How Ultra Running Made Me a Better Designer

Jakob Åberg

inUse UX Designer Jakob Åberg is a runner. An ultra runner. And this helps him in is life as a designer. He has listed 4 design skills that have improved thanks to his running.

I am an ultra runner. An ultra runner participates in races that are any distance longer than the usual marathon of 42.195 km. Most often performed on trails and remote places in nature. In my life, ultra running gets significantly more meaning for each race I am taking part of. It gives me a sense of complete freedom as I move through nature. A sanctuary where all noise drifts away and I am alone with breath and stride.

By running for long distances I can discover new paths and parts of myself through these meditative experiences, something I believe accelerate my own creativity. Ultra running helps me let go of everyday demands, stress and pressure that comes with work and everyday life. Mental stimulation that gives me a sense of control and I can focus on what is really important when I need to.

I have thought about how ultra running affects my everyday life and mostly in my profession as a UX designer. Here is 4 design skills that I believe have improved thanks to my running.

To be a better observer

By spending time on the trails I believe I have become a better observer. While ultra running is a lot about freedom and letting your mind wander, it is also requires you to be observant of your surroundings. By moving through different landscapes and terrain as quick as possible you have to be ready to adapt to the changes that nature has to offer.

When training to be observant and able to adapt to these changes as a runner, I think I have enhanced this skill as a designer as well. UX design is about empathy and understanding your users’ needs. To understand these needs and design for them, you have to be both observant and adaptable. As much as I love observing my surroundings when I run through nature; I love noticing the details, postures and behaviours of my users as I design, test and iterate interactions. If I notice a flaw or a problem with my design, I have to adapt to this change and find better ways to do it.

By building knowledge through observation, and by evaluating the previous steps taken, I am able to find new opportunities in the challenges ahead of me. This helps me design more intelligently over time.

To be goal oriented

To be a good ultra runner you also need to be goal oriented, something that has been reflected on me as a UX designer as well. Running for long distances requires you to be mentally prepared for the emotional and physical rollercoaster-ride it can be. During a race my mood sways a lot; I can feel great and strong, but just a couple of kilometers later, I am not feeling as energetic anymore and I start questioning myself. To tackle this I try to push my mind and body to keep on going, I try to persuade myself that it will feel better. When your body tells you to stop, you have to believe in yourself and keep on going.

I often go through the same process in design projects. I start energetic, with the creativity and ideas flowing. As the project moves forward this flow is usually reduced at some point, and I start questioning my creative ability. This is where ultra running has trained me to have a positive mindset, keep creating, and push my abilities no matter what.

I think you have to keep that goal in mind, whether it is an ultra running race or a UX project. Nothing else should matter than reaching that finish line.

To have confidence & trust in myself

Another trait that I have been practicing through my ultra running is to have confidence and to always trust myself. When I am doubting myself the most in a race or a during a project, I always try to be confident in my abilities. Some days I do not feel that creative flow, but others I do. I always try to remember that it is a part of the process. When I am feeling down during an ultra race I try to focus on other things than running. I think I have learned to do this as a designer as well. When I feel uninspired I try to not focus too much on my own work. I try to change mindset by looking at other people’s work and get a new perspective on the challenges that I am facing.

By taking my hands off the computer, I can let go of my thoughts about the problem at hand. I experience solitude in a way, solitude that makes me examine my own work from another state of mind and lets me be more present in the steps that I take later in my designs. To do this, creative confidence and trust in my own abilities is key. Traits that have improved thanks to my ultra running.

To be aware of boundaries and different scenarios

As an ultra runner I always got to plan my races in advance. I have to be prepared for many different scenarios as I am running for many hours. What should I eat? What clothes should I wear? What should I do if I get hurt? and so on. Planning a race in the smallest detail requires skill and experience, and this is one of the most fun aspects of the sport.

This habit of thinking ahead and trying to picture all possible scenarios in a race is a great asset when designing a product with the users in mind. You have to be aware of different scenarios and look at possible boundaries, take them into consideration and plan your process from that. Who is our target group, how should we plan the research and the user testing, what is the users goals and objectives, and so on? Training to have an eye for detail and being able to plan for possible scenarios as an ultra runner, helps me a lot in UX design.

By opening up for impressions while engaged in an activity, I end up in a mental and physical state that helps me to be agile in everyday life. Rather than providing an escape, running provides me with the confidence to experience my surroundings and the events happening. Not only has this given me a better understanding of who I am and my role in society, is has also given me some gained confidence in my daily decisions and thought processes. Something I believe makes me function as a human being and enhances my skill as a UX designer.

It is not easy to remember the sensation of feeling complete tranquility in a world where most of us spend our time always available. However, to function both as persons and professionals, it is important to remember to take a break from being connected once in a while. Whether it is running, reading a good book or spending time with friends.

See you on the trails.

This post is also published on Jakob Åbergs Medium.

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