THE PARALLELS BETWEEN RUNNING A MARATHON AND SAVING FOR RETIREMENT

by | Nov 1, 2021

Last month I ran the Sanlam CT Marathon – which I absolutely loved! – and it made me realise how closely linked our mental health is to both our physical and financial well-being. In planning for retirement, no matter how young or old we think we are, there are aspects we can focus on to give more purpose to the journey and to enhance the experience once we reach the destination.

I was recently inspired by an article I read by Debra Slabber from Morningstar SA, and I wanted to share some of her thoughts with you.

“You can run a sprint or you can run a marathon but you can’t sprint a marathon.” – Ryan Holmes.  The same principle can be applied to saving for retirement. Training to run a marathon is very similar to saving for retirement.

Let’s unpack some of these thoughts below.

  1. It’s hard…

Only 1% of the population has managed to complete a marathon, and this isn’t surprising.  The mental and physical strain one takes on to be able to run 42.2km (often in harsh conditions) is demanding.  It is not something that should be done without “careful planning, training, and a decent amount of effort and dedication”.  These same principles apply to saving for a comfortable retirement. It is estimated that only 5% of the population retire with sufficient capital to maintain their standard of living in retirement.

Why?

Because it is hard…

  1. Time is your friend (and your enemy…)

Debra states that when training for a marathon and time is on your side the chance of succeeding is a lot higher, because you would have had adequate time to prepare. Training diligently for months (or even years) and steadily building your endurance is often a much better strategy than trying to cram in a ridiculous amount of training only a week or so before race day!

In the same vein, time is crucial to saving for retirement. “Starting small and starting young is imperative”.  We all want it now:  the lifestyle, the big house, the money.  Yet we fail to recognize that time is the difference between wanting wealth and having wealth, building it slowly and consistently, allowing compound interest to work its charm.  In the words of James Clear, “Many people wish they started sooner. Almost nobody wishes they started later.”. 

  1. If you want great results, get a coach

Not many people achieve their marathon goals solo. Behind every world record holder, there is a highly qualified coach working on the grand plan, encouraging, inspiring, and constantly reassessing the situation. Times get tough.  Emotions run high.  Objectivity and clarity are critical in honoring your commitment to yourself.  Your financial advisor is your coach and your trainer – they see the bigger picture, focus on the long-term goals, and do the research. As your needs adjust and unanticipated situations arise, they are there to review your investments and to help keep you on track.

  1. Planning is important, but so is doing

It’s one thing to have a training plan in place, to do your research on things such as optimal nutrition, injury prevention and race day tips but it’s an entirely different matter to put on your shoes and run. When it comes to retirement, a good financial plan is essential but of greater significance is to bring that plan to life.

Don’t delay – Put on your shoes and go run!

Don’t procrastinate – Start saving and execute the plan.

  1. There will be setbacks

As Debra highlights in her article, none of us are immune to the low blows life throws at us, be it physically, emotionally, or financially. They are inevitable.  Every runner will occasionally miss their strength training sessions or bad weather will discourage them from going for their run. They might be struggling to overcome an injury or life simply gets in the way of training. That’s not to say you stop training completely just because of one setback.

Famous author Gretchen Rubin shared her thoughts on how to successfully rebound from a setback, that being to get back at it as quickly as possible. In her words, “Fail small, not big.”

Life happens. It gets messy.  Maybe it was a tough month, filled with unforeseen expenses, and you missed a contribution to your investments – that’s okay. As you would start training again once your injury has healed, so too, continue to contribute to your retirement as soon as you can. You’re human.

  1. A post-marathon strategy

Debra alludes to the last couple of kilometres of a race typically being the part where you “hit the wall” — your body is on autopilot, and you are just moving forward. Everything that you learnt in training and all those extra training sessions kick in now – just as it would after a lifetime of accumulated savings.  You are so close to your goal that you can see the finish line and smell the victory!

Just as a runner should never approach the marathon finish line without a recovery plan (hydrating, stretching, icing sore muscles, replenishing nutrients), a retiree should not clock out on the last day of work without having a clear idea of what to do upon transitioning to this next phase of life.  Keeping abreast of what is going on in your finances, having a budget, reviewing your plan with your financial advisor (at least annually), and making sure you are appropriately invested are all important aspects of post-retirement preparation.

Another crucial piece to consider is the kind of life you want to experience in retirement.  Where do you want to live?  What hobbies have you always wanted to nurture?  What makes you feel alive?  Start thinking about this now, so that you step into your retirement years with excitement and purpose; not fear and angst. 

  1. It is more rewarding than you think

Accomplishing a large goal; it’s pretty hard to beat.  Running a marathon is one of the larger physical challenges in this life.  Most marathon runners compare the day they finished their first marathon with life’s other highlights; their wedding day, for instance. It’s an accomplishment that will stay with you forever. It doesn’t matter if you finish last. You finished.

You can’t underestimate the achievement of having spent a lifetime saving diligently for a retirement you’re excited about. Spending your retirement on your terms, in your time, with people you love is sacred. Couple this with not having to worry about debt or putting a burden on your children to look after you financially must feel stunningly liberating!

It’s easy to lose yourself in everyday life, “knowing” that you have plenty of time before you need to start preparing for those retirement years way ahead in the future. As a result, many would rather treat themselves to things they can enjoy right now – instant gratification – instead of squirrelling away money for a future that’s decades away.  This elusiveness, or intangibility of retirement is where the danger creeps in.

That is why the statistic of a 5% success rate is not surprising.

In closing

Debra’s article closes by highlighting the fundamental difference between a running a marathon and saving for retirement – there is no set finish line for managing your money and you don’t know when you will take your last breath.  For the average marathon runner, it’s not about how fast you get there, but about how strong you feel as you cross that finish line.  No matter where you are in the race, avoid comparing yourself to other people. Some runners get caught up in the excitement and competition of it all, but veteran runners know to look within, focus on their own race and embrace the rewards.

Running a marathon is hard, but it is possible. So too is retiring with sufficient capital to live the life you’ve worked so hard to build.  Start slow, start small, start now and keep your eyes on the prize.