5 Big Mistakes (and Changes!) Dean Karnazes Made on His Road to Success

People sometimes ask me what I’d do differently if I could turn back time. I probably wouldn’t change much. Sure, I’ve made plenty of mistakes over the years, but that’s how people grow. As the saying goes: “A stumble can prevent a fall.”

Thankfully, I didn’t fall often. But when I reflect on my career as a runner, there were no shortages of stumbles. Here’s a look back at what I did wrong and how I changed. Hopefully these lessons can help you to become your best self.

Dean Karnazes Top 5 Running Mistakes

1. I Ate an Atrocious Diet
I used to think a calorie was a calorie, regardless of the source. As a result, my diet consisted mainly of junk food. Sometimes, during a two-day ultramarathon, I’d burn upwards of 25,000 calories. So, I reasoned, why not eat an entire pizza? Cheesecake for dessert? Bring it.

At some point I started noticing side effects. My energy levels swung from thunderous highs to cataclysmic lows. Something seemed out of balance, so I sought out a new nutrition strategy.

I’d been a vegan in high school, so I decided to try veganism again. It worked well for about six months, but then I became anemic. I added meat back in, primarily in the form of sustainably harvested cold-water fish, which seemed to improve things. I cut all processed and refined foods (basically anything that came in a bag or can). If I couldn’t pull it from a tree, dig it from the earth, or catch it with my hands, I stopped eating it. This self-selection led to the ideal diet for me. By choosing the foods that helped me feel energetic and alive, and removing the foods that left me feeling lethargic, I arrived at the perfect diet for me.

My Advice: Listen to everyone, follow no one. We’re all different, especially when it comes to diet, so experiment to find what works best for you.

2. I Focused Solely on Running
Prior to running I used to surf, windsurf, mountain bike, and rock climb. Once I started running, I pretty much dropped (or drastically cut back on) everything else. My upper-body muscles atrophied and my ability to move laterally diminished. Just running, without other forms of exercise, was becoming a recipe for imbalance and injury, so I developed my own bodyweight-exercise routine that struck the right balance, resulting in optimum overall fitness.

My Advice: When it comes to fitness, balance is key. Your primary sport shouldn’t be the only activity you do. Find activities that support it—whether that’s cycling or resistance training—that will help keep you motivated and engage other muscles.

3. I Only Ran to Achieve a Goal
I used to think I needed a reason to run; either follow my training program, maintain baseline fitness, lose weight, or boost mood. However, what I learned is that having such a purpose-driven focus can lead to burnout. Running was no longer enjoyable in itself, but became a means to an end. I decided to shift my paradigm and sometimes run simply for the pure enjoyment of running.

When I lived in Australia, I learned about the Aboriginal practice of “walkabout.” When life becomes stale and mundane, these indigenous Australians set out from their village and walk. Sometimes these walks last a couple of days, other times a couple of weeks. It’s their way of exploring and adventuring, of experiencing new sights and new horizons. When they return to the place they began, they see it through fresh eyes.

I started doing “runabouts.” Basically stuffing a few dollars in my shorts and just heading out the front door, destination unknown. I’d run from sunup to sundown, sometimes longer. If I felt like stopping for a latte, I’d stop. If I felt like running hard, I’d run hard. If I felt like jogging, I’d jog. Often I’d stop and talk to people along the way. Sometimes I’d listen to audiobooks; other times I’d just tune in to the surroundings, whether I was out in the wilderness or running through the city at midnight. The run didn’t have a purpose other than to rekindle my internal fire.

My Advice: Insert fun runs into your routine. Ultimately, these have helped me avoid burnout and remain passionate about running year after year.

4. I Overate Before Races
I used to stress about what to eat the morning of a race. Oatmeal? Pancakes? A bagel? Inevitably, I ate too much. What I’ve subsequently learned is that unless you’re eating three hours before the race, it’s not going to help much anyway. Worse, it’s probably going to weigh you down.

What do I eat before a race now? Nothing. Honestly, I don’t have anything for breakfast except my normal cup of coffee. When I hit the starting line, I feel light on my feet and unburdened instead of bloated and overstuffed. And then later, a few miles in, I’ll reach for a fueling snack.

My Advice: Try to lighten up or skip your morning meal before a training run to see if it might be right for you to do ahead of your next race. You might be surprised to find that your performance actually improves.

5. I Went Faster When My Body Said “Slow Down”
Rest and recovery? Seriously? That’s for the weak, or so I thought. Everyday was a punishingly brutal maximum effort training session. This intense, unrelenting maximalist approach eventually caught up with me. Instead of getting stronger, I plateaued. Then my fitness began to decline. I’d overdone it—pushed too hard for too long, and it left me in an almost comatose state of lethargy. I finally conceded and backed off.

After I got my energy back, I began altering my approach by pushing hard one day and going easier the next. This not only allowed me to regain my overall vigor, but my performances steadily improved as well.

My Advice: Listen to your body. This is easier said than done. It’s still a battle for me to hold back on the easy days, though reflecting on my past helps to temper my gusto. I tell myself to save that zeal for the next day.

These five mistakes turned into valuable running lessons I now know. Check back with me in decade, and I’m sure I’ll have more to share. Improving your fitness is a journey, not a destination.

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