What Running a Marathon Taught Me About Running a Business

This post is by Suellen Hughes of www.transforme.com.au

As a marathon runner, I often find myself thinking about my business while I’m out training. Using training time to listen to business related podcasts or work through business challenges is a good use of the time and a nice distraction.

Image is author's own

Recently a mentor said to me “running a business is like running a marathon—not a sprint” and that got me thinking about what other lessons I could draw from my running to apply to my business.

There are some obvious similarities like the need to have a vision, long and short term goals, a plan, and the metrics to tell you whether or not you’re on track.

There are also a few less-obvious lessons to be drawn.

Interval training is uncomfortable but worth the pain

Interval training at its most basic involves running at a fast pace, close to maximum exertion, for a short distance, then recovering for a short while, then repeating a number of times, aiming for the same or better pace. It’s also sometimes called Fartlek training—don’t you just love that word?

What’s the benefit?

The main aim of interval training is to improve cardiovascular fitness or Vo2 Max—the body’s capacity to transport and use oxygen during exercise—which is important for running 42.2kms (26.2miles). Without interval training, runners can end up running at the same comfortable pace and they don’t improve. They become what’s known as “one-pace plodders.”

What’s business lesson?

If you want to improve, sometimes you need to get out of your comfort zone.

To improve and grow your business, you need to try new things. This doesn’t mean embracing innovation or change for the sake of it. What it does mean is: add something challenging into the mix. If your business isn’t growing as fast as you’d like, try something different. You might feel uncomfortable, but if you keep doing the same old things year in and year out, you risk stagnating or, worse still, failing.

It’s hard to fit the training in, but if you don’t, you’ll pay the price on race day

Training for a marathon takes a lot of time. Typical marathon training plans start at least ten weeks prior to the event, with some beginning up to 18 weeks beforehand. Although plans vary depending on the runner’s level and goals, they all include a gradual increase in the number of miles covered each week and the duration of “the long run.” For most runners, training includes for or five runs every week, including a long run of three to four hours. Training sessions need to be scheduled.

What’s the benefit?

Having a training plan to follow means that you can work out when you’ll do your training sessions, how long each session will take, and when you need to juggle to fit training around other life events. The training plan has an end goal and a fixed date: the marathon.

What’s the business lesson?

You need to plan and schedule activities to get it all done.

Solopreneurs and small business owners don’t often have (m)any staff to delegate to. There is so much to get done, and it can be overwhelming. Setting short term goals, then scheduling the activities needed to reach them, makes the unachievable seem doable.

If you don’t schedule, then you’ll end up not doing enough, putting off the hard or unpleasant tasks (like chasing payments), or never finding the time to do the critical but less-urgent activities that require a lot of time and determine future success (like creating new products).

Marathons are as much mental as physical

Sure, a marathon runner needs to be in good physical shape. Without the basic physical conditioning, it’s unlikely that the runner will complete the event. However, as all marathon runners tell you, once you hit the 30-35km (18-22miles) mark, it becomes as much a mental game as a physical one.

What’s the benefit?

Being mentally prepared as well as physically capable will result in a successful marathon.

What’s the business lesson?

Having the right mindset is as important as the right skill or product set.

Running a successful business is not only about having the business know-how and the right products and services. It’s also about being mentally prepared; being self-confident in your abilities; being able to talk yourself through the pain of missing out on that big contract; charging what you’re worth; and standing on a stage and asking people to sign up for your program.

Race day conditions are not always ideal but the race goes on anyway

Marathons take place in all weather conditions: torrential rain, heatwaves, snow storms, you name it. Some marathons are road races, others off track. Some are flat, some hilly. Marathons don’t get canceled because it’s a few degrees hotter than ideal. The same should apply to training. Don’t miss a session because it’s raining—use it as an opportunity to test possible race day conditions

What’s the benefit?

Marathons are about endurance. It’s about competing in an extremely physically and mentally challenging event. It’s about finding a way to push through and cross the finish line.

What’s the business lesson?

We need to make our businesses work even when we’re faced with less than ideal conditions.

We might not have the budget to market our business the way we’d like. We might be feeling a bit under the weather the day we have to make that important presentation. We will have our ups and downs. Regardless, we need to find a way to push ahead. You can’t just cancel a product launch, a major customer event, or a new opening because the conditions are not ideal. Push ahead. Find a way to make it work.

There are lots of competitors but you need to run your own race

Arriving on race day at the starting area, you are surrounded by other runners. The line up for the Port-a-Loos (Port-a-Potty) is horrendous! Everyone is all kitted out and looks fit. Your stomach is full of butterflies and the adrenalin starts pumping. The important thing is to run your own race!

What’s the benefit?

It’s easy to get caught up in what others are doing and go out too fast, only to suffer later. You need to stick to your race plan and trust in yourself.

What’s the business lesson?

The only way to compete is to be in the race.

There will always be competitors. Some will be better than us. Some won’t make it. Strong competitors give us something to aspire to. Some will sneak up and overtake us. Someone has to come last, but next year, they’ll be better.

The final word goes not to a runner but to cyclist Lance Armstrong:

“Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.”

Suellen Hughes is a wife, mother, fit forty something, lover of life, marathon runner and Chief Kick Starter of www.transforme.com.au. She mentors gutsy, motivated people who are fed up with the daily grind, to kick start their own lifestyle change.

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  1. Love the analogy, especially from someone who walks the talk!
    Scheduling for me is the most pertinent – otherwise the ‘important’ To Do’s do keep getting shunted forward to ‘tomorrow’, which of course never comes!
    Thanks for the reminder 🙂

    • Hi Linda,

      Thanks for your comment. Scheduling is so important isn’t it? Especially as a small business owner when there’s often no one to delegate to. Again like running. Would be nice to be able to delegate the hill repeats or interval sessions to someone else!

      Hope you’ve crossed some of those big important tasks off your list today 😉

  2. Inspiring post Suellen! I’m reminded of the book I’m reading, “Delivering Happiness” by @Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh and in it Tony talks about completing a marathon.

    In an interview about “happiness” Tony talks about his marathon: “I remember when I crossed the finish line at my first marathon, I realised that it wasn’t just about that one moment or one day. It was meaningful because it represented the culmination of all the training that I had done leading up to that final moment of crossing the finish line.”

    Great lessons here and there, thanks for sharing this.


    • Hi Tony,

      I’ll have to have a look for that book – thanks for the recommendation.

      I totally agree with Tony Hsieh. I recorded a video (http://youtu.be/re4jfKgnePQ) of myself just after finishing my first marathon because I really wanted to capture the emotion and how I felt, knowing that it would quickly become a memory. For me, I never knew for sure I was going to make it until very close to the finish so to cross that line and know all the hard work paid off is an amazing feeling.

      I wonder what the equivalent “finish line” is in business? Views anyone?


  3. Vision – Goal – Plan – Metrics
    Need to understand these 4 words to succeed …
    Very impressive…

  4. This is really helpful, thank you. I have now almost made up my mind to move on from half marathons and run a full marathon for the first time, just before I hit 50.

    The analogy makes perfect sense.

  5. Winners Start With The End In Mind

    It may be cliched, though it’s absolutely true. If you want to achieve anything in business, or life for that matter, getting a clear picture in your mind of what the end result looks like is of paramount importance.

  6. Great article, very well written! While training for a marathon and running our own business I noticed the same similarities. Glad I googled it and found your article. Nice one!