Don’t Sprint the First Mile of a Half Marathon

On establishing a sustainable pace at the start of a new year.

A week into 2022, I am making steady progress on my goals for the year so far — from having done all the push-ups and pull-ups I wanted to so far, to having actually already finished 3 books of my goal of 22, to having read or written for the 30 minutes I had planned. This despite having had a wife still recovering from being quite sick!1 It feels very different from previous years, though: because I am not sprinting.

When running a half marathon, it’s important to set a pace on the first mile you can sustain throughout the race. It’s also really hard to do that. Come race day, the combination of excitement and pent-up energy from taking it easy during the taper” leading up to the race makes it easy to go out waaaaay too fast on the first mile. I should know. I have managed to avoid doing that… never. (I have gotten close twice, and both were my best-ever races. But even those: I could have done better.) The problem is that a half marathon is a long race: it’s best thought of as two five-mile runs with a (hopefully) fast 5-kilometer push at the end. If you spend too much energy on the first mile, you will pay for it in the latter miles of the run — no matter how good it feels to let loose for that first mile.

Every year of my adult life, I have set out with very ambitious goals. Every year, I have been disappointed in various ways. Some of my goals and aims, I have accomplished. Others I have had to let go. To an extent, this is to be expected; life happens.  — But only to an extent; I also go out too fast.

In 2021 I set out to do 30,000 push-ups by the end of the year. I stuck with my original plan for only a day or two. Then, feeling good, I let started pushing ahead of my plan. Had I been able to sustain the pace I set those first few weeks, I would have finished the year having done over 100,000 push-ups.

Only: I was not able to sustain that pace.

I got sick in February, had to stop doing push-ups for a week, and never fully got back to my January pace. I made it to 30,000 push-ups by mid-year, but getting back on pace grew harder each time I got thrown off for any reason. I had sprinted the first mile” of the year — beyond a plan which was itself overly ambitious for its lack of slack — and could hold that pace neither physically nor mentally the rest of the year.

For too many years, I have made the same mistake in too many areas of life. This year, I am trying very hard not to do that. I have made some actual writing commitments that I have to keep. I have set some (public!) reading goals that I do not have to keep.

What I am not doing is: trying to tackle them all in a rush. Instead, they are spread out over the course of the year.

Another thing I am not doing is: pushing myself to read or write for large chunks of time every day or every weekend. Instead, I have set what I believe is a very sustainable pace: 30 minutes a day for either reading or writing on weekdays, and a few hours on weekends.

Some days I feel like reading or writing more than that, and I allow myself the little push. But not over much. More, on days like Monday where I needed to sleep in instead, I do; and on days like today where I got to my writing (this post!) only in the evening, that’s fine.

When starting a new year,2 it’s important to set a pace for your aims you can sustain throughout the whole year. It’s also really hard to do that. Come January 1, the combination of having concluded some set of tasks in the preceding year with feeling energized and enthusiastic about the possibilities of the year ahead (and perhaps recharged from a short holiday vacation) makes it easy to go out waaaaay too fast for the first month. I should know. I have managed to avoid doing that… never (until this year?). The problem is that a year is a long time! If you spend too much energy in the first month, you will pay for it in the latter months of the year — no matter how good it feels to let loose in January.

Don’t sprint the first mile of a half marathon — the first month of a year. Set a pace you can sustain, and you will find yourself able to work far more effectively over the rest of the course” that is a year.


  1. Maybe omicron? 🤷🏻‍♂️ We haven’t gotten back test results yet. Test infrastructure is in awful shape. ↩︎

  2. Some people like to make fun of kicking off things at the start of a new year — “there’s nothing meaningful about going around the sun one more time.” This is wrong in a variety of ways, not least in that humans respond very deeply to the ebb and flow of the seasons through a year. There does not have to be any other importance” beyond that for it to matter to us: we aren’t dealing in abstractions or machinery, but in the human! ↩︎