How Every Runner Can Be Elite

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Eric Orton is a renowned performance expert and running coach who has dedicated his life to exploring the potential of the human body and mind.

Over the past 25 years, Eric has coached Olympians, professional, and age group athletes, including runners for distances from 1500m to 240 miles.
Eric is the coach in the international bestseller, Born to Run, and has written two books: The Cool Impossible, and Born to Run 2: The Ultimate Training Guide.

No, this is not clickbait. 

Most traits that make up an elite athlete are trainable, controllable, and tangible – traits we all can have. Yes, we might not have elite physical traits, but what separates elite athletes from their peers is tangible and trainable. 

It is all about the daily choices that are made to be your best that we all can have and learn from.

Being Elite Is A Choice

Did you know Michael Jordan was selected to the First Team All-Defense nine times?  And he played seven years before his team, the Chicago Bulls, won their first NBA championship? And that year, Michael won Defensive Player of the Year? 

Here is a player known for his dunks, acrobatic shots, and clutch scoring, but the team wasn’t successful until he worked on his weakness, his defensive play. 

Every part of his game mattered to him. So what elevated his game and his team’s game was his work ethic and determination to improve a weakness. 

He already had the elite physical skills, but it was the work and drive that made him elite – a CHOICE, made him elite, that set the standard for the rest of his career.

A trail runner.

There is this misconception that elite athletes are confident and do not have self-doubt. They do, and from my coaching experience, the bigger the goal, the bigger the challenge, the more self-doubt this brings. 

I have trained professional athletes to multi-million dollar contracts and coached amateur ultra athletes to their first pro contract, and what separates the elite thinker from the average thinker is the awareness that all the negative talk, self-doubt, and fear of the unknown is normal AND NECESSARY for achieving big goals. 

Self-doubt and lack of confidence are NECESSARY and part of the process for all of us.

Notice how that statement changes everything. Michael Jordan has no less self-doubt than you, and he probably had more during his playing days. But the differentiator is having this awareness and not letting it halt you from choosing a big goal.  

If we now know it is part of the process and normal, it eases our mind a little, and we can then expect it, which also lessens the load. 

Elite athletes embrace this fear and the unknown and use it for motivation to work on the tangible things that lead to improvement. Let’s not be “fearless,” but let’s “fear more.” 

A person running.

Being fearful and nervous, with self-doubt, lets us know we are on the right path. Fear is our guide, but our brain will try and trick us and keep us safe from fear. 

The need to know will sabotage our goals every time.

It’s human nature to want to know what will happen if we decide to enter a big race. Before we sign-up, we go over in our mind, “can I do this” “will I fail” “will I succeed” “will I finish” – what is gonna happen? 

“What if I come in last?”  “What if I am slower than last year?” 

This “wanting to know” is our brain’s way of keeping us safe from challenges and big goals. It is impossible to know what will happen until we race, but our brain tries to trick us into needing to know BEFORE we sign-up. 

This causes hesitation and leads us to dummy down our goals to something we think is more attainable, more doable, with likely success. Elites tend to focus on having measurable goals in training and a focus on the process, not the outcome.  

trail runners.

Don’t Confuse Difficulty With Failure

Whether it is in training or racing, difficulty and challenge will come, it’s what we sign up for and what we actually want. 

But sometimes, that difficulty is a little harder than we expect or anticipate. This unexpected difficulty is often perceived as a failure when it is just part of the process or the race experience.

For example, in ultra marathons, having tough, low points in the race is very common, even on a perfect day, a winning day.  But if we interpret that tough section as a failure rather than part of the success, we are headed towards a DNF.

Elites have the awareness to see difficulty as an opportunity—an opportunity to be the runner they want to be. 

To see difficulty as an opportunity takes practice and awareness of your thinking and of who you are as an athlete. Being an athlete is just a choice that we ALL can make.

trail runners

Your Running Personality

As a coach, I’ve found it crucial to understand the personality – the running personality, if you will – of the athletes I’m working with. 

Just as I study and make notes to myself about the physical makeup of my athletes, so too do I make notes of the psychological aspects of the athlete that I observe. 

You might wonder how I do this coaching virtually; well, I notice the words they use to describe their experiences in their journaling. I monitor their mindset going into certain types of workouts. 

I am aware of what workouts they enjoy and what workouts they dislike or even dread; that can be a great coaching opportunity down the line to help mold their elite mindset and future workouts. 

And this has helped me develop my own run personality types that help speed up the coaching process.  

What kind of runner are you? 

See if any of the four types below fits you best; then give some thought to my tips on the best self-coaching approach to help you mold and develop your elite mindset practice.

A person running on the road.

The Perfectionist

  • Traits – Detailed oriented. Plans all workouts and races to the mile and the minute.  Loves schedules and lists.  A meticulous record keeper. Often dependent upon a coach.
  • Motivation – Measurable improvement and mastery. Perfectionists really want to know they are improving, gain as much knowledge as possible, and do everything they can to improve, hitting all the checkpoints. They get excited about new challenges by researching and learning as much as possible.
  • Stress – Weather, illness, injury; any interruption to training, any change to plans. Needs to listen to the body during stressful times and be okay with taking a day off when one is not scheduled. Perfectionists can sometimes get frustrated with challenges they are not used to, which can give them a feeling of failure. They can get hung up on needing to know how things will work out and what the outcomes will be for their training and racing.
  • Self-coaching approach – This kind of runner needs to learn that listening to the body is as important as following the schedule. Perfectionists must learn to let go occasionally and introduce variations and new challenges into the training plan, which can help lead to improvement. They must also schedule rejuvenation time into the season to avoid plateaus and stagnation.
A person running through a finish line.

The Charger

  • Traits – Take charge approach. Loves the challenge of races or workouts. Will jump into either with or without conventional preparation.  
  • Motivation – Results; make the next leap in performance or experiences. Enjoys the social aspects of the next challenge, thinking big, and being in the middle of it all.  
  • Stress – Delays; recovery time; too much step-by-step; “If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse!”
  • Self-coaching approach – This kind of runner needs frequent challenges, but these should be layered in base and foundational work so that chargers’ abilities improve. They need to guard against overtraining. They need to embrace the benefits of following some structure so they do not do too much too soon – and ultimately realize some structure and purpose will create the improvement that ultimately motivates them.

The Social Strider

  • Traits – Thrives on interactions with training partners and a group. Performance varies in keeping with companions.  
  • Motivation – Relationships and camaraderie. A sense of belonging.
  • Stress – A competitive atmosphere. A focus on performance and individuality.
  • Self-coaching approach – This type of runner needs to define personal goals that go beyond group interaction. Social striders can do well when paired with a training partner who can push their performance level. They need a workout that blends in enough solo running. Encourage training partners to conduct a group workout. Communicate training needs to partners and be creative in fitting in personal workouts within a group setting.
A runner smiling.

The Free Spirit

  • Traits – The adventurer. Creative and likes diversity and new challenges. Appreciates running for more than just the competitive and fitness aspects. Might possess a combination of traits of the other types.
  • Motivation – The immediate physical and emotional sensations of running. New experiences. The entire process of creating new adventures and the training and prep that go into it. Enjoys the process as much as the outcome or success. Free spirits are motivated by diversity.
  • Stress – Stressful or hectic life demands that take them away from being able to run and adventure consistently. 
  • Self-coaching approach – This runner needs to build in diversions through the use of varied routes, multiple training partners, training “play and adventure.”  Free spirits can use special events, challenges, and races to serve as motivation to adhering to some kind of training structure and focus.

Fun, right – and maybe a little scary – to think of yourself as one of these types, but this kind of recognition and self-awareness will help you along the way to being elite.

A group of people running and smiling.

Elite Self-Coaching Guidelines

Here are some elite self-coaching guidelines to help you in your training:

#1: Workouts

Remember that all workouts and exercises should have a purpose toward your goal, whether easy or difficult. 

Decide and determine the daily purpose before you leave for your run so you have a plan and something to accomplish. 

Especially if you are an experienced runner, having this daily accomplishment goes a long way and focuses on the process. 

#2: Listen and Be Smart

No one knows your body better than you do. 

Sometimes you will need to back off on a run or take the day off, either because you simply don’t feel great, or you feel a slight pull in a hamstring from your last run. 

Listen to your body and understand the situation. Whether because of sickness or just not feeling “right,” I instruct my athletes to take the day off – or at the least, make it an easy day.

More is not always better; better is better! 

But also understand there is a difference between feeling “off” or sick versus just not wanting to do a run and workout. Be aware of the difference.  

A trail runner.

#3: Consistency

When it comes to improvement and proper fitness, consistency is huge. Use this as motivation to get runs in when you can, even if you don’t feel like getting out the door. Many times, the day you didn’t want to get out the door turns into an epic run. 

When you are not feeling it, focus on how you know you WILL feel once you’ve finished, and let this help you get out the door. 

When was the last time you were bummed that you went for a run, versus how you felt the times you didn’t get out the door when you could have. 

Let’s also be honest; life gets in the way sometimes, so always do what you have time for, even if it is much less than what is scheduled. 

Running easily for 20-30 minutes is better than not doing anything because you can’t fit in the sixty-minute scheduled run. Many times, athletes will think that if they do not have time for the entire workout, the day’s a wash, and it’s not worth doing even part of it. 

Or our ultra runner’s brain will think 20 minutes does nothing, not true!  20 minutes goes a long way towards being consistent.

Running on the road.

#4: Log Workouts

Write down what you do, everyday.

Again and again, I’ve seen in my coaching that those who religiously journal and log their workouts achieve more success. There’s just something about personal accountability and reflection and the reward you get from logging what you do each day that leads to great performances. 

If you enjoy the techie way, there are many apps out there. Or do it old-school: Keep a journal; jot down what you did that day, and add a few comments about the run, how you felt, what you learned, and what you were aware of along the way. 

It’s not good enough to just download data. You then begin to be aware of everything you are doing during your run in a way to reflect on your post-run journaling – it is magic. Awareness is athleticism.

#5: Difficulty

When attacking a big goal, things will get tough and challenging. Don’t confuse difficulty with failure. Our muscles, body, and our brain, need to be pushed to improve. 

Trust me; I understand the feeling, the frustration you might experience, the, “It’s so hard…. It shouldn’t be this hard….I can’t do this….” 

When you are having these feelings, these thoughts, stop and recognize them. Then start to see difficulty as an opportunity for you to be the athlete you want to be. 

Being elite is your choice.

Run Strong, Run Free!


Marathon runners running over a bridge.
Photo of author
Eric Orton is a renowned performance expert and running coach who has dedicated his life to exploring the potential of the human body and mind. Eric was one of the coaches who pioneered the online coaching industry and has operated his run coaching business for the last 25 years helping Olympians, professional, and age group athletes, including runners for distances from 1500m to 240 miles, Ironman triathletes, cyclists, etc. His study of ancestral cultures, like Mexico’s legendary Rarámuri ultrarunners, has made him one of the foremost authorities on running, evolutionary biomechanics, and human performance. Eric is “the coach” in Christopher McDougall’s international bestseller, Born to Run, where his coaching was instrumental in helping Christopher complete the epic adventures described in his books, Born to Run and Running with Sherman. Eric is author of two of his own books: The Cool Impossible which has been published in 7 languages and 15 countries, and Born to Run 2: the Ultimate Training Guide. Eric travels the world speaking and coaching clinics on running. He is the former Director of Fitness at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and currently lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

1 thought on “How Every Runner Can Be Elite”

  1. This is brilliant! I am SO the Free Spirit. It all makes sense now… not least why I am monumentally rubbish at following a plan, even though I’ll run just as often, if not more, than the plan says. And why I get so frustrated (stressed, down…) when life gets in the way of a run. I shall embrace this! I shall seek out new routes for the more mundane and more difficult training sessions on the plan. I do log runs, and agree, it definitely works. And I do run shorter if I just haven’t got the time and the ‘free spirit’ in me (!) never feels that bothered by that at the end, just happy to have that endorphin hit and done what I could.
    Thank you. This is great and also made me smile 🙂


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