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Business Mindset: What can long-distance running teach us about running a business?

Kieran Phelan Cloud360 AccountingIt’s been a while since I have been running long-distance races (that’s anything over 5k in my book). Having a young family and a growing business has shifted my priorities over the past five years. But I still love going out and covering a few miles, feeling the air in my lungs and giving me some headspace.

I started distance running in 2012 and completed my first half marathon in 2013. I trained for this event with a friend, before we joined a local athletics club to start getting ‘proper’ training.

It was then that I began to learn so much more about distance training. And on those long stretches, I started to see the similarities in the mindset, habits and disciplines of a successful long-distance runner and a successful business owner. 

Just get started

Quite often the hardest part of training is just getting yourself out the door to run, especially in the dark winter days and nights. Runners can get discouraged if they don’t cover the miles they planned to or don’t feel great after a particular run.

The same is true in business. We will have days when our motivation and energy is low. We aren’t sure we want to give it our all today. The hurdle to overcome is to just get started. Pick up the file you need to work on, open your emails and get a couple of replies done. Start that new quotation. Remember that a little bit of something is better than nothing at all. Getting started can build the momentum you need to push through your day,


I always found longer training runs tough, quite often I did these on my own. It was then that I realised that my thoughts and mindset would make me or break me.

Training for a half marathon meant covering up to 16 miles or running for just over two hours 30 minutes on a Sunday morning. Often you’ll feel like giving up sometime after 12 miles. Those last three or four miles are where the magic happens though. This is when your body starts to train itself to deal with heavy legs, fatigue etc.

Having the right mindset in business is vital. You can’t be Mr or Mrs Positivity all of the time, but you can be practical about things you’re doing. In our business, we use the OARBED technique to keep us on the right track. This is the ‘Above The Line’ thinking method. The aim is to keep your thoughts above the line and not below the line.

the oar-bed theory of accountability

Pick your distance

Some people enjoy the quicker pace of a 5k, others love the long slow burn of the marathon. Each to their own.

The half marathon was my limit, I had no compulsion or ambition to run the full marathon. I preferred 5k and 10k races.

In business, not everyone wants to grow to £1 million in revenue…and that’s OK. Growing a business to that level will involve a bigger team, possibly larger premises, more stock, higher overheads. It’s not insurmountable but it can take more of your time during certain phases. Training for a marathon is a similar commitment.

It’s OK to run a smaller venture if it gives you the money and the work-life balance you want.  

Have a plan

No one starts long-distance training for a half or full marathon without a plan. Give yourself at least six months to prepare. If it’s your first time, make that six months to a year.

Draw up your weekly schedule. Add on miles gradually. Make sure you are running up and down hills. Include some speed sessions. Eat sufficient carbs/proteins and cut out junk food.

In business, you have less chance of achieving your growth plans if you have no plan in place. You need a budget, preferably alongside a rolling forecast. You need a marketing plan, a sales strategy, as well as systems and processes for all the key departments in your business.

Work with a coach and/or a group

running a marathon with a coachWhen I joined Foyle Valley AC in late 2013, the progress I made was superb. Working with a professional coach who had been there and done it and who gave us bespoke training plans with target paces made a huge difference. Running with a group of people of similar abilities also helped massively. We could all push and pull each other through various training sessions, and we could stick together on race day.

The same applies in business. Working with a coach or mentor helps keep you on track, holding you accountable for taking the key actions to meet your goals and targets.

Getting involved with your peers in network groups also helps. Collaboration not competition is a great mindset to have in business. Share your experiences and learn from others in your industry. 

Too much too soon

One of the pitfalls for runners is that they push up their mileage too quickly. You are sticking to a training plan and you feel fitter and faster. Then you come to a specific day and your emotions take over. Instead of running the planned distance or pace, you run further and/or faster. Then you feel it in your legs, your energy drops. Your next few runs feel awful. You feel like you’re going backwards.

The truth is you’re not. You just overdid it a bit. Pull it back, rest and recover if you need to.

running a business is like running uphillThe same can happen in business. Things are going well, you’re getting lots of new business. You see the top line (sales/turnover) moving up and up. You’re ahead of your targets, things are going great!

Then comes the blowback. You need to hire and do it quickly. Jobs are running behind. You start spending time back IN the business. You lose time for marketing and sales. Bottlenecks appear. Staff are losing their mojo.

This is all part of the peak and trough pattern we all face as business owners. Knowing that there will be highs and lows helps us accept them quicker. All we can do is chart an even course through the middle and aim for as much balance as we can. Don’t feel the need to take on every bit of new business or to take it on right away. Keep your business growth-focused and sustainable.

Pick your own pace

This is a big one for anyone who knows about distance running. It’s all too tempting to run a bit quicker or keep up with people who run slightly ahead of you. Knowing where you’re at and progressing at the right pace for you is so important.

Some people can run a 5k in under 20 minutes. Some people will get there but it might take a few years of dedicated training to do so. Other people are happy nipping under the 30-minute mark for 5k.

Long-distance running involves more slow runs than fast pace sessions – usually, around 80% of your training is at a slow, comfortable pace.

Keep this in mind when running your business. Ramping up the pace of growth will bring growing pains, over-trading, cash-flow problems. Doing this when running leads to physical injuries.

It takes time to know your pace in business. If you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed a lot of the time, you’re doing something outside of your pace. 

Be consistent

be consistent in your business

Consistency is one of the biggest keys to success in running and in business. Bruce Lee once said, “I fear not the man who has practised 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practised one kick 10,000 times”.

Long-distance running involves training between three and five times a week, more if you’re an elite athlete. Sticking to a set number of weekly miles is necessary to build a solid aerobic fitness base. You should also spend time stretching and improving your muscular endurance/strength.

The same applies in business. Be consistent every day and week in making small, subtle changes to you, your team, your processes. Tame your distractions to keep you focused on key actions. Surround yourself with empowering people and read/listen to books and content that energises you. 

Enjoy the journey

I can’t stress this enough. When I was training at our club, there were times I didn’t enjoy my running. I felt I wasn’t hitting the times I wanted to or was capable of. During these times, my mood dropped and my form dipped. What I eventually came to realise is that not focusing on my watch all the time actually helped me run better AND faster.

Business is a long game. Simon Sinek calls it “The Infinite Game”. If you want to keep doing this for the rest of your life, enjoy the journey. There will be tough times and challenging days/weeks, but these will pass all the quicker if you accept them.

Enjoy the hustle and bustle. Keep the end goal in mind. And never forget why you started in the first place. Put your toe to the start line, get your head up, see your supporters around you and smile!

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