Koen Naert’s passion for running carried him to the European marathon title earlier this year. The Belgian distance runner explains why he loves running so much.
I love running because it gives me a sense of freedom. Freedom to explore new sides of me, freedom to see beautiful places in the world, and freedom to develop as a person.
I used to work as a nurse in a special burns care unit. In that role, your No.1 priority is thinking about other people and giving your all for your patients. Since becoming a professional athlete, I mainly have to think about just myself, especially in a race situation when I’m trying to win. I can be a real jerk in some races!
Growing up, my parents and I visited just a few neighbouring countries, but this sport has given me the chance to explore some beautiful places in the world. It has also given me the opportunity to develop my personality – in a positive way!
I started running when I was about six or seven. Not only was I young but I was also really short. It didn't prevent me from winning races, though. Quite often I’d be stood on the top step of the podium but would still be shorter than the kids in second and third place.
It was my gymnastics teacher who told my parents that I should go to the athletics club. He told them I had too much energy and that I was very excited when I was asked to run laps of the playground. That's how my running story started.
The best part of running is that you’re always learning. Every race, every marathon is different, so I never get bored. I like to meticulously plan and analyse every aspect of my preparation for each race. It’s the whole package.
Being outdoors and at one with nature, discovering your own strengths and limitations – that's what running offers you too; learning about life and yourself. Running is multidimensional. Every time I visit a new place to train, I try to watch and learn.
The approach in Belgium is different to the approach in the US. I like the way US coaches realise that mental strength is an important factor in high performance sport, especially in distance running.
I usually train on my own in Belgium. I believe it makes me stronger and mentally tougher. When I need company, for example to pick up the pace on a training run, I can call on some of my teammates, but I believe athletes need an individual approach when preparing for a marathon. Some people talk about benefiting from a team spirit when training as part of a group. But while that might be fantastic for the leader in the group, it might not be quite so great for the ones behind who are pushing themselves hard every single time.
Training on your own makes you tough as a distance runner. Easy runs or normal runs are fine as a group, but I believe specific work should be different for every athlete.
Your own body is your best training partner, so listen to it.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF