I love running, but I wouldn’t say I’m great at it, or a natural by any means. I’m “middle of the pack” when it comes to speed, and I’ve worked hard to get there. As a teenager running high school cross country, I was consistently the last female across the finish line at races and invitationals. It sucked. I wanted to quit. My dad wouldn’t let me.
It’s hard enough being a self-conscious teen, adding a solidly earned “loser” title week after week made it that much tougher. At the time, the sting of losing was almost unbearable. I felt like I wasn’t good enough. I thought everyone was judging me for being slow. It was embarrassing.
Today, I’m glad I had to listen to my dad. I learned a valuable lesson about what it means to fail, and why it’s important to keep trying. It’s a theme that continues to come up in life and in goal setting for health and fitness. No matter whether your struggle is to run a 5K or simply walk a mile, failing can actually make you stronger. Here’s how to re-frame your way of thinking and find the upside of falling short.
Failing Isn’t a Lonely Endeavor
History is full of failures. In fact, most winners lose before they succeed. Professional marathon runner Meb Keflezighi came in first at the 2009 New York City Marathon and the 2014 Boston Marathon winner. But he has certainly competed in more than two races in his career—which means, Keflezighi technically failed all those other times he attempted to win a 26.2-mile event.
And doesn’t it seem as though some goals are designed to be impossible? Ask a room full of people if they’ve ever failed a diet, and you’ll likely find every hand raised. (Of course, when it comes to dieting new thinking says it’s the food plan that’s to blame—not your willpower, when the scale doesn’t budge.) This is all to show, falling short isn’t exclusive to you. Everyone has experienced failure at some point or another.
Failing Means You Tried
In the moment, knowing you tried probably isn’t going to help you feel better. But when you get a little perspective—say, the day after you attempted to do a pull up in front of your entire Crossfit gym and your arms gave out—it’s easier to recognize how much courage you mustered to attempt it. You failed at pull-ups, yes. But you beefed up your courage muscle in the process.
Failing is a Learning Opportunity
No one plans to fail on purpose. But falling short often offers a teachable moment. Consider long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad. She tried to swim from Florida to Cuba and failed four times—on one attempt she nearly died after being stung by jellyfish. Reporters and scientists were starting to say it couldn’t be done, that she was crazy for even trying. It wasn’t until her fifth attempt, at the age of 64, that Nyad nailed the 110-mile stretch from Havana to Key West. The keys to her success: finally figuring out the best route through the tough currents, and learning which face mask and wetsuit would protect her from the deadly stingers.
Failing Makes Winning Sweeter
OK, so you and I may never actually break the tape at the Boston Marathon, or a local 5K for that matter. But I can promise you, coming in with the middle of the pack feels pretty darn good. And, honestly, it wouldn’t be as sweet without having savored the bitter taste of coming in last.