Comparing yourself to others can be a dangerous thing, but it’s also motivating if you choose your comparisons carefully. I keep seeing people, especially new runners, complain that they’re “slow” or wonder how far away they are from the “average” runner.
The truth is that “average” means nothing in the world as a whole. There are a ton of people that never go for a run. You’re faster than them! Meanwhile, the world records for the 5K are 12:37 for men (Kenenisa Bekele) and 14:11 for women (Tirunesh Dibaba).
So where do you place yourself when chances are you’re going to spend your entire athletic life somewhere between two extremes? I have a little thought experiment I like to do, and I find it motivating:
- Find a local race that’s held every year, and that describes itself as having a “flat, fast course.”
- Look up last year’s results.
- Find the times and rankings for everyone in your age group (which may be something like “women 30-39”).
From here, you can print out the list or paste it into a spreadsheet. You know your own best 5K time; now you know the best 5K times, on a particular day, of human beings who actually ran this race in your town.
Now you can see how you compare. Maybe there are 20 people in your age group, and if you had run your best time that day, you’d be #15.
This is not a judgment of how good a runner you are on some cosmic scale. But it gives you an idea of what you might expect if you were to run that race next year. And I recommend that you do run that race next year, pandemic permitting. How much can you improve by then?
Paste this in your training journal and consider it a virtual leaderboard. Who was #14? How much would you have to shave off your time to beat them? And what finish time would it take for you to break the top 10?
If you’re really dedicated to this thought experiment — and, yes, this is a thing that I have done in the past — go out and run the exact race course. There’s usually a map on the race website. You may find that the hills or other conditions make it a bit more challenging, so now you’ll have a time that compares more directly. Weather can also vary, as can your luck in who turned up at the start line that day, so look back a few years if you want to get a really solid data set to compare yourself to.
Over time, come back to that same stretch of road, and run it as a time trial, pretending that it’s race day. Your times will improve, whether there’s an official race on or not. And when race day comes around again next year, you can see how you fare on the real leaderboard.