How your career is like a marathon

A good friend of mine just completed the New York City marathon. Seeing her smiling face holding her shiny medal reminded me of my marathon days and all the blood, sweat, and tears (all literal!) that went into each race. I have fond memories of that time of my life and am always happy to give new runners advice when asked. As I think of the major things one must do to complete a race without injury, the parallels to career planning are uncanny. So, if you’re planning on running a marathon or having a successful career (or both!), perhaps these tips will help.

Make a plan

Just like you don’t go out and run 26 miles on your first run, but gradually work up to that level, you wouldn’t strive to be the CEO of a large corporation right out of college. Make a plan by setting short, medium, and long-term goals. A marathon plan is setup with weekly mileage goals and different types of runs within each week. A career plan can also work that way, except you’d perhaps exchange the weeks for years. What job out of college would get you going in the right direction? Or, perhaps, what skills in a job not even in your chosen field would benefit you and your resume? As the saying goes, ‘Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.’ Take the time to think through your gifts and talents, goals, dreams, and ambitions, and map out your years. Just like in running, planning is time well spent.

Pace yourself

Ok, you have your plan. Now take a look and see if it’s actually attainable. When running a marathon, it is so important to pace yourself during training and during the race. More is not more. More can actually sideline you quite rapidly. Rest is as important as anything else in your plan. And this absolutely applies to your career plan as well. Take reasonable steps to reach each goal in your plan. As in a race, you need to have energy for that last stretch to cross the finish line. Staying focused yet reasonable about what is possible each year may get you a lot farther than you think (consider the tortoise vs. hare). Do what it takes to avoid burnout, and you may even pass up the go-getters who just collapsed on the side lines, so to speak.


Any good running plan includes days to do other forms of exercise such as swimming or biking. This balances the body and helps to prevent injury. Same thing applies to your career plan. Do other things besides work! Dedicate time to doing what you love to do outside of work. Make time for family, friends, and community service. It is good to work on your career but it is also good to set it aside for other things that are important, helping to avoid work-based injuries (aka burnout).

Prepare for ‘the wall’

The wall, in marathon terms, is that point any time after mile 20 where you’re pretty sure your body is about to give out. You’ve ‘hit the wall,’ so to speak. This can happen on your career path as well, so prepare for it. Suddenly laid off? Job wasn’t what you expected? You’ve accomplished and learned about as much as you can in your current role? Take the time to consider these scenarios and come up with plans B and C. Keep a pulse on other opportunities in your area (or even outside your area) in case the wall comes faster than expected. Network, attend industry events, keep your resume current. All these will help you get past that ‘wall’ in your career and keep going.

Celebrate with a huge cheeseburger

This is my choice reward after a big race. Yours may be different, but the point is to celebrate small and big wins as you accomplish your career goals. Keep that ‘bucket list’ filled and check them off periodically. Don’t get so focused on the next hurdle that you never stop to celebrate your accomplishments. If you have ever crossed the finish line of a long road race, you know that feeling of elation which makes all the hard work worth it. In fact, celebrating that keeps you doing it again, and again. So revel in that promotion, kudos from the big guns, or the certificate you worked so hard to earn. Then, and only then, go back to your plan and set the next goal.

You don’t want to ‘cross the finish line’ (e.g. retire) with a whole lot of work memories and very little from your personal life. Again, with running, work, and life in general, it’s about balance. Keep these 5 tips in mind as you plan for and work out your career path. And heck, why not try running a race while you’re at it?

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