With Fitness, Comparison Is the Thief of Joy

According to a recent survey, about 40% of Americans make yearly New Year’s resolutions. Two of the most common goals include losing weight and working out more. On average, 65% of those who make resolutions are still on track after the first month.

If you’re a first responder who resolved on January 1 to improve your health in 2023, how are things going so far? If you’re struggling to stay on target, it’s hard to avoid comparing your own results to how others are doing. But you must resist the urge! Whether you’re continuing an existing workout plan or following a new one, there’s just one comparison that really matters: You versus you.

Nobody Is an Apple

Seven years ago, I took up long distance running … partly because I was too cheap to buy larger pants. Running has been good for me, both physically and mentally, though ironically, I ended up having to replace all my trousers from my pre-running days with a smaller size. All things considered, though, that’s not a terrible problem to have.

A few weeks ago, I served as a race pacer for a local half marathon. Pacers are volunteers who sign up to run a race at a pre-determined speed and time. It’s standard practice to pace a time that’s 15 to 20 minutes slower than we would run if we were racing the same course. Pacers carry signs to indicate the specific time and pace we’re running, and runners know that if they can stick with us to the finish, they can hit their target time.

My co-pacer and I were assigned to run 1:45:00, which averages out to 8:01 per mile. We crossed the finish line at 1:44:48, just 12 seconds ahead of our assigned time. We nailed it!

After I posted race photos to social media, my friend Liz (who’s also a runner) commented, “Great job pacing my PR!”

“PR” is runner-speak for “personal record,” the best time someone has ever run a particular distance. When I saw Liz’s comment I immediately found myself getting defensive, trying to explain away the differences in training, race histories, injuries and other factors. But there wasn’t really a need to justify why a 1:45:00 result is relatively easy for one person but a 100% effort for someone else. It’s not just apples and oranges: it’s apples, grapes, pears, grapefruits, and so on. Just as every race is different, every person running every race is also different.

The next day, I read that 31-year-old Emily Sisson had set a new American women’s record for the 13.1 distance, running a blistering 1:06:52 at the Houston Half Marathon. Her time was 20 minutes faster than my own half marathon PR. As I hung up my finisher’s medal from Saturday morning’s race, I found myself feeling jealous of someone who could keep up a 5:06-per-mile pace for that long. Thinking realistically, there’s just no way — especially since I’m over 20 years older than Sisson and not getting any younger.

It wasn’t long, though, before I realized I was making the same kind of silly comparison Liz had made. There’s simply nothing productive about comparing my own abilities to those of somebody else.

Why We Compare

It’s virtually impossible not to compare ourselves to others. We do it in all aspects of our lives. When a friend drives a nicer car, takes more expensive vacations, or has a more successful career, we can’t help but notice. We compare children to see who has the smarter, more talented progeny. At the gym, in the locker room, on the streets and trails, it’s easy to find ourselves measuring our own abilities against those of everybody else (and often coming up short).

In the words of Dr. Art Markman, psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin:

This tendency to compare ourselves to other people is called social comparison, and it is a natural way for us to evaluate how we’re doing. When we compare ourselves to others who are better off than we are, it is called an upward social comparison, and it tends to make us feel dissatisfied. … When we compare ourselves to people worse off than we are, it is called a downward social comparisons , and it may make us feel satisfied (or even smug), but it also tends to sap our motivation to work harder.

Either way, social comparisons tend to be bad for us. (The exception is when you have a friendly competition with colleagues at a similar level, where comparing yourself to each other can motivate the entire group to achieve a goal.)

Why Comparison Is Harmful

If you’re an elite athlete, your actual job is to evaluate the performance of your competitors and try to beat them. If you’re a “tactical athlete” (that is, a first responder), your minimum goal should be to meet your department’s basic fitness standards. Aside from this, though, it’s best to avoid external comparisons altogether. There are a number of reasons for this.

Measuring your own fitness against the fitness of others is unfair because there are so many factors that make each of us different.

Different Starting Points: Right before I started my running journey, my employer measured my body mass index (BMI) for our company wellness program and pronounced me “overweight,” verging on “obese.” (Time for new pants, right?) Four years and 35 pounds later, one of my coworkers asked me to help her train for her very first marathon. At 5’-2” and over 300 pounds, Sara’s BMI was squarely in the “severely obese” range. She plunged into training anyway and lost nearly 20% of her body mass in the first five months. So far, so good.

Then she hit the inevitable plateau. When we ran our first race together (a half marathon), she took over four hours to cover the distance it took me less than 90 minutes to run. I had time to collect my medal, hit the snack table and lie down for half an hour before a friend drove me back to find Sara as she struggled to finish. Walking with my friend through the final miles of the course, I had to remind her that just six months before, she couldn’t go half a mile without complete exhaustion. She began her fitness journey with a huge “fitness debt,” and she had to pay off that debt before she could build the “fitness wealth” she was searching for.

Sara eventually went on to complete her marathon, barely beating the cutoff time. Though she eventually stopped running, she’s continued her body/lifestyle transformation through Zumba and pole fitness. Her progress has been all the more amazing because of where she started versus how far she’s come.

Age and Sex Matter: Let’s face it: Each of us is older today than we’ve ever been. It’s unproductive to compare our current athletic abilities to how we did in college or high school. Unlike wine, athletes don’t tend to get better with age.

While there are certainly outliers, elite athletes tend to see continuous improvements throughout their 20s, peak in their early 30s, then experience a gradual decline in performance. The variation seems to be slightly less pronounced for amateur athletes, but it still exists.

There’s a reason that the qualifying times for the Boston Marathon are graded by both age and sex. The overall average men’s marathon time of 4:10:10 is almost exactly half an hour faster than the women’s average of 4:39:09. Similarly, the average marathon time for a 20-year-old male is 4:01:55, while the average for a 50-year-old male is 4:19:49. Contrast this with 20-year-old female runners, who average 4:28:59, and 50-year-old females, who average 4:55:37.

In weight training, if you look at the average bench press capacity between the sexes, you’d expect a 165-pound man at the elite level to bench around 320, while the average for a woman in the same weight class is 185.

Bodies change over time, of course, sometimes for better and sometimes in the opposite direction. The good news is that there’s always room for improvement, no matter your sex or age.

Genetics Are a Factor: Most of us know someone who seems to be a “born athlete.” They’re naturally strong or naturally fast, able to outperform others with seemingly little effort. Simply put, it’s unwise to compare your own fitness to someone who might have an inborn advantage.

If you look at the top 10 male marathon runners of all time, six are from Kenya, three are from Ethiopia, and one is from Tanzania. See a pattern there? Looking at the top 10 female marathoners, number four on the list is Paula Radcliffe from Great Britain. The other nine are — any guesses? — from Kenya and Ethiopia. While experts may disagree on why Kenyan and Ethopian athletes dominate the running world, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that “runners from Kenya and Ethiopia hold 98 spots in the top 100 marathon performances of all time.”

Here’s another example: According to the PBS documentary, “In Football We Trust,” a Pacific Islander is 28 times more likely than a young man of any other ethnicity to make it to the NFL. Individual results vary, of course, but as a group, Polynesian athletes have a distinct advantage as professional football players.

And of course, ethnicity is just one part of an athlete’s inborn ability. Individual genetics can also make a huge difference. Some people are simply born with more speed, strength and endurance than others. Good training can help make up the difference, but only up to a point. When it comes to fitness, we have to play the hand we’re dealt.

We All Train Differently: When you look around the gym or check out the other runners at a group running event, you never really know who you’re looking at. That guy struggling with the kettle bell may have recently started a new job that forced him to take a month off from his normal workout routine. The woman with the KT Tape on her knee is likely coming back from an injury. The teenager sitting alone on the stationary bike might be struggling with the recent death of a loved one.

You never know how much time a given person has put into their training, whether they’ve been working with a coach, whether a recent illness or injury has made it difficult for them to train. You also don’t know what other challenges their lives have thrown at them. By the same token, most of the people around you don’t know where you started or how far you’ve come in your own fitness journey. Because of this, it’s best to give ourselves and others a break.

Avoiding Comparisons

As you evaluate your own fitness journey, it’s critical to avoid making comparisons with others — especially upward comparisons — because doing so can make you discouraged. If you must compare yourself to somebody, the most obvious person is you.

Focus on Yourself: We don’t often hear the phrase “think of yourself” when it comes to positive advice, but when it comes to fitness, it’s usually the best way to roll. Keep in mind where you started and how far you’ve come. As your fitness improves, take time to acknowledge the results of your efforts. Note that self-comparison is best when you’re comparing recent results to recent results. You don’t want to be an Uncle Rico, constantly reliving your high school or college glory days to the detriment of here and now. That kind of person can be difficult to be around.

Visualize Your Future: If you’re just starting out, stay focused on setting realistic goals for six months from now, a year from now and five years ahead. Whether you’re looking to build muscle mass, speed or agility, it’s often helpful to set a goal and chart your progress. If your goal is weight loss, your waistband will tell you most of what you need to know. Other types of milestones can be tracked using a workout journal.

Celebrate Others’ Successes: Once you stop comparing yourself to those around you, you’ll have a much easier time getting excited about the achievements of others — even when they outperform you. When you sincerely congratulate and compliment others on their efforts, you’ll find that others are more likely to reciprocate, which can be a confidence booster. On the other hand, you can also commiserate with your friends when they fall short of their own goals. After all, we’ve all been there and done that.

Be Thankful for Your Abilities: When you stop constantly comparing yourself to others, you’ll probably find lots of things to appreciate about your own body and fitness. Never lose the capacity to be amazed at what your body can do. And when you find something you can’t do, make a plan to overcome (or sidestep) that obstacle. Once you begin cultivating this mindset, you’ll likely find yourself trying and succeeding at things other people (including you in the past) might have considered impossible.

Competition, Not Comparison

Going back to Dr. Markman’s comments about social comparison, we can acknowledge an exception to his rule about not comparing yourself to others: “when you have a friendly competition with colleagues at a similar level, where comparing yourself to each other can motivate the entire group to achieve a goal.”

Many public safety agencies use fitness challenges to foster camaraderie and encourage employees to get or stay in shape. For individual contests, participants have to recognize that the top performers in the department will dominate the challenge. After all, not everyone’s a winner. For group contests, though, you can use comparison as a tool for learning and motivation.

If you find yourself in a team challenge, talk to the other members of your team about their approach and methods, and see if you can benefit from what’s worked for them. Tag along with your teammates on their workouts — the worst thing that can happen is that they will push you to a harder effort. Contribute to the best of your ability, and express gratitude to the others in your team for their achievements.

Remember that the struggle is the whole point. Fitness — especially when you’re rebooting your physical activity — is supposed to be hard. Grant yourself the patience to work through the process while you give your body a chance to adapt to the new demands you’re putting on it. You might just be surprised at what you’re able to accomplish as you rise to meet the challenge.

Competing With Ourselves

President Theodore Roosevelt is often credited with stating that “comparison is the thief of joy.” While he likely didn’t say this, the aphorism still holds true. Measuring your own fitness against the fitness of others is unfair because there are so many factors that make each of us different.

As you strive to improve your strength, speed, agility and overall athleticism, make a point of not looking dismissively at the people behind you or being envious of those ahead. Instead, look back at the person you were when you started out and ahead to the person you want to become. Treat your challenges as obstacles, not excuses, and treat your failures as learning opportunities.

The world is full of folks who accomplish amazing things against overwhelming odds. Why not be one of those people?

David Baker

DAVID BAKER is senior manager of content marketing at Lexipol. He's a marketing communications professional with a strong background in writing and editing. David did his graduate work in linguistics, writing his thesis on sign language phonology, and worked for almost a decade in Deaf and disability services. Besides writing and editing content for the Lexipol and Cordico blogs, he is an avid road racer and trail runner. David completed six marathons and seven half marathons in 2022, including the Boston Marathon and New York City Marathon. David is the proud father of a police officer son.

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