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Adii Pienaar

Now working on PublicBeta. Founder & ex-CEO of WooThemes. Author of Brandiing. New Dad. Ex-Rockstar.

What Running Has Taught Me About Entrepreneurship

Last month I ran a total of 120km's which included, running my personal best on an unexpected half marathon. This obviously meant putting in the time and I subsequently spent a lot of time on the road: just me, some music, the sound of my (sometimes ragged) breathing and most importantly: my thoughts.

During these runs, I think about many different things and I try avoid thinking about work or business at all. I also try use this time to just shut off from the world and do some introspection.

One of the recurring themes to pop into my head in the last month, was drawing the similarities between how I was progressing as a runner and how I could potentially apply the same mindset to being an entrepreneur and / or running my company.

The thing is that running isn't something that comes naturally to me (unlike being an entrepreneur for example) and as such I've had to try a variety of different things to make me a better runner. I feel like the things I've tried and implemented in the last month have become such an integral part of my running routines and is the primary driver for my recent progress and success.


The next logical step (for me anyway) was to take this learning and apply the same thinking elsewhere. So here's a list of the things I learnt about entrepreneurship from just spending time on the road, running:

1. Work when you're productive & focused.

In the past, I used to motivate myself to go running in a very reactive, threatening-kinda way: I would decide to run a half marathon and I would "demand" (of myself) to run specific distances in specific times. This meant that regardless of how I was feeling (mentally or physically), I had to meet those requirements.

So in my latest stint of running (which started in October last year, having not run much in the 6 months prior) I decided that I wasn't gonna set myself the goal of running in a specific half marathon. Instead I decided to run just because I loved it.

What this meant is that sometimes I started running and I could feel that my body didn't respond or that I just wasn't in the mental space to run. So I cut my run short and went home. On the flipside though, on numerous occassions I planned to only run 5km but ended up running 10km instead, because I was feeling good. That's a 2x return when literally doubling-down on that good feeling.

This made me think about how my ambition and drive regularly makes me sit in front of my computer, where I'm only half-productive and nowhere close to efficient. Sometimes I'm just not in the zone and I've learnt to admit that to myself. So instead of sitting through unproductive hours in front of my computer, I get up and I do something else that's not in any way related to work.

And then when I do feel like I am in the zone, I double down and I get an insane amount of work done.

2. Avoid Injury.

In January, I had been training well for about 2 months and had managed to consistently increase my average distances and pace. Then I got greedy and for about a week, I pushed myself too hard. In fact, I can still remember the last run I had in January (which was the first time I managed to run sub-60 minutes on 10km), where I could literally feel how I was aggravating an injury. Instead of just stopping, I kept pushing.

The result was that I developed a severe case of shin splints that kept me out of running for 2 whole months.

As entrepreneurs, we know how to push (hard) and we know how to use adrenaline to fuel us. Burnout is however a very real threat, which should not be considered lightly.

The problem about injury and burnout isn't the pain of dealing with it; it's the frustration of having to sit through the rehabilitation. Once you've injured yourself, there's just no more shortcuts; you have to do the time.

So avoid injury and burnout. Sleep well and try get 8 hours of sleep a day. Eat healthily, exercise regularly and immerse your energy into non-work stuff too. All of this will help maintain your entrepreneurial fitness and ability to be consistently ambitious and driven.

3. Reward Yourself.

When I eventually recovered from the injury I sustained in January and got back on the road in March, I decided to go for a weekly sports massage to help maintain (and prevent) my predisposition to shin splints.

The massages turned into more of a reward though and I balanced the purpose of the massages between being relaxed / getting pampered and doing the preventative work on my muscles. I love this downtime and this became a big motivating factor for me to run even more.

I've found that with work, I need to reward myself. And money isn't enough of a motivating factor for me to work hard or do more.

What's worked for me though is to reward myself with experiences. On the expensive end of the scale, that's been via travelling as much as I can. On a more regular basis though, I reward myself for a hard day's work by opening a bottle of fantastic red wine.

The key is to connect the dots between the work and the experience; knowing that both need to be present to be able to draw that line.

4. A change is as good as a holiday.

These days I run with two different pairs of Nike running shoes; I have a pair of stable running shoes, which I use most often and on all my longer runs. But when I got that pair, I also got myself a pair of Nike's free running shoes which mimic an almost-barefoot run.

I use the free running shoes on my shorter runs only and they normally coincide with it being a recovery run of sorts (if I had a hard run the previous time). This has done two things for me: the shoes invokes a different running technique, which means I exercise different muscles and also rests my regular running muscles.

This has thus helped in my prevention of new injuries and also made me a better and stronger runner.

In my work, I've found that by changing things up (and doing so regularly), I can stay fresh for longer. Sometimes this means a change of scenery (not working in the office) or a complete deviation from my To Do list (just working on anything that's not that important or even on my To Do list).

The effect immediately after that change has been immense and I've always felt more focused to work on my existing To Do list thereafter.

5. Nurture Consistency.

On average I run every second day. Sometimes I run on two or three consecutive days, but I'm still finding that this pushes my body a little hard.

Running every second day though feels consistent and it has become a routine. I'm now able to naturally schedule my running days in such a way that I have enough time in the afternoons to go for a run.

This has been one of the primary drivers behind my ability to run 120km last month; it became a habit, which I could consistently get to.

I've seen the same scenario with my handling of my inbox.

I know that all of us get a boatload of e-mail and it's probably the #1 complaint of busy people. I've found though that when I'm disciplined and when I keep my inbox neat & clean consistently, I avoid it ever becoming a problem. As soon as I lose that consistency (I don't answer e-mail for 3 days for example), it becomes a mess.

As entrepreneur, these little habits that I've developed helps me to consistently get stuff done & move forward. Consistency is your friend.

6. Shed excess weight.

I've always been a tad overweight; without being obese and most definitely don't have the physique that you'll see on the cover of GQ any time soon. :)

So about 6 weeks ago I set out to try the Paleo diet in an effort to cut down on some excess weight and especially decrease my body fat percentage. I've since dropped about 6kg and decreased my body fat percentage by 5%, which I've definitely been feeling the benefit of when running.

Running with excess weight is hard work. I realized this again this past weekend when I went running with my son, where he and the stroller adds about 20kg of weight for me to run with. That 20kg literally increased my average pace with a minute per kilometre.

In business and in our work, excess weight can take many different shapes & forms. The one thing that I used to be very guilty of though was taking the responsibility for stuff that I either didn't need to do myself or stuff that just wasn't important. I was really bad at prioritizing my time.

When I got better at prioritization though and I focused on only doing the most important things every day, I immediately got more done. AND I was happier.

So shed the excess weight on your to do list; you'll run easier afterwards.

7. Run your own race.

I left the most profound (for me personally) realization for last.

Whilst running my last race, I realized that we're always competing and we're always measuring ourselves against other entrepreneurs and their companies. We read about how they do things, how they manage to be successful and how we should be applying all of those things.

Just like you are doing, reading this now.

It's not about that though. This is your life and in every race, you are only running against yourself, trying to improve on your personal best. What the other runners and entrepreneurs are doing shouldn't influence the way you run your own race.

Do things for yourself, be a little selfish every now and again and most important: invest in yourself.

PS. Join me and a whole bunch of other entrepreneurs as we run this entrepreneurial race through both its ups & downs. There's a reason why runners always run their personal bests on race days; your fellow runners motivate you and help gets the adrenaline going. Entrepreneurs can use that little boost too.

(Note: An edited version of this article was originally published on Forbes.)

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