Autumn means marathon season, not to mention stampedes of school children at cross-country trails all across the United States. Distance running may be grueling, but the sport appears to grow more popular every year. Interestingly, few if any sports demand such a singular focus on intrinsic motivation, mental training, and success measured not by the performance of others but against personal bests. In this, distance running looks a lot like test preparation.
Even marathoner Gordon Bakoulis Bloch saw the similarities when she said, “You can’t cram for the final.” Long distance running requires physical and mental training over a long period, along with a deliberate focus on achieving and maintaining peak readiness. Bloch added, “You’re not going to get any fitter during the last couple of weeks before the race. So don’t try cramming any last minute long runs or extra training. The best thing you can do for your body is rest.” That’s also the best thing you can do for your body and brain before a big test.
The process of working towards one’s best test scores demands practice testing. There’s no way around that hard truth, but if it’s any consolation, every sport including distance running requires practice as well. Legendary coach Hal Higdon preached the power of practice: “Running long offers a dress rehearsal. Running long teaches the stress of lifting feet 5,000 times per hour. Running long builds confidence.” Practice testing delivers similar rewards, especially when testers try to replicate test day conditions the same way runners practice their race day courses in advance. Not all practice tests are equal, so prioritize practice that looks just like the real thing.
Athletes in most team sports get the benefit of coaches pushing them to move faster or slower as each moment requires, but testers and runners don’t have that luxury. In both races and timed tests, officials may work the clock, but every individual sets his or her own pace. Runner John Bingham understood where the responsibility for keeping time fell: “Once you’re at the starting line, you’re there by yourself. No one can run a single step for you. No one can jump in and help you. No one but you can make the decisions about what to do to keep going. It’s all up to you.” A big part of test preparation involves mastery of pacing and time management.
In 2017, 518,731 runners completed the full 26.2 miles in 828 marathons across the United States and Canada. Assuming separate medals for men and women, those races produced only 1,636 winners, little more than 0.3% of the field. Obviously, most of those runners weren’t competing against the top racers, but against themselves. Benchmarking against personal bests drives test prep as well. After all, just a fraction of 1% of test takers earn perfect SAT or ACT scores. Instead, students need to measure success according to certain score points set by target colleges or individual improvement. That intrinsic motivation can be incredibly powerful. As Olympic gold medalist (in field, not track) Al Oerter said, “I didn’t set out to beat the world; I just set out to do my absolute best.”
Put all of this together, and the similarities between test prep and distance running make perfect sense. Prepare for your big tests the way racers prepare for marathons. Like them, you’ll not only be happy when the ordeal is over, but you’ll also be thrilled with your results!