Good Words from Steve Magness at Science of Running


“Which brings me to the point.  You can’t force things. In life or in running. You’ve got to let them come to you.”

– Steve Magness, Science of Running

I’m a big fan of Steve Magness’ work. He is both a researcher and an in-the-trenches running coach. His site the Science of Running is full of excellent information. His book (also titled The Science of Running) is a must-read for running coaches and any serious runner.

Under pressure

I greatly appreciate his latest blog post titled New Year’s Reflections and Anti-resolutions. He discusses resolutions and the high failure rate experienced by those undertaking them. He observes that a lot of us feel forced to make decisions and when that happens, we make bad decisions. When we feel cornered and pressured to accomplish or achieve something then we often don’t get the results we want. He says:

“Today, with social media, an ability to instantly compare ourselves to any of our peers, and a high premium placed on accomplishments and ‘success’, it’s hard to escape the feeling that we have to do something. We have to accomplish some goal, take some job, marry some guy or gal, all on some set time line or else we’re perceived as a failure. Society and culture put us in a place of ‘forcing’ us to do something.”

I can definitely relate to this scenario. I sometimes feel pressure when I observe the accomplishments of others in my field, or when I look at the athletic feats of men my age. It’s easy to feel like I don’t measure up, that I’m not “enough.” Later in this post I’ll give some evidence that by letting my mind wander to others’ achievements, I’m probably undermining my contentment in life.

Here is more from Magness:

“Which brings me to the point.  You can’t force things. In life or in running. You’ve got to let them come to you.

In running, big breakthroughs occur when you let them happen. You’re more relaxed while still driven and focused during the race versus tense and pressing in which you are trying to force a new Personal Record.  Ask any sprint coach if people run faster relaxed versus tensed and you will find your answer to why forcing a race does not work.”

There is power in being mentally engaged in the here-and-now rather than longing for the end product. Most of us have probably experienced this when we try really hard at almost anything. From a golf swing to trying to impress a date or a boss, if we bear down too much and try to force it we rarely get the results we want.


In contrast to forcing things, we would ideally relax and perhaps just react to events. Psychology researcher Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this the “flow” state:

“These are moments in which your mind becomes entirely absorbed in the activity so that you ‘forget yourself’ and begin to act effortlessly, with a heightened sense of awareness of the here and now (athletes often describe this as ‘being in the zone’). You may be surprised to learn, however, that in recent years this experience has become the focus of much research by positive psychologists. Indeed, the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has even given it a name for an objective condition — ‘flow.'”

I’ve been fortunate enough to experience flow on the ski slopes–though not nearly as often as I’d like! Everything works. I turn effortlessly. I’m in total control. I move but I’m not aware of how it’s happening. I often feel this way when I trail run, mountain bike, lift heavy weights or when reading a great book. Life is best when I feel this “flow.”

Process, oh how I love the!

I recall conversations about training I’ve had with a friend. Much of his life is devoted to triathlon specifically and intense physical activity generally. We both love physical exertion of a sometimes extreme degree, and we both agree that we dearly love the process. Lifting weights. A track workout. A long bike ride. Learning a new exercise. We love every step towards the end goal. We love the beginning when we feel good, the middle when we’re tired and questioning why we’re doing it, and the glorious end when we feel a sense of accomplishment. In loving the process the end goal comes to us.

Magness speaks to loving the process:

“The key though is not simply thinking ‘it will all work out’ but instead acknowledging the first portion which is if you work hard at things you enjoy, love the process, then eventually things will work out. Perhaps not always in the direction you want them to, but for the most part they will.”

(Additionally, it’s during intense training that we are wholly focused on the task at hand. More on that in a moment.)

Chasing a mirage

I like Magness’s analysis of being process-focused rather than outcome-focused:

“We get caught in the rat race of trying to chase success, satisfaction, happiness, and outcomes. The reality is that this is simply an evolutionary mechanism designed to keep us engaged. Researchers have found that it’s not the actual reward that gives us the most bang for our buck in terms of the wonderful feel good hormone of Dopamine. Instead, it’s the chase that gives us the huge bump in Dopamine.

We’re designed for the process, but we focus on the outcome. It’s this nice little trick of mother nature that makes us follow through and get things done. It’s why we suffer from this nice fallacy of ‘If only I had X, I’d be happy/satisfied/whatever…’ We then chase X, feeling pretty good about ourselves as we chase it, but then are torn down by the feeling of discontentment when we finally reached our goal and while the payoff was nice, it most certainly doesn’t meet pre-conceived expectations. So we are left with the inevitable ‘so what now…’ that predictably follows.”

He says, “If I only had X, I’d be happy…” I believe a lot of us go through life this way, basing our contentment on external things: a race outcome, a flat stomach, a girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse, money, a house in a certain neighborhood… In other words, we’re looking for the perfect circumstance when everything goes right–then we’ll be happy!

In this scenario, we’re looking outside ourselves for contentment, fulfillment and happiness. We’re looking for affirmation of ourselves via things that we may not control. Interestingly, when we achieve one of these things (say hitting a PR in the deadlift, taking 2 minutes off your marathon time or making X amount of money) have we actually found happiness? Maybe…. But often we’ve simply obtained one of these things and we’re not actually any happier, so we keep looking for the next magic thing that will fulfill us.

(In my experience, by chasing happiness that we believe lives outside us, we’re really chasing a mirage. The external thing that we covet so much rarely if ever lives up to expectations.)

Happiness through focus

A 2010 study called A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind seems relevant to some of these ideas. The research was done by psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University. Here are some paragraphs that deserve consideration, starting with what I think is the big picture on wandering minds:

“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” Killingsworth and Gilbert write. “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

“Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness,” Killingsworth says. “In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”

When are we happiest?

Killingsworth and Gilbert found that people were happiest when making love, exercising, or engaging in conversation. They were least happy when resting, working, or using a home computer.

(Hey! Wow! Exercise!)


“Time-lag analyses conducted by the researchers suggested that their subjects’ mind-wandering was generally the cause, not the consequence, of their unhappiness.”

What am I saying?

I believe that I’m advocating for finding activities that demand our full mental engagement. The phrase “live in the moment,” seems appropriate (even though it sounds cliche and a bit too cute for my taste–it happens to encapsulate a great concept!) There is a subtle, sublime state of mind that can’t be found by multi-tasking (possibly the ultimate non-focused happiness killer) or keeping up with the Joneses. Further, the focus on the process keeps us “in the moment.” If we can find a love for the process–rather than a fixation on the outcome–then I believe we can find a healthy dose of happiness.

Tracking Weaknesses: An Efficient Way to Monitor Progress (or Lack Thereof)


I’ve been deeply immersed the FASTER Global curriculum over the past several months.  Efficiency (getting to your movement, physique and performance goals as fast as possible) is the key focus of FASTER.  To this point I was given a great idea by my FASTER instructor Mike Terborg. I became of what seems to be a very useful and efficient way to monitor whether or not you’re doing what you need to be doing to achieve your goals.


Most of us know that if we want to lose weight then we need to do things like eat differently, exercise more and sleep more. Research (here, here and here) has shown that self-monitoring of metrics such as body weight, physical activity and food consumption is a significant component of weight loss. By tracking these things we become mindful and more aware of our habits which is exactly what we must do if we want to change our behavior. If we don’t track some data then a) we won’t know if we’re making progress and b) we’re less likely to focus on the necessities.

Track only what’s needed.

A lot of us have experience tracking all of our food, every mile we run/bike, every weight lifted on every exercise etc. This can become tedious and I know that in my experience I end up with a bunch of information that I never use. I don’t meet many people who are in love with tracking their activity. (Some people do enjoy the meticulous tracking of data. I wish I did.)

With a mind toward efficiency, maybe we don’t need to track everything. Maybe we can track and focus on only the things we need to improve–our weaknesses. Here are some examples:

  • One client of mine likes to drink a few beers. She started using a Google calendar to track a) the days on which she drinks and b) what quantity she drank.  She shared that calendar with me so we can both be mindful of what’s going on. Fantastic!
  • If you eat well and work out consistently but you typically go to bed too late (1 a.m. let’s say) and don’t sleep enough then track every night of the week you get to bed by say midnight or 11 pm.
  • If you binge on sweets several nights a week then track every night that you don’t binge. You should be able to answer the question, “How many times did I eat sweets this week?”
  • If you exercise sporadically then think of tracking every day that you do something called “exercise.” If you’re a beginner then you will see fairly impressive benefits from simply starting to exercise regularly, no matter if it’s weights, cardio, (if you delineate exercise according to those terms) or whatever.
  • Maybe you’re an aggressive go-getter, and you’re not resting and recovering enough. You’re overtrained perhaps. Maybe you need a couple of dedicated rest days. Now you might actually track the days that you don’t work out. Or maybe you track every day that you take a nap.

It’s all about awareness.

I continue to believe that awareness is maybe the most powerful concept to anyone wanting to lose weight, get in shape and increase performance. The purpose of tracking (some of) what you’re doing is to contribute to your awareness. Monitoring some part of your activity is essential to see if you’re doing what you should be doing.

At the same time, it’s a good idea to be efficient and monitor only what’s needed. Too much information is… well… too much. It takes away from something else that’s important. Rather than monitor your strengths think of monitoring only your weaknesses.



When it comes to either pain or performance issues, we’re often told that we need to get stronger.  We need to strengthen our core to help back pain.  We need to strengthen our legs to pedal or run faster.  We need stronger arms to swim better.  Strength is important for sure. There’s no substitute for it.  It’s money in the bank.

Awareness and pain

Here’s something slightly different to consider:  Awareness.  A lot of pain and poor performance issues aren’t so much strength-related as they are awareness-related.  By this I mean we need to know how to use our muscles to control our limbs and a lot of us don’t have the awareness we need to accomplish the task.  Here’s a common example:

A client complains of knee pain.  I watch them squat, walk up and down stairs, and maybe do some one-leg mini-squats.

The glutes aren't doing their job and the knees suffer for it.

I observe a valgus collapse–the knee or knees cave in as he or she moves.

What are the consequences?

This type of movement pattern sets us up for knee ligament damage, meniscus damage, IT band pain, patella pain, and possibly back pain.  Even if the person isn’t in pain, this is a very inefficient movement pattern.  Whether running or walking, this valgus pattern makes for poor shock absorption and energy transfer into the ground. We’re slow and weak when our knees collapse like this.

Why is it happening?

Back to the “A” word, awareness.  Very commonly we can’t use our glutes correctly–and we’re not aware that we’re not using them.  We have what Thomas Hanna calls “sensory motor amnesia.” We’ve forgotten how to move.  (Modern living is a killer.  We sit too much!!)

Why do glutes matter to knees?

The glutes (glute maximus, medius and minimus) along with the tensor fasciae latae start up in the pelvis and feed into the IT band.  The IT band then attaches to the top of the tibia right below the knee.  In this arrangement, if we tighten or squeeze the glutes the knee will rotate outwards.  If we release tension from the glutes then the knee will tend to collapse in.  Control of the knee largely resides at the hip with the glutes.  (By the way, we could discuss awareness of the foot as it pertains to a valgus knee too.  If the big toe isn’t firm to the ground and we don’t have competent arches then the knee may collapse in.)

The keys to the knees.

What’s the solution?

Often someone with knee pain has been told they need to strengthen muscles around the knees namely the quadriceps.  This was the thinking for years.  So people did knee extensions.  The muscles near the knee definitely got stronger but that didn’t improve the walking, running, or stepping pattern that was causing the pain.  Now we understand that the glutes have more influence over the knee than the muscles surrounding the knee.  The pattern of movement is the key factor.  It’s how we use our muscles! We must become aware of how we move, and aware of how we employ our muscles during movement. If we gain awareness of the glutes then we can start to control the knee.  Strength isn’t the main issue.  (The same can be said for the deep core muscles and back pain.)

We need awareness before we can get strong, fast or powerful.  In fact, if we’re not moving well–if we’re not aware of how we’re moving–and we add weight or speed to the scenario then we’re marching headlong into dysfunction, pain, and poor performance.  It’s analogous to hammering a bent nail.  The harder we pound the more it bends and we’re headed for trouble.

Awareness for performance: the bench press

I spoke with a friend and former client of mine who’s learning to bench press.  (My ego demands that I tell you he lives in another state which is why he’s working with a different trainer.)  He told me he learned to use his lats for the bench press. (Think of trying to bend the bar into a horseshoe.)  Now, with the lats engaged he’s got a stronger foundation from which to press.  He’s called in more muscles to help disperse the work.  His shoulders are more stable. Now he can get stronger and likely avoid injury.  Awareness should come first.  (I wish I were aware of all this stuff when I was training him!)

Beyond this example, Louie Simmons in the Westside Barbell Squat and Deadlift Manual directs lifters to identify their weakness–become aware of them in other words–and work to shore them up.  He says don’t necessarily do the exercises you like.  Do the exercises that work for you.

Awareness for performance: running

First, all the stuff above about glutes and knees pertains very much to running.  Remember that.  What else should we be aware of while running?  Think about where your foot lands.  Does it land way out in front?  It shouldn’t.  If it does you’ll likely have problems.  Rather, the foot should land just barely out in front of your center of mass and the foot should land right below the knee, not out in front.  If you watch recreational runners you’ll often see the foot land out in front. Watch elite runners and that foot lands very close to right underneath.  Think of your leg as a swinging pendulum.  If the pendulum swings wide then a) your foot lands out in front, b) your cadence is slower and c) it’ll take more energy to run.  In a better situation you’ll swing your pendulum/leg in a shorter arc.  The foot will land closer to you which will result in a faster cadence and you’ll be more efficient.  You’ll be faster and you’ll be in a better position to avoid injury.  For more on this and further awareness of how you should run, check out this very informative article by Jay Dicharry, author of Anatomy for Runners.

Awareness for weight loss

So we’ve discussed awareness as it pertains to pain and performance.  Where else does it matter?  Do you want to get leaner and generally healthier?  Then you better be aware of your eating habits.  Very similar to poor movement patterns, poor eating habits will over the course of time do great damage to our physique and overall health.  The problem is a habit is an unconscious thing.  We’re not aware of our habits!  We eat mindlessly in front of the TV.  We’re caught without healthy food to eat so we resort to fast food or packaged frozen dinners.  We take nibbles of junk snacks thinking that we’re not eating that much garbage, but by the end of the week we’ve consumed a lot of crapola.  The result?  We look and feel like a sick, sluggish mess.  What can we do?

Keeping a food journal is by far one of the most effective and cheapest things you can do to help become aware of your eating habits.  You can use any notebook.  Or you can use an online program such as

Does this sound inconvenient?  Writing out 1/2 cups, tablespoons, grams, etc. can be a hassle. Guess what.  You don’t have to employ painstaking detail to get the benefits of keeping a food journal.  You don’t even have to track every meal every day.  If you eat some M&Ms, write “M&Ms.”  If you eat a salad write “salad.”  If you can only manage to track breakfast three days a week then that’s better than tracking nothing at all.  The point is to start to become aware of your eating habits.  Any progress at all is progress.  Awareness must come before you can expect to see change.

Awareness elsewhere in life

How are you handling stress?  What time do you go to bed?  If you’re trying to get in shape or you’re training to compete, you better know these things.  If you’re aware of your workouts but your not aware of how you’re resting then you’re compromising your ability to lose weight and compete.

Hard exercise is stress.  So is work.  So are some of our interpersonal relationships.  Alcohol and sugary foods cause stress.  The winter holidays are full of stressors.  If stress goes up in one or more areas then it must come down in others.  Otherwise you’re courting illness, injury or at the very least extreme fatigue.  If you’re feeling pulled in 100 directions then it may be a good idea to scale back your workouts a little.  Don’t give up though!  Recognize that more/harder exercise won’t help you if you’re highly stressed.  Finding some way to decrease some of your stress is critical to good mental and physical health.  Take stock of these things.  Be aware of what’s going on in your life.  Then you can take measures to manage things.