How Running Marathons Taught Me To Be a Better Designer

An article I wrote …

What do you do in your “off” time that makes you a better designer?

Lots of discussion in the other thread about what else you would do if you weren’t a designer, but I’m curious what people do when they are not designing that makes them a better designer.


They say you never forget your first………Marathon, that is. I ran my first Marathon in 2015. This past October, I ran my 9th Marathon - 26.2mi/42.2km along with 30,000 other runners (all wearing the race shirt I designed, BTW).

While I’ve only been a Marathoner for 4 years, and I’ve been a professional designer for almost 20, I can confidently say that I’ve become a better designer as I’ve become a better runner. And perhaps, a better runner for being a designer. Design and Marathon running are similar, so it would seem.

“______ is a Marathon, not a sprint”. I’ve heard everything from life, marriage, to eating pizza described like this, but as any runner knows there is wisdom behind the idiom. Go out too fast in a marathon, and you’ll pay for it later. Racing is all about pacing and design is no different. Like any good runner, a designer needs to have a plan in place and work with, not against the time to be efficient and effective. This may mean working slower in the start of the project to do due diligence and research before picking up the pace later for concept design or prototyping.

Laying the proper foundation for a creative project is in effect no different than training for a marathon.
A training block for a serious runner can be anywhere from 12-18 weeks and include up to 100mi/160km per week of running (I’m currently at about 55mi/120km per week) not to mention all the time getting ready to run, stretching, cross training, eating, etc. Ask any runner and they will tell you it’s like having a part time job! Proper training and the build to race day is key however to run a good marathon. Each week in a training block builds on the previous week in distance, and intensity.

A design project likewise requires proper build and foundation.
In my own Design Management working process, I lean heavily on both visual and written documentation to lay down position, strategy and direction for future creative work. Design briefs are a lot like a Training Plan. They lay out the goals and describe the process you’ll take to get from mile 1 to mile 26.2 or from concept to production.

If there’s one thing that running 26.2 Miles/42.2 Kilometers gives you, it is time to think. In a race, this can be both good and bad. The first half of the marathon distance, thinking is good. No better way to kill some time and stay on pace than thinking about all the food you are going to eat after the race, or how you will have completed a marathon before most of your friends wake up for brunch…… By around 19mi/30km though the race changes. As your lactate threshold is hit and your body is literally telling you to stop and not die, it’s easy to get in your own head. “Hitting the wall” is what runners call it and at this point your brain can be shouting “STOP!!!” far louder than your legs can be saying “It’s OK, we trained for this!”. In almost all previous marathons I’ve run, this overthinking has cost me time and almost ruined perfectly good races.

Design projects can also get to this point. Maybe it’s deep in the development process, after molds are open and production samples are approved. “A wall” is hit. Maybe a technical issue that somehow didn’t come up in weartest samples. Maybe a money issue. Maybe the factory is pushing back on schedule. It’s easy at this time to overthink things and slam on the brakes. But if you keep your goals in mind and “trust your training” it can be possible to solve the problem, push through the wall, and see the project to the finish- even if the goal needs to be adjusted you can live to race/design another day.

At the end of the day, bringing a design project to fruition, like running a marathon is not easy.

Like running 26.2mi/42.2km, just getting your concept to production or on retail shelves is an accomplishment that not everyone can achieve.
But do it once, and as difficult as it is you’ll likely find a way to do it again. As crazy as it seems, running a marathon can be addictive- very few people only run one. Designing a product to bring to market is no different.

Like a marathon, a lot will happen on the way. Mistakes will be made. Even with perfect training factors beyond your control can go horribly wrong. You’ll get emotional highs and lows. What’s most important is that you learn from your mistakes, get creative and keep your goals in mind.

That second-to-last paragraph resonates with me. Every new project is a chance to do it all over again, but better and better. I’m sure marathons feel that way to you. I also liked the ‘training’ section. It reminded me of a Design Observer podcast with Stephen Gates, who said “design is a blue-collar profession”. While I think the tone of that statement was perhaps intended to be polarizing or controversial, the heart of the issue is that design (like training) can require a LOT of trench warfare, of slogging it out doing the less-glamorous foundation work, rather than leave it up to inspiration/adrenaline. Nice work R!

Thanks Slippy.

Ya, that paragraph was really all about the #realdesignersship kind of thinking (even though I originally wrote this a year before that hashtag existed).

You are a designer if you get a product to market, and even if it’s just a chance to learn something and make the next product better, it’s a good day.

Even if your first marathon is a 4 hour marathon, you can call yourself a “marathoner” and nobody can take that away from you. You hopefully learn and improve, but putting in the work and getting to the start line is a feat all it’s own, let alone covering the 26.2 miles. Most people say after they finish “I never am doing that again” but I know most people change their mind shortly thereafter and start chasing the next one soon!

I’ve had both good and bad races and good and bad projects, but lived to race/design again!


I see a lot of people running with what seems to be a plethora of accessories - maybe they are going for very long runs, but eyeball assessment of many of these runners (including their pace and gait) suggests they felt the need to get all the gear to either look the part, or to account for some possibility that they would run completely out of fuel and thus need six bottles of gel on a tech vest. That’s like design in a way too - you can figure out what tools you truly need, and ignore most of the rest of them. Old Luigi Colani just needed some black paper and a few pastels to create forms that would be challenging with Alias. He’s like Prefontaine with those old waffle soles. Being a ‘marathoner’ or a ‘designer’ doesn’t depend on equipment.

haha. Amount of running gear is usually inversely proportion to speed. Same goes with length of your shorts, BTW.

I ran 74k Toronto to Hamilton with just a pair of shoes and shorts (no shirt) carrying 6 gels in each hand and 1 soft flask (refilled on the way). I’ve seen people jogging 5k with 3 water bottles, headphones that look like they should be remixing Daft Punk, and a backpack…

So true about design too. Give a good designer a pad of paper and a sharpie and you are good to go.

If I ever re-post this article I might add that! I love the comparison about tools!


Damn I’ve been doing the shorts wrong. I don’t know if people need to see the upper third of my thighs though…

You gain about a 10min in a marathon if you wear split shorts. :wink:


I don’t doubt it. Looks comfortable. Maybe I can mow the mid-summer lawn in ten minutes less with that kit.

Running many mountain Ultra marathons taught me that human body DESIGN has breaking point based on your gentics and bio mechanics. I abused my breaking point bit too consistently. Last 1 year was horrible for me and I quit running. Sticking with sensible fitness regime only now (still too much by normal standards).
I was also impressed by the amount of snake oil selling docs, physios, “specialists” and general running industry set up out there.