There was a poster in the gym that I used to go to which said ‘that extra mile is between your ears’. It was pretty much all there was to look at from the treadmill, so I found myself reading it over and over again. It’s testimony to the power of repetition that this message has stayed with me and it was this that I starting thinking about during my long run on Sunday.
I suppose until now I’ve been pretty lucky with my long runs. With the exception of a 12-miler early on, the weather has been good, I’ve had someone to run with and the steady increase in miles has made them feel eminently manageable.
This Sunday was different.
Although it started well my training partner Becks had a knee injury, forcing her to drop out after the first 10km. Still, I was feeling good and pushed on along the route as planned.
For the following 10km I felt ok, my hip twinged a bit but a quick stop and stretch now and again and an adjustment of my running form seemed to sort it out. And then the rain started. And my hip seemed to get worse. And the wind whipped up. And the rain became hail. And I was soaked and tired and in pain and so, so cold and I knew, even when the run ended I still had a train, a tube and a further kilometre run before I would be home. And so I turned my music up and tried singing to distract myself, which helped until I hit 28.8km when my phone battery died, the music stopped and I cried.
During all of this my thoughts vacillated between ‘why the hell am I doing this’ and ‘pull yourself together, this won’t go on forever you just need to push on and finish’.
I suppose the bad long run was due to happen sooner or later.
As it happened, this Sunday’s experience got me thinking about the psychology behind running and how I could have gone from feeling strong and ready to take on the world to so completely strung out in such a short space of time, and about what mental trickery could I use if this were to happen on marathon day.
While there are a number of theories of fatigue which place different degrees of emphasis on the mind and body, most runners accept that it is combination of the brain’s subconscious regulation and our own conscious evaluation of physical fatigue that dictate our pace (or lack thereof).
In his 1997 book ‘Lore of Running’ Tim Noakes argues that it is the brain that allows or limits our performance levels. His ‘central governor’ theory states that the brain is ‘there to look after you’; the brain plays a role in making sure that whatever you put your body through it remains within safe limits. He argues that there is a control mechanism in the brain that ensures that when you reach the finish line you are ‘not in a completely, utterly wilted state’ and that ‘you always have a little reserve’. Essentially, he is arguing that the brain acts to cut us short of our limit as a self-preservation method, inducing the perception of fatigue before the body is totally spent.
While according to this thesis the brain is the limiting factor, that is not to say that good physical training isn’t essential to running. Rather, it seems that to a greater or lesser extent it is the brain which will ultimately determine how much of your training you will be able to tap into when the going gets tough. It is the brain that monitors your body’s fuel levels, temperature, hydration and other markers of fatigue and tissue damage and the brain that shuts down muscle fibre recruitment and other systems when it perceives imminent damage to your body.
And it’s not just the brains fear of utter exhaustion that can shut the body down. Researchers at Bangor University recently discovered that mental fatigue could also have an impact on your performance. They discovered that the perception of physical effort undertaken during exercise is much higher if you are mentally fatigued than if you are mentally rested. This translates into reaching your perceived level of maximal exertion much sooner than if you were feeling less mentally tired, despite the fact that your VO2 max and anaerobic threshold remain uninfluenced by mental fatigue.
The study stated that ‘overall, it seems that exercise performance is ultimately limited by perception of effort rather than cardiorespiratory and musculoenergetic factors’, i.e. if you are mentally exhausted your perception of effort is skewed and your performance hindered as a result.
So the question remains: can the brain can be trained to allow the body to physically handle more?
A study from the University of Birmingham, demonstrated that it is possible to fool the mind into allowing the body to work harder. Researchers here showed that cyclists who swished a carbohydrate drink containing either glucose or maltodextrin during a workout were able to ride harder and longer despite not swallowing any of the drink.
Here an MRI showed that particular areas of the brain lit up when the carbohydrate drink was swished, those areas being connected to emotion, motivation and reward. It was as if the carbohydrate-sensitive receptors in the mouth communicated with the brain, which then sent a signal to the body to tell it that it would be getting more calories and thus could work harder, regardless of the fact that no calories were actually consumed.
As wells being tricked into performance, the brain can also be taught to give the body more leeway by incrementally pushing past that perceived maximal level of exertion in training.
In the same way that you train your body, you can also train your mind, teaching the brain to cope with discomfort. Here it is argued that the more you are exposed to a stress, the lower your response is to that stress, so in theory the further you should be able to push your body before the brain kicks in. Noakes argues that that when you willfully subject yourself to stress, such as training every day, ‘you become better able to cope’ with that stress.
Moreover, ‘training increases your self-belief and your confidence in what you can do’. With practice you become more convinced of your ability to handle both the mental and physical stress of exercise and when you believe you can do it, you can.
Runner World offers some strategies to persuade your brain to ease up on the regulation:
- Race-effort repetitions: These teach your brain that the effort is manageable. Make the workout challenging enough to simulate the fatigue you’ll encounter during the mid-to-latter stages of the race.
- ‘Down a quart‘ training: An endurance race results in depleted glycogen stores and dehydration. Leave the fuel belt at home during training runs so that your brain can acclimate to these conditions.
- Extended runs: If you’re having trouble increasing your mileage incrementally, add 25 to 50 percent more volume (miles or minutes) to a single, normal-distance run. You’ll suffer, but you’ll be amazed how much easier a mere 10 to 20 percent increase will feel the next time out.
- Negative-split runs: For half marathoners and marathoners, run at least part of the second half of your long run at race effort.
- Tuneup races: Use tuneup races to convince your brain that your body can handle a hard race effort.
Finally, it seems that the brain can also be distracted into cooperating.
In her 2009 article, ‘Pain: Deal With It – How top athletes manage the mental stress of racing’, Sarah Barker reported on the techniques used by a number of athletes when they suffer a mental dip during a race. Most reported using a combination of associative (internal) and dissociative (distraction or external) thoughts.
Here it appeared that distractions, such as looking at the scenery or singing to yourself were usually used in the early to middle sections of a race, or when a racer was clearly behind time and just wanted to finish. Associative techniques meanwhile, were used when the going got really tough.
Most thought of the race in terms of shorter segments – the greater the discomfort, the shorter and more achievable the segments. Some found strength in the divine, some in camaraderie, some in gaman – the Japanese concept of enduring pain with dignity and grace. Power words were also mentioned as was visualisation (crossing the finish line, running lightly).
After all of this reading I’m feeling much better about Sunday’s performance. I am taking Sunday as a useful lesson. Things got bad and I got through. I’ve also put in place other coping and reward strategies to get me through future longer runs. I’m choosing to see Sunday’s run as a training session in coping with pain rather than a horrid, wet and cold disaster.
Besides, after my run in the early-morning sun on Tuesday, Sunday seems like a distant memory.