I have prioritized health, and doing preventative exercises has allowed my body to continue to tolerate the load of high-level training. Prevention is always better than rehabilitation, when possible.
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