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Running Fast

Decades ago, when I was running triathlons, I trained brutally on the trail, the bike, and in the pool. With my running, in particular, I reached a plateau where I wasn’t getting any faster. More miles didn’t translate to more speed. And then I did something different that changed everything. The thing I changed was to start doing track workouts with a coach. I was putting in less mileage now, but some of it was at higher intensity. It turns out that running fast for short distances—sprinting—develops our ability to run fast for longer distances. From that experience I developed a simple maxim: If you want to run fast, you have to run fast.

If you want to run fast, you have to run fast.

The metaphor with sprinting in a running race and sprinting in business may be obvious, but what is less obvious is the capacity-building that sprinting creates in both situations. In running, the track workouts and sprints strengthen the circulatory system and produce micro-tears in the muscles that stimulate regeneration and growth during recovery. Similarly, during business sprints we create “micro-tears” in our structures and processes that, if we are a healthy organization, will be rebuilt and strengthened during our recovery period.

Sprinting is all about training yourself to go beyond your limits. —Usain Bolt, world record sprinter

Evolutionarily, sprinting on foot has allowed us to chase down the animal that would be our dinner, or to outrun the animal that would have us be its dinner. Goal orientation is deeply embedded in our biology, whether it drives us to catch our dinner or to submit a proposal on time. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter associated with the “fight or flight” response and the fear of the lion. It stimulates us, drives us, and keeps us awake as we sprint toward the deadline. Dopamine rewards us along the way as we approach our goal. It comes in a burst as we attain the goal, in proportion to how the goal meets or exceeds our expectations. Serotonin modulates our mood and is released from social interaction along the way.

Much as in distance running, we do not want to sprint the whole way. Anyone who has run a 5k or 10k race will know this doesn’t work. You will exhaust yourself and will do worse than if you kept a moderate, but steady pace the whole way. But there are times to sprint, such as catching a competitor or driving toward the finish line. The runner who can do this will prevail over the runner who can’t. The same is true in business. Non-stop sprinting will lead to exhaustion and burnout. Most of the time we want to maintain a moderate but steady pace. But when those crucial moments arise, we want to pour it on and rise to the occasion. Sprinting is good and satisfying. It brings us closer as a team and gives us pride, because we know we did something difficult.