The Case for Getting Ahead by Always Stopping Short

STOPPING ONE REP SHORT is an old adage used by wise athletic coaches. It means ending your workout when you still have one more lap, lift, or mile in the tank. Though it is tempting to keep pushing—to do that extra set of sprints, for example—you can’t constantly be going to the well and destroying yourself. You need to be able to pick up the next workout where you left off.

That mentality has certainly worked well for Eliud Kipchoge, the Kenyan runner who in 2018 shattered the marathon world record. He is the best in the world at what he does. In addition to being supremely fast, he is supremely thoughtful. He’s been given the nickname “the philosopher king of running.”

When asked about his recipe for success, Kipchoge answers that the key is not overextending himself in training. He is not fanatical about trying to be great all the time. He is, however, consistent and patient. For example, he has trained with the same coach for more than a decade in a sport where most athletes frequently switch. Shortly before setting his world record, Kipchoge told The New York Times that he rarely, if ever, pushes himself past 80 percent—90 percent at most—of his maximum effort during workouts. This allows him to string together weeks of consistent training.

He is a master of letting things happen in their own time instead of trying to make them happen. His coach, Patrick Sang, says that the secret to Kipchoge’s speed is that he makes progress “slowly by slowly.”

What you are able to accomplish tomorrow is in part influenced by the restraint you show today. This strategy applies well beyond sports. For example, a common piece of writing advice is to stop one sentence short, to end a block of writing when you are still in the flow of things so that you can more easily pick up and then settle into a rhythm in your next session.

As I explain in my new book, this is one aspect of practicing Groundedness—the unwavering internal strength and self-confidence that sustains you through ups and downs. Groundedness is a deep reservoir of integrity and fortitude, of wholeness, out of which lasting performance, well-being, and fulfillment emerge. Yet here’s the common trap: when you become too focused on productivity, optimization, growth, and the latest bright and shiny objects, you neglect your ground. Eventually, you end up suffering.

When you are grounded there is no need to look up or down. You are where you are, and you hold true strength and power from that position. The success you experience becomes more enduring and robust. It is only once you are grounded that you can truly soar, at least in a sustainable manner.

Stopping one rep short can be part of that life change. Just remember that if you can be patient, you’ll probably get there (wherever you hope there is) faster. The general practice goes like this: First, identify areas of your life where a lack of patience has caused you problems—perhaps injury, illness, or burnout—in the past. Next, instead of doing what you’re accustomed to doing, what you may want to do in the moment, force yourself to stop the equivalent of one rep short, day in and day out.

Of course, stopping one rep short requires discipline. You need confidence in your process, confidence that if you stay patient, show restraint when appropriate, and take consistent small steps, you’ll end up with big gains. Research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine shows that most sports injuries happen when an athlete increases their training load too quickly. The best way to avoid injury is to slowly build up training volume over time. When acute workload, or what you did this week, is more than twice as much as chronic workload, or the average of what you’ve done the past four weeks, you’re significantly more likely to sustain an injury versus when you make a more modest increase in training volume and intensity.

Though the exact sweet spot for increasing workload is a matter of scientific debate, the general theme is that you don’t want to increase any given day’s workload to be that much greater than the average of the past month’s. I’ve seen this same principle apply in my executive coaching practice. When people take on too much too soon, or convince themselves that they can suddenly leap upward in output, symptoms of burnout usually loom around the corner.

Even so, stopping one rep short is one of the hardest things to do, especially for driven people. The vast majority of my own injuries (in sports) and periods of stagnation (in the creative process) have come as a result of disregarding this practice. That’s a long-winded way of saying that I get it, I really do. I’ve found it can be helpful to enlist colleagues and friends to help hold you accountable.

Think like the record-holding runner Kipchoge. Progress happens slowly by slowly. If you’re prone to getting caught up in excitement and speed today, overshooting the target only to end up frustrated or feeling burnt out tomorrow, paste these words—slowly by slowly—in your work space, whether it’s an office, an artist’s studio, a classroom, or a garage gym. Eventually, you’ll be amazed at how far you have come.

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