Running marathons are not easy. Ditto market research

Mustard director and running obsessive, Richard Walker, shares his thoughts on what market researchers can learn from marathoners (and vice versa).

With just over a month to go to the London Marathon (28th April) and even less till our local equivalent, the Manchester Marathon (7th April), those signed up will be approaching peak mileage in the training schedule and peak “maranoia” as to whether the mind and body will be up to the challenge ahead.

Undertaking a marathon is a huge commitment that requires motivation, determination, stamina and (particularly through the dark winter months) a sense of humour. Ditto market research.

It can sometimes mean compromise. Building up the weekly “long run” to 20 miles (and beyond) can take several hours out of the weekend, and the recovery on the sofa a few hours more. It can mean making sacrifices – be that family time, weekend beers or other pastimes and hobbies. On some occasions, ditto market research.

Suffice to say, neither running a marathon nor undertaking a career in market research are easy.

But personally, writing a blog drawing comparison between the two is pretty straightforward given the amount of time I spend reading, practicing and generally obsessing about both!

what market researchers can learn from marathoners

Here are 5 pieces of advice that are equally attributable to training for and running marathons, as they are for pursuing a career in market research and customer insight:

  1. Mix it up

For marathoners: adding variety to the training schedule is really important. In addition to the “long run” it is good to add strength and conditioning, tempo runs (not quite race pace – c80% effort), active recovery runs, hill training and a broad variety of speed sessions. I can’t write a blog about running and not use the word “fartlek” (google it).

For market researchers: mix up your exposure to different methods. Ensure all team members get hands-on experience of different qualitative methods (online and offline) and different quantitative approaches. And mix up your exposure to different clients across sectors. You will become a more rounded researcher.

  1. Use your creativity

For marathoners: running the same routes in training over and over can get tedious. A bit of creative thinking combined with some planning can help with this. Ahead of my October marathon, we would sometimes head out as a family somewhere and I would run home (*quite often along the canal tow-path). I’ve been known to run across the moor to Ilkley and take a train home, or have taken a train or bus out somewhere and then run home. Also, mixing up listening to music, podcasts and mother nature.

For market researchers: the extent to which market research provides opportunities to be creative is why the career is such a draw for so many, and why it can be so rewarding. Creativity is required in both ideas and execution, in both design and analysis. We thrive off developing and honing creative research techniques that generate deeper and more meaningful insight, or creating research outputs that look so beautiful you could almost eat them. (Yes, I am a runner, therefore I am always hungry).

  1. Don’t set off too fast

For marathoners: it is a marathon, not a sprint. Running too fast at the beginning of any race is a common but unsurprising problem given the build-up of excitement and nervous energy in the starting pens. But managing the glycogen reserves (the carbohydrates stored in the muscles) is critical to performance and avoiding hitting the dreaded “wall”. Although there remains debate, many people believe marathoners should aim for “even splits” through the race (maintaining the same pace per mile). It is proven that running mile 1 in 7minutes and mile 2 in 9 minutes will use more glycogen than running mile 1 and mile 2 in 8 minutes for example.

For market researchers: time is our most valuable resource, but you should never rush a masterpiece. Invest time to interrogate the research objectives to get to the nub of why the research is needed, how it is going to be used and how it fits with the strategy. Invest time to interrogate research data (rather than taking “insight” at face value).

  1. Have a fuelling (and hydration) strategy

For marathoners: there are pages and pages on the internet about what to eat before, during and after marathons. Practicing the nutrition is important. Most people know about the broad principles of carb-loading, and nothing new, spicy or fibre-laden ahead of the race. Most people will use gels or other energy sources (jelly babies, soreen, energy drinks, etc.) mid-race. Most people know about the importance of proteins post-race to avoid further muscle breakdown (chocolate milk is a favourite of mine). Practice makes perfect. I learned through practice that some gel flavours (and textures) would immediately send me to the verge of heaving. I also learned that some are better than others at staying in situ in the loops of my shorts at “race pace”.

For market researchers: I have a motto – never pitch / moderate / debrief (or do anything!) on an empty stomach. Most market researchers will have their favourite motorway service stations (here’s looking at you Tebay). Plan ahead – late night focus group moderation needn’t mean lukewarm second-rate service station pasties.

  1. Enjoy the journey

For marathoners: to stand near to the finish line and watch the outpouring of emotions as runners finish their marathons is… (I’m filling up just writing this)… trust me, it’s emosh. The marathon is often the culmination of many months of hard training. Many of those crossing the line will be running for great causes and in memory of loved ones. Added to that, the marathon obviously uses a LOT of the body’s energy reserves. Once the tears have dried, soak it up, you’ve earned the right to tell strangers at the bus-stop all about it. It’s an awesome achievement.

For market researchers: Careers in market research can also be hugely rewarding. There will always be hard times – a demanding client, a data set that is harder to decipher, a focus group that doesn’t quite gel. As sure as the sun sets, there’ll be IT issues that will leave you wishing you had hit save 30 minutes earlier. But as a career, it’s right up there on the rewarding scale. Not much beats seeing a job well done through from briefing to debriefing (and beyond), or the satisfaction of discovering breakthrough insights. Seeing our suggestions put into action – be that through service design / delivery, improved branding / communications, product or packaging – demonstrates to us that clients trust our recommendations. Added to that, the joy of seeing those recommendations convert into positive financial results or outcomes. We love seeing our clients winning! Making a real tangible difference is what working at Mustard is all about. It’s front and centre in our brand and is what motivates our people.

So good luck to all spring marathoners. Whether you’re attempting your first or whether you’re a seasoned veteran, whether you’re fundraising or chasing a PB, the most important thing is to enjoy it. Ditto market research.