aging · competition · fitness

The downside of competing against yourself: You can’t PR forever!

We have written quite a bit on the blog about competition (see Tracy’s The Competitive Feminist) and the idea that in endurance and lifting sports you don’t have to view others as your competition. Instead, you can aim to get better, to achieve a PR, and to be better than the athlete you were yesterday. In this way competition is about self improvement, not about besting others. You’re your own competition.  And that sounds lovely. It can make racing fun even for people who don’t think of themselves as competitive.  I identified my past self as my competition in the fittest by fifty challenge. You see this idea reflected in the slogans below.





But there are at least two problems with this idea that you’re your own competition, lovely as it is.

First, this isn’t true for all sports. While some sports consist in individual effort and you can make a choice to compare yourself to others or to your earlier efforts, in other sports there’s only the comparison between you and others. Weight lifting is a clear case of measuring your individual performance. How much did you bench?What’s your max deadlift? You can consciously choose to focus your concern on comparing yourself to others of the same age and size or to focus on personal bests and getting stronger over time.

Other sports can come in different flavours. Consider cycling, just because it’s the sport I know best. In a bike race that’s a time trial you can compare your pace over a certain distance to past efforts on that course, but in a road race there’s a lot of interactive strategy. What matters in a road race, the only thing that matters, is your relative place in the race. Team sports are like this too. You can’t compare your soccer performance this year to yours last year because you’re part of a team playing against other teams. The interaction matters.

But these problems aren’t the ones I’m really interested in today though I do have a special interest in the question of whether sports that involve interpersonal strategy are more interesting, more complex than ones that just measure individual effort and fitness. I like sports that include a place for “skill, cunning, and guile.” I have a soft spot for interactive sports of the sort that game theorists can model. I don’t go as far as my partner who declares endurance sports as dull as watching paint dry. I’m sure I’ll write more about this later. I teach sports ethics and I’m interested in some of the definitional issues. What makes some activities sports and others not? Can we rule out as sports those activities that a lack a “game” element? (Interested? Go read When is a sport not a sport? by Wayne Norman.)

The question that interests me today is competing against your past self and losing. That’s sad but it happens. And here’s the very sad part. It will happen to all of us. At some point we stop getting stronger and faster. We get weaker and we slow down. Tracy and I have both commented that our recent spurt of fitness activities have been extra motivating because we’re adult onset athletes. There are no high school sports trophies gathering dust in our closets. Even the relativized notion of competition–competing only against oneself–can be too demanding. Suppose I could average 32 km/hr in a time trial at 30, do you think I’ll still be able to do that at 60? Probably not.

So while the idea of competing only against your past self seems like a more gentle form of competition, in many ways it’s not. There is a time when it starts to be kinder and gentler to compare your performance to the performance of people your own age rather than to the performance of your younger, fitter self. I’ve watched friends, former competitive athletes, struggle with this. Sometimes they switch sports–from rowing to cycling–and sometimes they move on to a less competitive version of the activity–from bike racing to long distance touring. Comparing yourself to your younger self–whether it’s your 5 km time, your hair colour, the number on the scale, or your max bench–can certainly lead to sadness.

So is there a better motivational saying that reflects this? Suggestions anyone?

20 thoughts on “The downside of competing against yourself: You can’t PR forever!

  1. I used to compete in judo, a sport where you’re definitely fighting against somebody else than yourself. It was always pretty stressful for me. Then I started running more and taking part in races and was so excited about the idea of competing against myself, and trying to improve my times. But after two pregnancies, I think it is better to try to reach whatever goals you set for yourself rather than always aiming for a PR. Our life circumstances change, our bodies too, our goals have to be adjusted consequently, but that doesn’t mean we’re failing at achieving them.

  2. The final question here is an interesting one because I don’t really go for motivational sayings in general, finding them to be part of a sort of weird sports/fitness community vibe that is at odds with my integration of activity into my life. Because exercise is an essential support for human health, and is in my experience a deep source of happiness, I personally find the ideas of “competition” and “work in progress” a bit disappointing and beside the point.

    But I’ve always liked this quote, attributed to Arthur Ashe, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” The full quote starts with “To achieve greatness,” but I find it eminently acceptable not to worry about greatness, just to figure out what matters and inhabit it as fully as you can.

    I think one thing to keep in mind if you’re worried that you won’t PR forever is that if you stay in the saddle, you’ll definitely be way ahead of where you would otherwise have been. If the frailty we associate with aging is, as is being suggested by better examination of older active people, more an artifact of being willing to just stop, well, it’s a huge gift to ourselves to do what we can to prevent that.

    On a practical level: One thing I’ve seen lifelong athletes do, when they can’t shake the competition and/or self-competition bug, is to break out their PR tracking as all-time vs per-season.

    1. Oh, nice suggestions. Love this, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” And the idea of in-season personal bests. Just like Strava resetting its QOMs.

    2. What you say resonates strongly with me. It’s great to set goals but we don’t always need to be trying to achieve greatness or be “better” than our past or present selves. Love the Arthur Ashe quote! Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom.

  3. For me, that motivational saying is “Fitness is fitness whether it’s competitive or not”. I think by trying to best my former self I was falling to celebrate where I am in life now.

  4. You ask some intriguing questions here. Some first thoughts: you mentioned you liked sports that use “skill, cunning, and guile”. I tend to like sports that are about technique, form, balance, coordination, concentration and (forgive the term) synergy with the environment in which I’m doing the sport. This for me includes racket sports, cycling of many sorts, and now I’m dipping back into ocean kayaking.

    The instructor for my ocean skills class said something interesting last week. He said that the process of becoming an ocean kayaker is one of working WITH the elements of tide, wind, weather, and geography. You’re not out there to become stronger or faster, but to use your knowledge and skills to work with these features to have a safe and satisfying experience. What I took from that was this: the physical experience you have depends on various internal and external features. But it’s not for us to judge that experience based on our speed or strength or distance, as the elements of nature simply make such goals beyond our control, and they are, therefore, beside the point.

    I think we can apply this to the idea of setting aside the PR in favor of say, looking for ways to enhance our experiences of sport as we are engaging in them. The instructor suggested keeping a log with info like tide, weather, wind, time of day, and also how it felt, challenges faced. Some sports might be more conducive to this than others, but cycling seems like it’s one of them. There’s not a well-formed idea here yet, but I know it’s there– more to think about and work on…

    1. This has a nice connection with most of the outdoor sports, which often prize not just working *with* the environment but deliberately picking “the easiest line.” You may choose an absolutely harder option because of other constraints, like wanting to do something with a specific gear complement (or no gear at all), but the idea is still to find a natural, efficient path, sort of like water flowing down hill.

      One thing I think gets lost in the “fitness community” and competition worlds is that, for the human body, conditioning is actually a mechanism to make things *easier*, to do more with less (less deliberate movement, less energy expended). Precision sports (anything with a target) really pay off that kind of mastery, and almost all the outdoor, distance-covering sports offer many opportunities to improve your “flow.”

  5. I’m experiencing a pretty sharp upswing in my performance in both running and triathlon, but I’m also really aware that this is something that isn’t going to last forever. I’m preparing for it by enjoying this while it happens, and also looking for reasons to love what I do beyond the PRs and AGs.

  6. Changing the metrics of success is a tricky process and your post is such an intelligent and thoughtful reflection of that. I’m trying to redefine how I perceive success and it’s been hard. I’m naturally quite competitive, most of all with myself, so I face many of the issues that you do.

  7. In the words of a prescient computer, sometimes the only winning move is not to play [a game where there must be a loser] 🙂

  8. There’s something to be said for using your performance as a motivator, but I wonder sometimes: would I do this if it wasn’t measurable? I run on trails where the satellite won’t let me know how far or how fast I’m going, and it still brings me great joy, so I think for me the competitive part of my training endeavours is just one part of it. I think about some of the yoga postures I could do when I was a lot smaller and can no longer manage, but I was capable of them at the expense of my health and now that I’ve got a different body type, I can manage some things I could not before. There’s no competition there, so I do my best not to let the competitive structure of everything else I seem to do sneak in. CrossFit is numbers oriented, weightlifting certainly has a tracking component, etc. My therapist often reminds me that the competitive part of exercise or movement can be a slippery slope. We make everything into competitions. Kids who are dancers don’t just dance any more–they compete in competitive programs and go to competitions. I didn’t do half as many races or competitions when I was in recovery because of the way it was a mindf*ck for me when my goals were about health. It’s hard to escape it, but it’s important to remind ourselves that we don’t have to take a Garmin or sign up for a race if it isn’t serving us where we’re at.

  9. Great questions! I think I dodge the harsh or depressing evidence of decline through clever forms of denial and moving the goal posts (and denying that I’m moving the goal posts). On or around my birthday each year I try to “run my age”. At one point this meant, “running a mile for each year”. Then, “running a km for each year”. That latter strategy, for most of us runners, is good until about 42! So now I try to “run 10km in my age in minutes”. It has the nice benefit of (a) being pretty easy for me now. (I’m in my mid-50s and can probably do 10km in under 40 minutes if I push myself.) And (b) it gives you an extra minute each year. I could imagine, realistically, still being able to achieve this goal at 75+. But if that formula for running your age isn’t realistic, we can always find another (e.g. running/walking around a standard 400m track 10 times in one’s age in minutes; running some favorite course somewhere — like around a little late, or a forest trail — in one’s age. Or whatever. Anyway, in terms of official competitions, like road races in running or cycling, I suppose one can keep aiming to finish above a certain percentile for one’s age bracket…. But in the end, yes, we will not always be able to best our younger selves. Although we can always pretend that we’re wiser!

  10. Recently I have had to re-acquaint myself with my motto of ‘that’s my victory’, whereby I focus on a particular aspect of a session as a goal, and if I achieve that, then I have my ‘victory’. Since having my son almost 4months ago, I am essentially training in a new body, so if I were to compare my efforts now to those pre-pregnancy then I would get nowhere. I have discovered that I have needed to take the ego out of my training, and celebrate my victories in the context of my current state. I have found it both humbling and exciting – I actually like feeling like I am starting from scratch and celebrating all the little victories along the way.
    Everyone’s victory is subjective to them and their physical and mental journey, but all should be celebrated and considered of equal merit.

  11. This phenomenon happens in other fields of endeavor, not just sports. For example, I restarted playing the violin as an adult, at age 40. So far I have improved relative to my younger self and I’ve been glad about this. But I notice that I spend a lot less time thinking about progress and goals than most other people. I play the violin to enjoy it and to connect with others. Getting better is nice, and satisfying, when it happens, but it’s not why I play. Similarly, I only exercise for enjoyment and general health/fitness. I don’t do a lot of goals and measuring. Scott Adams makes a good point about goals vs. systems, here in this blog: He says “Compare the goal of exercising 3-4 times a week with a system of being active every day at a level that feels good, while continuously learning about the best methods of exercise. Before long your body will be trained, like Pavlov’s dogs, to crave the psychological lift you get from being active every day. It will soon become easier to exercise than to skip it – no willpower required.” That’s pretty much my approach to exercise. I try to be as active as I can every day at a level that feels good. That will probably change as I get older, but so what.

    Read more:

  12. The victory every day here… I am alive, I can move and will move to enjoy my body and the world around me.

    I’m not sure if “sad” is the correct term here for me, because everyone in this thread will be humbled/motivated if:

    *worked in hospital where patients were suddenly paralyzed for life (paraplegic, quadriplegic) due accident, etc.
    *experienced at any point a major accident where they were bedridden (I had a concussion-head injury which I had to go from being tired/exhausted/dizzy to normal…took 5 months.)
    *watch an elderly person who was dying and could not longer themselves to pull themselves up to sit up (my dying father). My doctor-sister said this happens all the time to the elderly towards the end of life.

    So don’t overfocus on benchmarking your physical performance against your younger/healthier self. Just relish in your bodily movement, mobility and…do it daily because you enjoy being ..alive.

  13. I really like a comment from an earlier post: “Celebrate the athlete you are now!” It may have been about the athletic gear you no longer use, but it also speaks to the body, doesn’t it? If you’re still out there, celebrate that!

Comments are closed.