I’ve never run a marathon and I think it’s safe to say I never will. But over the years I’ve had lots of interesting conversations with people who do and who described their training for it. What impressed me was the structured approach they were taking, their staying power and their enthusiasm, not just for the actual event, but also for their preparation.
That got me thinking about how the approach to training for a marathon could be transferred to improving your English skills – ideally with the same passion, satisfaction and sense of achievement.
Whether you need to prepare for a specific event, such as a big presentation, or have just set yourself the target of making a marked improvement in your English by a fixed date, here are some lessons we can learn from marathon runners.
Just as no-one would consider running 42.2 km after a couple of weeks of training, you can’t expect to be at peak performance in English if you leave the preparation to the last minute. If you’re preparing for an event, allow yourself plenty of time – especially if your English is a little rusty or this is the first time you’ve had to do a certain task in English. And even if your aim is ‘simply’ to improve your English this year, it’s important to realise that it’s a longer-term project. Will there be a better time to start than now?
Start small and build up over time
Especially at the beginning of the year, people often make very ambitious plans. They aim to work on their English every day for an hour or more. Unlike overambitious marathon training, this won’t lead to any injuries 😉 . But it’s unlikely to be successful. For most people an hour a day isn’t feasible and as they fail to meet their target time after time they become less and less motivated.
So, instead, begin by scheduling 15 – 20 minutes three times a week. Draw up a plan, so that you know exactly how you’re going to spend this precious time. That makes it much easier to get started and also you don’t waste time dithering about what to actually do. For example, if you’re preparing for a presentation, plan to use the time to start mapping it out and gather information on the topic in English. Read articles, listen to podcasts, watch youTube clips – whatever you can find on your subject. Extract useful vocabulary and then make a point of learning it.
Once these three short sessions have become second nature, you can add in a couple more. Or you could increase the time to 30 minutes. Whatever works best for you. But three sessions a week should still be the minimum.
Schedule a longer study period once a week
These short sessions help English to become a part of your everyday life. By scheduling a longer one- or two-hour time slot once a week, you can really immerse yourself in the language.
Use this time to actually work on your presentation – e.g. decide on the best structure for your purposes, think about how you will word your message, prepare any visuals you need. If, on the other hand, your aim is to get your English up to scratch by a certain date, you can take this opportunity to review a grammar point which you find difficult or read longer articles and summarise them in your own words. Or you could schedule a session with a trainer to practise speaking, receive feedback and get ideas on what to focus on next.
Remind yourself why
With a long-term goal like this, staying motivated can be difficult. Remind yourself at regular intervals why you’re putting in all this work.
Envision what will change when you achieve your aim. What will it feel like when you can speak confidently and fluently? What will a powerful presentation or better English skills in general lead to in the future? How does achieving this goal fit in with your plans for the future? Having a clear picture of the future state will keep you fired up.
Rest and recover
It’s obvious that rest days are important to allow your muscles to recover when you’re training for a marathon and they’re a good idea in this type of training too. They allow what you have learnt to settle. In addition, you may well find that new ideas for your training programme come to mind during this break – ones that will help to keep you interested in the long term.
If some aspects of working on your English – e.g. listening to the news, reading articles – have become an integral and enjoyable part of your life, you may think: I don’t want or need a rest. Nevertheless be sure to schedule days where you don’t have to do anything for your English, where you don’t feel guilty if you don’t.
Scale back before the event
Marathon runners taper their training directly before the race to let their body rest up. If you’re improving your English for a specific occasion, it’s also helpful to scale back your efforts a couple of days before the event. Have the confidence to trust the work you’ve already put in and everything you’ve achieved over the last few months. There’s absolutely no need for a last-minute panic and flurry of activity.
Instead by taking a step back, you’ll be able to see your presentation clearly and objectively. Perhaps you’ll notice that an aspect is missing or see something that could be improved by making a minor change.
I could also remind you to enjoy the event and celebrate your success or add advice on fuelling (cake and chocolate are highly recommended). Do you see any other parallels?