Yes, I Am Trying to Run Faster Than You

Or, "Am I a Freak for Being So Darn Competitive?"

I am mainly writing this blog post as a means of catharsis, so bear with me, guys. I have something to confess: I’m that annoying person on the treadmill who sneaks a peek at your treadmill to see how fast you’re going. I know. Shame on me. But to be clear, it’s not because I’m judging you per se, I’m just trying to see if I’m going faster than you. Because, well, I reeeeeeally want to be going faster than you.

I play these mind games with myself every time I step foot on a treadmill for a run. They go like this: Cool, I’m going at a good clip—not too fast, not too slow—and I feel great, I’ll think to myself. But I wonder how fast that girl with the springy blond ponytail is going … No, you jerk, don’t look! You can’t look. Looking is like, such a gym faux pas.

But, one little peek can’t hurt, right?

No, don’t do it!

I mean, what if I inched back on my treadmill just a smidge so I can dart my eyes over. And then I can pretend I’m wiping sweat from my forehead so I can turn my head just a tiny bit to get a good look.

I just said don’t do it!

Too late.

End scene.

Sigh. Am I a total freak or what? Well, maybe not. “Anybody who tells you they don’t do that is not being truthful,” sports psychologist Joel Fish told me. “It’s human nature to compete.”

Ah yes, good old competition. It’s one thing I’ve always had in spades—whether it’s school, sports, work—and it’s a character trait I usually consider less than flattering, one I’ve tried (and failed) many times to correct. I mean, there’s a reason why when my friends and I play the “Which character on Friends Are You?” game, I am always, 100 percent, no-question-about it Monica.

I reached out to Dr. Fish to talk to him about competitiveness—where it comes from, when it goes to far, and how to use it to your advantage—and to find out whether or not I’m a completely awful human being. “Just like with other traits, not everybody is wired the same exact way,” he said. “So when it comes to competitiveness, the intensity and what triggers it varies from person to person.” As the director for Philly’s Center for Sports Psychology for the past 25 years, Fish has seen all types: athletes who have unhealthy levels of competitiveness and ones who don’t have enough of it.

With the former group, you can tell when competition crosses the line because it starts to seep into other areas of your life and impacts them in negative ways. You know, that person who’s training for a marathon who gets so wrapped up in it that it’s all she’s sleeping, eating and breathing for six months straight. Soon, the competitive drive that gets her out of bed on Saturdays for long runs turns the corner and becomes a perfectionist obsession. Her work is affected, her relationships take a toll. She beats herself up if she doesn’t meet her goals.

“That’s when we know it’s gone overboard,” Fish said. “With competitiveness, more isn’t always better.”

With athletes who don’t have enough of a competitive edge—so much so that it negatively impacts performance—Fish says you have to identify the mental block and come up with a game plan to overcome it. Those blocks can come in all shapes and sizes, but often it’s rooted in a fear of failure, of not achieving the goal you set out to achieve. Instead of rising to the occasion, your brain shuts down and leaves you paralyzed with fear.

“I try to teach my clients positive self-talk,” he said. “You want to encourage yourself the way you’d for a friend.” Sure, it feels silly at first, but the more you do it the more confident you feel—confident enough, eventually, to let your competitive edge shine.

Another strategy if you feel you can’t push yourself: get a workout buddy. Not only will he or she get you to the gym (win!), once you’re there you can push each other toward achieving your goals. Heck, run next to each other on the treadmill on purpose and see who can go fastest for longest.

As for me? “If you feel that sneaking a look at the next guy’s treadmill is a positive motivator for you because it pushes you more—maybe it gets you to run faster or longer—then it’s good for you,” Fish told me. “Goal setting is good. Setting up mind games is good. So if it pushes you to be more disciplined and if it helps you achieve a goal, I’d say you’re alright.”

Phew. That’s a relief.

>> Tell us: How competitive are you? Do you think your competitive edge is healthy or unhealthy? Do you compare yourself to other people at the gym? Share in the comments.