Why I don’t care much about your podium finish (or mine)!

Hey! There’s a simple question for you at the end of this, don’t forget to scroll down and click on your choice!

Should I really pay much attention to a podium finish?

Should I really pay much attention to a podium finish?

Most clients around the world whom I mentor into better states of physical existence are surprised (and, perhaps think I am joking) when I say that I have never won a prize for sports in school… ever! No, not even third place! Soon after my last birthday I ran my first race as a ‘veteran’, where my competition was no longer 18 year olds but men my age (45+), and won a place on the podium (2nd place in an 8km race on flat roads).  A few weeks later I ran my second race (25km on hilly roads) and found myself taking home a trophy for second place again. Sure, it’s exciting to win, but this isn’t what drives or motivates me – the novelty of winning, as I expected, wears out soon. Besides that, I’m all too aware of the contribution of luck and skill or effort.

Effort and Luck
In most human endeavours, your natural predisposition (your genetic material) decides ultimate potential. On top of that if you add regular development of skill, and volume of deliberate practice, when combined with appropriate psychological training you can move up the ranking table. For instance, if you happen to pick an endurance sport and are genetically predisposed to doing well at it (e.g. a high percentage of slow twitch muscle fibres along with a strong heart relative to your body mass) then your presence on the podium after the finish is still a function of who else entered the race. If you were lucky and the faster competitors in your age group were elsewhere when you raced, then the result of your effort is your absolute race time – the podium finish, on the other hand, was luck, not hugely dependent on skill or effort.

Where are you in the population?

Where are you in the population?

Societal improvements preferred to Individual wins
What really interests me is the real impact of such races on society and society’s overall levels of fitness. For instance, the fast exploding distance running phenomenon in urban centres in India has done wonders for raising the life expectancy of the residents in those centres over the short, medium and longer term. That it is becoming a part of the culture, albeit not mainstream (yet), is undeniable. May that long continue – the benefits will become more apparent as more time passes.

Extrinsic versus Intrinsic Motivation
An emphasis in our culture of awarding prizes to individual winners (a form of extrinsic motivation) does nothing to guarantee significant long term health benefits. You too will have visited friends whose mantelpieces are loaded with such trophies along with the commentary “in school and college I used to be a national level blah blah…(I’ve usually zoned out by this time)” but where, now, the couch and TV remote are used a lot more than the easily accessible apartment building gym. On the other hand, competition with yourself (a form of intrinsic motivation) has been shown by neuroscientists to have significantly higher success at ensuring long term sustainability in your improving at anything, including your health and fitness.

I don't care how fast you are - I care that you improve

I don’t care how fast you are – I care that you improve

My Heroes
For me, my heroes in distance running are not the East Africans who have been dominating distance running for decades.  My heroes are the busy urban professionals and housewives who juggle many balls to continue to improve their health relative to what they were (intrinsic) – not relative to others (extrinsic). Most will never win more than a participation medal, but for me, they are my true heroes and heroines. Perhaps you too are one of them?

What better could we focus on?
Every year, despite aging, I have a personal target to run faster, lift heavier, be lighter, move with greater agility, coordination and balance. But, of what good is that to the rest of the world? Perhaps not very much. And so, if I have to look beyond myself for a purpose that benefits society, a question pops into my head “would I trade a podium finish for a 1% improvement in everyone’s health?”. The answer necessarily varies from person to person – for me the answer is a resounding “yes”. Perhaps that choice itself is not so selfless after all. An improvement in health places a lower burden on society and I also argue that a healthier population is better for the environment too. Of course, a 1% improvement in everyone’s health is itself a significant improvement – difficult but not impossible to achieve. So, how could we do that?

Where might we all focus more?

Where might we all focus more?

Better Design

Most problems, large or small, are best solved by good design – and that needs thought more than money. (Remember the joke, or perhaps it was true, about how NASA spent millions inventing a pen that would work in outer space? the Russians cleverly just used pencils!) The same is true when designing motivational tools for public health and fitness.
Public Races
One area of application is the design of public fitness competitions (e.g. distance races), to increase participation by the general public. For instance
– greater recognition for improvement in relative performance (your own performance in last year’s race versus this year’s could win you a trophy even though your overall rank went down from 145 to 165!);
– diverting some money that would normally go to the traditional winners towards better route guidance for the stragglers on tricky race routes;
– better quality and sufficient race-hydration and healthier post-race snacks even for those who finish last.
These are but a few examples and they do not even target the disinterested population – even a little more thought and careful execution could yield noticeable benefits to the larger population, especially those at the dangerous right tail of the distribution.
Individuals Can Make a Difference
At an individual level you, yes you, can contribute too. Better “improvers” (note, I didn’t say “performers”) could instruct by leading by example – demonstrating process that leads to improvements. In fact, those who stagnate because of complacency in guaranteed repeated podium finishes set a poor example. And, let’s not forget, being good at something does not mean you can teach it well. If you can demonstrate good process (teaching by example) anyone can take advantage of your effort no matter where they might be in the population performance “bell curve”. And no matter where you might be in the curve.
Just do it…Podium finish not required!

And now, I’d like your (anonymous) opinion please?

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Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.

26 thoughts on “Why I don’t care much about your podium finish (or mine)!

  1. Philip

    Interesting post, Puru. The one thing I’d say is that I find it very hard to answer your poll, as my motivation for entering different events is different – there is no one consistent primary motivation. Thinking of the recent & forthcoming races I’ve run or signed up for, several have been to visit a new place, at least one has been to get an “official” PB, for all events by registering it provides a focus to practice / training, and naturally for all it is a strong benefit and motivation to meet and engage with other runners (otherwise I could just run solo on a treadmill!)

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    1. purutheguru Post author

      Dear Philip
      I think for everyone the same is true, so thanks for voicing that thought. In keeping the poll simple I was hoping to capture the “immediate thought and response” of the respondent. Perhaps I could have had an option “it depends on the race” to maintain simplicity but allow for that, I suspect, popular choice of response.
      Cheers!
      Puru

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  2. Kingshuk Biswas

    Interesting explanation of the podium logic. However, the intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation is more statistical. Example you have quoted is about a 2:15 runner showing more improvement than a 1:45 runner in terms of of mins. reduced but that will always be the case. She will always have more improvement in terms of time window from 2:25-> 2:00 -> 1:45 but a 1:45 runner cannot improve by the same leaps, at best it can be 1:45-> 1:40-> 1:35 even after putting the same training efforts (or may be even more!). And at some point of time, at the world record theoretically, the timing will become stagnant but that won’t imply that she is not improving, Therein the improvement will be to make her peak performance as the average performance.

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    1. purutheguru Post author

      Dear Kingshuk, thanks for your comment. As you will have noticed in the text, I did not mention any numbers. The graphic is purely for illustration of “tiny improvement effort” versus “concerted effort”. Your logic is perfectly correct but I was not claiming that runners at any 2 parts of the distribution will have the same improvements (either absolute or %) for the same level of effort. In fact “performance” is rarely my measure of a good quality runner. Instead, I attempt to capture effort in various ways (heart rate, terrain, weather, other non-running activities) when assessing quality of “effort” by a runner!

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  3. PREETI AGHALAYAM

    I am interested to know how many people (or as %age) said ‘for a medal’ in answer to your question. I don’t personally care about it. Very few of them are well designed, meaningful in a deep way. etc.if you ask me. But if I can believe facebook, my runner brothers and sisters place a lot of value on this piece of metal, I know not why!
    And yes, the podium finish is alright, no big deal. Competition is very poor, especially for women.

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    1. purutheguru Post author

      Dear Preeti… I shall publish the poll results in the near future. In the meanwhile, I agree with you. Other than the ones I got in the first 2 races, I have given away all my medals, including the podium finish ones. Given away to people who mattered – perhaps to inspire them, or thank them, or because they never made it to the race… (Uh-oh… now this little secret is public info!)

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  4. Shukla Bala

    Puru Da,
    Interesting read. Enlightening too.

    And yes, while I agree that the sheen of the podiums may wear out after you get a few, the sheer sale of the speed monitoring softwares and the GPS watches clearly indicates at least a section (maybe the 75 percentile and above in local, community ratings) would like a picture of them holding a trophy or two that they have earned) who constantly want their improvement to be recognized and awarded.

    Does that make the bottom ranking 75 percentile not interested at all? The results of the poll may really raise more questions than answers, but they would most certainly give some directions to what the running people think.

    Finally, two suggestions:
    1) Taking Philip’s argument forward, a way to rank the options may have given more insights into what other factors are important and in what order. Giving weightages to the options may have furthered academic clarity, but may have made it too complex for people answering.
    2) I think the placement of the poll at the end instead of at the beginning of an altruistic thought will clearly influence the natural/spontaneous choices.

    This poll will have a high degree of self-selection bias for obvious reasons, but there may not be a way to help that.

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    1. purutheguru Post author

      I think everyone running is interested in improving their health. It is actually also true that many in the top percentile give up running simply because they could never actually make it to the podium (there are only 3 slots, after all). My point is “look inward for motivation, don’t look outward”. So whether you are a 2:30 finisher in a full marathon or a 5:30 finisher… what matters is that you keep at it because there is always room for improvement, even if there is not always room on the podium!
      Regarding the poll, there’s always a tradeoff between “more information retrieval” and “putting off respondents with a complex design of question”. A simple click elicits a larger response sample.
      And, yes, I agree, framing of the questionnaire might bias the response. However, the results of the poll I did prior to this one (Pacing Failures in SCMM-2015) suggests otherwise…
      Watch this space for more updates…

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  5. padmajashastri

    I usually come in last in every 5 k run (I actually walk 80 per cent of it!) I participate in. Sometimes there are no snacks or drinks left when I reach the finish line. Sometimes I do not even get a participation certificate as there is nobody to check my timing! But I am only interested in improving from where I was last. I have shaved off 5 minutes in the last 3 months of training, despite multiple joint problems and other health issues, and I feel mighty proud of that. I feel like a hero! Your write-up has only reiterated that feeling. Thanks!

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  6. Alisha Correa Colaço

    Regular runners look forward to medals too? The first running event i participated in was a 10k run, and it was about 95% for the medal. Of course, about 5 minutes after receiving the medal I didn’t care about it as much as I did about actually having participated and finishing it. So I figured it was a newbie thing.

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