The Latest and Greatest in Endurance Running Research

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

I recently had the opportunity to attend the USA Track and Field/International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Endurance Coaching Academy. We convened at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, CA for one week of intensive learning in subjects related to the development of elite runners. As such, the lecturers were PhD scientists in areas such as training theory, physiology, sports psychology, nutrition, hormonal and neuronal effects of training, etc. Upon completion of the requirements for this Academy, the attending coaches will receive the highest level of international track and field endurance running certification.
I’d like to share with you various “tidbits” which represent the latest research findings on endurance training. Some of these ideas have been around but have been updated in some way. Others give new insight into old beliefs.

-Dr Joe Vigil described the Performance Triangle.
PEAK PERFORMANCE ZONE – People who are comfortable with being uncomfortable and constantly push the performance envelope.
HIGH PERFORMANCE ZONE – People who are willing to risk and get uncomfortable.
PERFORMANCE ZONE – Less people; more commitment; occasional risk. Occasionally uncomfortable.
COMFORT ZONE – Where most people operate. They are satisfied and always comfortable and take no risks.
The idea, of course, is to pursue excellence; to push higher up the triangle.

-Research has shown that events from 400 meters to the marathon have a higher aerobic component than previously believed. Even the 1500m is an 84% aerobic event. This means that 84% of the energy needed to race that event is coming from an aerobic (“with air”) energy source as opposed to anaerobic (ATP, creatine phosphate) sources.

-It is absolutely critical that young people (i.e. under the age of 20) work to develop all five biomotor abilities. Speed, especially, can be developed greatly during adolescence but is much more difficult to improve in later life. The five biomotor abilities are: speed, strength, endurance, flexibility, agility/coordination. Thus adolescents especially (but even older folks too!) should play a variety of sports which force them to move in all planes of motion and to develop the abilities that endurance running doesn’t foster. This overall body strength will pay great dividends later in one’s athletic life. The point is to try not to allow your kids to become running specialists. Encourage them to swim, bike, play soccer, basketball, ski, run around barefoot all summer, etc.

-Pre, during and post run nutrition are critical to long term performance. As soon as you finish one workout, you should already be fueling for the next training session. Take in a 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio within 30 minutes of a hard or long effort. This can be a container of chocolate milk or a Gatorade plus a big spoonful of peanut butter.

-There is new, fascinating research about carbohydrate mouth rinsing which can increase performances that are of short duration and high intensity. Simply swishing a carb drink through the mouth then spitting it out can stimulate mechanisms in the brain that allow an intense effort to continue. Thus those who struggle with stomach distress can, perhaps, in shorter events, suck on a hard candy or simply swish. More research needs to be done but the possibilities are fascinating.

-Studies are showing that increasing intensity in training is more efficacious for improved performance than simply running more miles. This would apply to events from middle distance through the marathon. Of course, some baseline of mileage must be maintained (one must still have easy days, easy long runs, etc) but after a certain point, it appears that trying to work at 10k pace or faster for at least 25% of one’s weekly mileage has a positive effect on fitness and racing ability. In other words, “the volume game can be overplayed. If a runner is already covering 50-70 miles per week or more, additional easy miles are unlikely to have any effect on fitness at all.” (Owen Anderson, Running Science) If an athlete is not yet at this percentage of weekly intensity, he/she must move towards it slowly and with caution in order to avoid injury. Further, while a range of intensities need to be worked, training at 95-100% of VO2 max (or very close to 3k race pace) is the most productive intensity. This does NOT mean that an athlete should go out and work too heavily at 3k speed. Rather, slowly incorporating harder work into a training program can yield good results. The idea is to get very aerobically strong (through easier mileage as well as LT and VO2 max work) so that you have less lactic acid to deal with in a race.

-Time your race warm up so that you complete a full, proper warm up close to start time. Otherwise, your metabolic rate goes down before the race begins. Do 4-5 x 30 second to 2 minute pick ups at goal race pace in order to stay active after your initial warm up.

-If the goal is to become a better runner (i.e. specificity of work) then strength training should be done AFTER aerobic exercise. Take short rest between strength repeats in order to maintain an aerobic effect through your strength session.

-Remember that we are RACERS not just RUNNERS. Most of us do this because at some point, we hope to go faster than we ever have before (or faster than we have lately if we’re older!). Sure, do the measured workouts, keep track of pace, etc. But remember that you’re a RACER at heart. Let it rip on that last repeat just to see what you have. Open it up sometimes on a downhill and run FAST, reminding yourself that you’re fast, strong and tough!

-Finally fascinating research continues around the Central Governor Theory. In essence this states that it is not limited muscle ability, lactic acid, or depleted glycogen stores that cause us to slow down and eventually stop in races. Rather, the brain is the monitor and controller of our efforts and portions out our effort based on what it perceives to be the likely threats to the body, etc. That is why, after a long and grueling race, a person can still sprint to the finish line. Obviously, there are enough energy stores to allow for that sprint. So it appears that the brain controls the effort we can put forth. This is why hard training is so effective: we are, in effect, teaching the brain that the body can actually go longer and harder without breaking down. This fascinating research brings the area of sports psychology much more sharply into focus.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these little snippets of information and that you can use them to further your own running and racing!

Training Effectively Part 3: The Need for Speed

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

In this latest installment on effective training, I’d like to address a critical but often neglected topic among distance runners. As runners age, some move towards longer and slower races, reasoning that since they no longer have the speed of their youth, it’s therefore better to focus on a different type of challenge. Thus, rather than trying to run “fast”, they seek to run far. I must begin by saying that I have the utmost respect for ultrarunners and can understand the scintillating challenge which is inherent in going very, very long over rugged, beautiful terrain with like-minded individuals. In fact, I deeply admire those who overcome extreme altitude, weather, course difficulty, mental and physical fatigue, sleeplessness, and gastro-intestinal challenges in long endurance races. I would still argue, however, that even these hardy souls, right on down to the masters miler, still need speed.
When we focus almost exclusively on long, slow distance running and we skip the speed (and strength – to be addressed in a subsequent blog), the following occurs:
“-Atrophy of intermediate and fast-twitch fibers
-Decrease in neuromuscular recruitment and efficiency
-Increase in lactate accumulation during high-intensity exercise (and corresponding rise in acidosis)
-Decreased muscle buffering capacity” (from “The Dirty Dozen”, by Pete Magill)
Speed development workouts help milers to ultra marathoners because these workouts improve both biomechanics and running economy (and therefore running efficiency). If you are a more economical runner, you can run a faster marathon, even if you don’t make metabolic improvements.
Before I go any further, I’d like to differentiate between various types of training and therefore what exactly I mean when I say “speed development”. As we’ve stated many times in training, there is a specific purpose for every workout. In a particular workout you are seeking to stimulate one or more metabolic energy systems. These include VO2 max, lactate threshold, aerobic capacity, etc. Many long distance runners who think of “speed” training think 400 meter repeats. But a 400 meter repeat session is not a speed development workout. Rather, in 400’s, you are working to improve one of your metabolic systems (in this case the improvement of VO2 max). While you do recruit some fast twitch fibers during a set of 400 meter repeats, the primary purpose of that workout is to improve VO2 max.
True speed development workouts are alactic, meaning you do not need oxygen for energy and don’t produce lactic acid when running them. These are short, fast repeats with full recovery with the purpose of recruiting fast twitch muscle fibers. “Speed development workouts train the body to activate a greater percentage of muscle fibers with each stride. In doing so, you’re able to make each stride more explosive and generate more power without increasing effort. This increased power is what makes your stride more fluid and allows you to propel yourself further with each stride, making you faster. In addition, speed development improves the efficiency of the neuromuscular system, which is the communication system between your brain and your muscles. Improving the efficiency of the neuromuscular system allows your body to increase the speed at which it sends signals to the muscles and, more importantly, contributes to the activation of a greater percentage of muscle fibers.” (from “Speed Development for Distance Runners” by Jeff Gaudette)

Each of us has a unique muscle make up which consists of slow, intermediate and fast twitch fibers in varying proportions. Speed training works the full range of your muscle makeup. This is critical because even in long races you will need every available fiber to be fully developed. As slow twitch fibers fatigue, fast twitch muscles are called into action, especially in the latter stages of long running events (such as the marathon).
Speed development is complementary work and won’t compose a majority of your training. However, it should be an ongoing component of your regular training, done year round so that you’re never too far away from your top end speed. It consists of short (30-50 meters), fast repeats with full recovery (2-3 minutes) done either on a hill or flat. “In and out” strides are another way to address speed development. These consist of 150 meters of acceleration in the first 50 meters, the second 50 meters as fast as possible, and deceleration in the final 50.
Athletes should ease into these types of workouts, supplementing this work with strength development to support the added demands on the body. Your muscles will gradually become more and more conditioned to these types of workouts. Because speed development workouts are alactic you can do them on the day before a tempo or long run. They should not feel hard in the traditional sense of training. You won’t be gasping for breath, bent over, hands on knees. The long recovery periods are critical in allowing regeneration of ATP stores before the next sprint.
It is imperative that you have no existing injuries and have done core and strength work before starting speed development workouts. Running at top end speed is demanding and will challenge muscles that you may not have used in a while. A good place to start is with short, explosive hill sprints on dirt or grass to ease your body into the demands of this work. Also, be sure to warm up thoroughly (jogging, drills, strides) before doing this type of workout.
Hopefully these workouts will feel fun to you! I like to think of them as “fun fast” and a good reminder that, even as we age, we don’t necessarily have to become slow!

Racing Well: It’s All About Attitude

Monday, June 24th, 2013

In this second installment on how to race well, I am struck by the similar post race statements I’ve heard from athletes competing in the USA Track and Field Nationals held last weekend. It seems to me that what sets the best runners apart from the rest is their mental approach to racing. I see this in elite runners, local age group winners and back of the packers. I’ve written before about the meaning of the word “compete”. This word is derived from the Latin “competere” which means “to strive together”. Think about that! I spent many of my early running years fearing competition, wanting to run away from fierce competition rather than to embrace it. At one point, the fear of failure and of losing the approval of others almost paralyzed me in the sense that if I felt I couldn’t win, I didn’t want to compete at all. This was obviously a no win situation as I realized that surely it’s better to at least be out there trying than to be sitting at home wondering what could have been. Further, as we age, we know that just being able to toe a starting line uninjured, free from sickness, and with the time and space to actually race, is a gift!

Once I learned that to compete is to “strive WITH” my opponent, a light bulb went off! My competitor is the one who is going to help me run my best. My competitor is going to pull out of me more than I could have achieved alone. Because of the gift of this competition, I am going to find out how far and fast I can really go. And isn’t that partly why we do this “running thing” in the first place? Those of us who join teams or who race want to get better. We want to challenge ourselves. We want to become better human beings in all dimensions and we strive for that excellence in our athletic pursuits. We enjoy the challenge of the work itself and then of the test, the race where we put it all on the line and see what we’re made of. Sometimes we come up short and sometimes we exceed our own expectations. Either way, we’re thankful that we were able to travel that road, to work through the process of the difficult training. This sense of gratitude and excitement about GETTING to race can be the antidote to a paralyzing fear of failure.

Running Times editor Jonathan Beverly conveys this so well. In his latest “Editor’s Note” he remembers the “Rocky” movies we old-timers watched as kids. He states, “the parts that get to me are the moments when Rocky decides to stop being cool and start to care, to try, to work, to dream.” Beverly coaches middle school runners and when they get nervous about a race he says, “That’s good; it means you’re alive, you care. Then I watch them go out and risk pain, failure, embarrassment, and I see them not settle for OK or ‘I did my best’ but want excellence.”

He concludes with this: “And that is what running is all about in the end. In the aftermath of Boston, there was a feeling that everything we do is a bit trivial, even running. But that feeling soon turned 180 degrees to a resolve that running is vital to some of us for a meaningful life. The activity itself isn’t sacred, but the process of wanting more, setting goals, planning and acting are core aspects of being human. It is this that brings tears when I recognize it, this that I want in my life still.”

Do you know what the athletes at the USA Track and Field Championships were saying? Alysia Montano, winner womens’ 800 meters: “I knew it was going to be a [tough] race and I was excited for it.” Brenda Martinez, womens’ 800, 2nd place: “She [Montano] is very tough. I’m glad she didn’t make it easy on me.” Galen Rupp, 2nd in the men’s 5,000: “I talked to my coaches and I really wanted to challenge myself…this was a great chance to work on closing hard in a fast race. It was good, good practice.” Shannon Rowbury, 3rd, womens’ 5,000: “I was pretty tired on the warmup today and wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out and, even that last lap, they were pulling away but I just kept thinking happy thoughts and how much I wanted to be in Moscow.”

The common themes here are confidence, excitement, and a strong desire to get the most out of oneself, even if that isn’t first place. Top athletes get excited rather than fearful about competing. They use pre-race “butterflies” as a catalyst to great performances. Instead of fearing a potential bad outcome, they instead focus their mental energy on channeling those pre race jitters into an excellent performance.

The next time you feel nervous before a big race, remember that you’re alive, you GET to compete, your opponents are going to help you to a great performance, you’re going to find out what you’re made of and then be able to go back to the drawing board and begin the work again. Think of your opponents as a gift which will enable you to strive towards your best performances.
[I welcome comments on this post!]

Racing well: Words from the Wise

Monday, June 3rd, 2013

The following are not my words but very good advice when racing. This is why in our speed training we work so much on correct pacing and why we have specific training paces in our workouts. Every runner who wants to race well must learn how to correctly pace. Practicing various paces in training prepares you to execute correctly in your goal race. This is also why we work on “feel parameters” in training. Specifically, each runner must learn what particular paces actually feel like in the body so that he/she can tune in very precisely to the level of energy that is being expended. This is also a good reason to sometimes train without any music. Training sans earplug distraction allows you to really tune in to your body to assess how much work you’re doing at a given time. Learning to assess whether you are racing at an optimal speed is critically important in reaching your goal times for various race distances. For example, when racing a 10k, the athlete should know that optimal 10k RACE pace is controlled hard work. There is a high level of work going on but not so much that one goes into debt. Learning to finely ride that line between the hardest possible work load while still remaining behind the “red” danger zone of overload will result in that coveted PR.

“Coach Jason [Karp’s] Tip of the Day: If there is one strategy that will enable you to run a better, faster race on that day (disregarding for the moment the training that led up to it), whether it is a mile or a marathon, running even or slightly negative splits is it.

The single biggest mistake runners make when they race is that they start out too fast, way above their fitness level. I see it all the time. They either ignore or do not learn from their training what pace is realistically sustainable for the entire race. The faster you run the first half of a race, the more your muscles rely on oxygen-independent (anaerobic) metabolism to generate energy. With the greater reliance on oxygen-independent metabolism and muscular work comes an increase in muscle and blood acidosis and the accumulation of metabolites that cause fatigue. Whether the race is a mile or a marathon, you can’t put running time in the bank. You will end up losing more time in the end than what you gained by being ahead of schedule in the beginning. No matter how strong your will is, the metabolic condition caused by running too fast too early will force you to slow down during subsequent stages of the race.

The best way to run your fastest possible race and be in control of the race rather than the race controlling you is by running the second half of the race at a pace that is equal to or slightly faster than the first half (even or negative splits). To negative split a race requires accurate knowledge of your fitness level, confidence to stick to your plan when others have taken the early pace out too fast, and a good dose of self-restraint. The most economical racing strategy is to prevent large fluctuations in pace and run as evenly as possible to keep muscle acidosis as low as possible until you near the finish. Next time you run a race, ask yourself within the first mile, “Can I really hold this pace the entire way?” Be honest with yourself. If the answer is yes, then go for it. If the answer is no, then back off the pace so you can have a better race. The best races come when you are in control of the race the whole time and able to run faster in the closing stages, rather than when the race is controlling you and you’re just hanging on to the pace, waiting for the finish line to come.”

Training Effectively Part 2: Proper Pacing in Racing

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

In honor of the upcoming Bolder Boulder 10k I will focus in this post on proper pacing in racing. After spending months preparing for an important race, it is critically important that you are able to actually execute on race day. Most of us go into a goal race with a particular desired pace in mind. The ability to remain patient in the beginning stages of the race and to methodically put down the appropriate mile splits will enable you to achieve your goal. Furthermore, racing at higher elevations (such as the Bolder Boulder, St George marathon and others) means that you must not go into oxygen debt too early in the race. This is also referred to as “redlining” and once you’ve done it, you’ve ended any chances of reaching your goal that day. Patience and self control are critical in the early stages of a race.

In the Bolder Boulder 10k, the difficulty of the course makes smart racing even more important. Specifically, in the first mile of the race, you will want to be about 10-15 seconds slower than your desired goal pace. This is partly because the early sections of the course are slightly uphill. If you have trained correctly, you should know what desired 10k race pace feels like. Stay just on the easier side of this pace in terms of how you feel. You will want to feel in control while still working methodically. As I’ve said before, 10k race pace should feel in the beginning like “controlled hard work”. Later in the race, it feels a bit harder than that! But early on you should feel that you’re working but that you could maintain pace throughout.

Miles 2-4 of the Bolder Boulder are essentially climbing with a few short downhill sections. You will still, in these miles, be slightly slower than goal race pace due to the relentless climbing. Without straining, use every downhill section to gain some time on the clock. Open up your stride and let gravity do the work. When you reach another uphill, relax a little and try to run smoothly with good form. Concentrate on running tall, good arm swing, a shorter, quicker stride and telling yourself to be fast but relaxed.

The four mile marker is the highest point of the course and your goal is to reach this spot feeling like you can still really race. Use mile 5 as an opportunity to get a lot of time back. Open up your stride, move quickly on the downhills and focus on catching people ahead of you. Do not unduly strain but concentrate on good speed and form. The 6th and final mile is all about mental focus, determination and guts. On Folsom, as you head toward the finish, focus on catching as many people as you can. Think “quick feet” and remember all the hard training you’ve done.
The last quick hill up into the stadium is just one hill repeat. Again, focus on running tall, good arm swing, and a quicker, shorter stride to get you up and over. Then, enjoy that last sprint to the finish.

Remember: no one enters a race planning to run poorly. But when the gun goes off, it’s easy to get carried away and run too fast due to adrenaline and the impatience of the runners around you. Don’t do it! You remember that you have trained well for this day, that you know what pace you’re supposed to run and how that is supposed to feel. Anyone can run quickly in the beginning of a race. It is the people who are patient and smart who run fast all the way through to the end, thereby achieving the desired outcome.
Enjoy the race!!!

Training Effectively: Part 1 (Vary your paces.)

Monday, March 18th, 2013

The beauty of running is that it is so simple. Put on a good pair of trainers (running shoes) and off you go. For the brand new runner, getting out the door and putting in time on the feet is a great achievement. But after a while, some of us want more. We want to run faster. Or further. We want to run a certain time in the Bolder Boulder 10k. We want to qualify for the Boston marathon. For this group of runners, an effective training strategy is needed in order to accomplish goals.
This article is the first in a series which will focus on effective training strategies. Phrased negatively, we could say: “Mistakes runners often make in training and how to avoid them.” We’ll frame these articles positively, however, and will focus on topics such as: the importance of speed training, even for long distance athletes; training and racing at the correct pace; the vital importance of rest; sticking to prescribed paces in a workout; being willing to adjust training sessions when necessary; sticking with a plan across time; being willing to assimilate new information into training protocol; preventing injury; racing well; training with a group; running on soft surfaces, etc.
This first article in the series will address the importance of running at varied paces throughout the training cycle. Specifically, we want to avoid a common mistake among many runners which is to make all runs “medium effort”. In other words, many runners do not run easily enough on their recovery days nor hard enough on their intense days. They fall into a pattern of always running at a “working”, medium effort pace which never allows them to truly regenerate in order to prepare for the next hard effort.
The most effective training involves running at varied paces each day. It is critical to remember that every workout has a specific purpose. Good coaches delineate the purpose of every single workout and want their athletes to adhere to exactly what is prescribed for a particular day. Achieving the purpose of a workout requires a very specific blend of duration (volume) and intensity (effort). No more and no less. Moving away from the optimal pace for a specific training session means that you are now training for a different purpose as well as sabotaging both the workouts before and after.
Pete Magill, runner and Running Times author states: “To ditch the ‘medium run’ mentality, recalibrate your ‘daily’ run pace to a conversational pace. If it isn’t a workout day (intervals, fartlek, tempo), don’t test your fitness, try to sneak in some quality, or judge your self-worth by your minutes per mile.” Learn to back off and run at a very relaxed pace when the training plan calls for that. In this way, you allow your body to regenerate in order to prepare for the next hard session. Great fitness gains are made by engaging in hard running followed by the body’s ability to recover from those efforts. This is the principle of super-compensation whereby the body slowly adjusts itself to higher and higher levels of fitness by creating a new homeostasis. You’ve seen this after you’ve been unfit, trained effectively for several months, and then find yourself posting race times that are much faster than before.
To summarize, a good training plan has athletes training at every pace from completely conversational to very, very fast. There is a continuum which begins with easy jogging, progresses to a somewhat faster aerobic zone effort (often used on long runs), to threshold pace (also known as “tempo” or lactate threshold runs), to VO2 max intervals to anaerobic intense efforts. Knowing when to utilize these varied paces is the key to an effective training program. Having the patience, wisdom, and humility to run slowly enough on easy days will enable you to get the most out of your hard efforts. Let’s all seek to be effective, efficient, and excellent in our running by adhering to this fundamental principle.
Your comments are welcome!

I D.A.R.E. You!

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

When I was a kid, my friends often dared me to take on a risky or challenging endeavor. “I dare you to climb that tree to the very top!” “I bet you can’t beat me in a race. I dare you to try!” In essence, they were inviting me to push myself beyond what I could achieve at the time. I realize now, many years later, that rather than young cohorts taunting me to action, my own voice invites me to risk, to push beyond the status quo, in an effort to live boldly and, essentially, joyfully. I have realized that I want to take this life and creatively make it into something greater and more beautiful. Training hard towards a goal race is one of the ways to push beyond my current capacity, to enter uncharted (and therefore risky) territory in order to find something new. As you consider your own training and racing, DARE to take some risks.

Despite the arctic temperatures outside, spring is around the corner. And springtime for many of us means more races on the calendar. Many runners I know are targeting everything from 5 to 50k’s this spring, seeking faster race times and new challenges. For some Boulder locals, the Bolder Boulder 10k on Memorial Day is often the highlight of the racing calendar and a fitness gauge from year to year. Whatever your training and racing focus in the next few months, it’s important to know exactly what you want to achieve and how to get there. Consider the following elements as you develop your goals:

D-efine your goal clearly. Be specific. Write down in your training log exactly what you’d like to achieve. For example, “I want to break 50 minutes in the Bolder Boulder 10k this year.” Or, “I’d like to qualify for the Boston marathon by running a sub 3:15.” Focus your goal on elements you can control. Specifically, you can determine how hard you train in order to race at a designated pace. But you cannot control how many fast runners will be in your age group on a specific day. Thus, desiring a top three age group finish, while a worthy endeavor, is not a completely manageable goal.

A-ccountability: Rarely are challenging goals reached alone. Most of us need a support system in place as we strive for excellence. In run training, the friends who are out there at 5:30 on a cold, dark morning, pushing you through a tough workout, are the catalyst to move you toward your own success. Further, engaging a coach who has an informed, objective opinion and who will ask you exactly how your workout unfolded, can be just what is needed to keep you on track. Even if you train alone at times, consider the benefits of joining a club and finding training partners who will help you to “run happy” and to run faster.

R-eaching yet R-ealistic: Your goal should be challenging enough that you’re not completely sure you can achieve it. At the same time, you must be realistic. If you currently run 9:00 minute pace for the Bolder Boulder 10k, then trying to break 50 minutes (8 minute pace) in this year’s race is unrealistic. Consider previous race times as well as your current life situation when determining your goal. For example, ask yourself: “How much time do I have to train? How hard am I willing to work? Do I have any lingering injuries that will hold me back?”

E-xecution Plan: plan exactly how you are going to achieve your challenging goal. Specifically, develop a workout plan which will methodically enable you to become faster. There is nothing quite like a written plan, combined with expertise and accountability, to get you where you want to go.

Life is beautiful and made even richer when we D.A.R.E., with the help of others, to achieve more than we thought possible. Lofty racing goals enable us to strive for excellence as we find within ourselves more strength and resilience than we expected. This then leads to greater confidence and success in other endeavors. Set a challenging racing goal for yourself this spring. I dare you!

[If you’d like to add your thoughts, please scroll down to the bottom of the “blog” page to the “comments” section.]

Mental Toughness in Training and Racing

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

Running is, of course, a fundamentally “physical” endeavor. At the same time, the act of running touches parts of ourselves that are more intangible, namely the spirit/soul and the mind. I’d like to address the mental side of training and competing. Mental toughness, composure, and the ability to perform well under pressure are topics that have been widely addressed in the sports psychology literature. I will just touch on some of the main components of becoming stronger and tougher as a runner.

Emotional control and stability are psychological traits that are common to successful athletes. This is also known as “composure” and “focus”. The athlete with the most composure will invariably perform better across time. What is interesting is that the ability to manage one’s emotions in stressful situations is LEARNED. That is good news! People are not born with great mental toughness. It can be learned.
Often, extremely high levels of anxiety inhibit performance. The definition of “anxiety” in its simplest form is “an emotional response to a perceived threat”. In life, we have good stress and bad stress. Good stress motivates us to complete tasks (study hard for an exam) and thus to grow as human beings. DIS-stress is negative stress associated with emotional turmoil, undue fatigue, ill health, etc. It’s important to remember that not all stress is bad and that the real issue lies in how we PERCEIVE a situation. We tend to make stress external: This “thing” stresses me. Really, it’s our PERCEPTIONS that create stress. (“If I don’t do well in this race, I will be perceived as a failure by other people in my life.” – Is that REALLY true? Don’t people like and appreciate you because of who you are not because of how fast you run?) When we know this, we have control to change things. Having that feeling of control means that you can regain composure and focus, which enable you to perform at your best.

When approaching a competition, it’s important to ask: “what do I fear in this situation”? Do I fear failure? success? letting someone down? not living up to my own expectations? An appropriate acronym for FEAR is False Evidence Appearing Real. At a fundamental level, we must realize that “the world will not come to an end if I don’t perform well here.”
When, as runners, we live constantly with anxiety, we have the tendency to over or under train, to choke in higher level competitions or workouts, we are injury prone, and we make excuses or rationalizations for poor performance. In order to conquer negative anxiety we can ask ourselves the following questions:
1. How important is this to me? Do I have an accurate expectation for this race given my current ability level and the competition?
2. What are the true consequences of “failure”?
3. What control do I have? What can I change? (My own level of training.) What can I not change? (The weather.)

Learn to reframe “failure” as disappointment. For most of us, a lackluster performance really isn’t the end of the world. Even for an Olympian running in a final, loss is still not catastrophic. Sure, one may lose endorsements and have to live with great disappointment, but in the end, it’s still just running, which is one element of a larger life. Learn from disappointment and take the lessons you’ve learned into your next race. Did you go out too hard and thus ruin your chances of a desired PR? Give yourself a set amount of time to feel the disappointment then regroup and begin to think about what you can learn from the experience. Every single race gives an opportunity to learn something about ourselves. That, in itself, is a wonder. You can grow as a human being even as you learn from poor racing performances.

Here are some approaches, thoughts and practices which have helped me grow in this area:
1. Work hard and smart so that you’ve done all you can do physically.
2. Maintain positive self talk (a deep, fundamental level of self acceptance and well being). Even when the race gets tough, focus on your “good” qualities, i.e. your strength and perseverance. This one practice has helped me perhaps more than any other in racing and is something I have had to learn across the years. In the past, I struggled with perfectionism and fear of failure and had to learn to overcome much negative self talk (which led to poor performance).
3. Maintain a positive assessment of the situation (gratitude!). Remember, there are no guarantees. To arrive at race day healthy and srong is a gift. Sure, you will sometimes have to race in awful conditions. But the person who can re-adjust her race plan and still enjoy the process will experience more “flow” in the race.
4. Have a routine for race day and warm up. The familiarity of sticking to your routine will enable you to maintain focus.
5. Practice under pressure sometimes. This is why we do speed training. You are essentially forcing your mind to believe that you can get through pain and suffering. When you regularly do this in practice, you literally teach yourself how to perform under pressure. When under pressure, you will fall back on what you’ve rehearsed. Perfect practice makes perfect.
6. Focus on the process more than the outcome. You can only control the process. Work to hit your splits, to maintain pace when your mind wants to back off, to get to that next mile marker strongly, etc.

This is a great topic for ongoing conversation. These are issues we all face but the good news is that, just as we can train very hard physically, so too can we improve in this area of mental strength and toughness. Please post a response or email me if you have thoughts to add to this post.


Our Better Selves

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

In a recent interview, Deena Kastor, Olympic bronze medalist and multiple American record holder, spoke of the lessons she’s learned through over twenty years of training and racing. She states that one of her coaches, before the 2005 Chicago marathon (which she won), told her to “define herself” that day. She says, “I reflected on that awhile and during the 26.2 miles and realized there were so many moments in the race when I made a decision. You don’t realize how many thousands of choices get made during a race, to give up or give in, follow the race plan or throw it out the window. If you can always make the positive choice, you’ll get closer to your goals. In pursuing that, you are defining your character. I feel that way when I’m racing, and in life now. When we make choices, we choose how we want to define ourselves to ourselves, our families, to the other people who are helping us reach our goals.”
In the grand scheme of things, running is an “extra”. We’re invested for a variety of reasons but we don’t have to run in order to survive. Running is an add on. An excellent add on, but peripheral nonetheless. Having said that, it’s also true that running can make us into our “better selves”. Training and racing give us the opportunity to slowly define who we choose to be. We train because the work itself builds character. We grow in self discipline, perseverance, and strength. In racing, we test ourselves to see how we will react to difficulty. Pushing through in a race gives us confidence that we can “push through” when life gets more challenging. When we stay with a tough workout or race right to the end, we begin to realize that nothing in life is insurmountable. This maxim extends to the “minor” as well as the “heavy” challenges in our days. When we become frustrated at work, with a spouse, or with our children, we choose how we will respond. Our character begins to come forth. And when we are faced with much greater difficulty (financial strain, illness or death of a loved one, emotional turmoil, etc) we find out whether we are able to persevere and to live well in the midst of trying circumstances. Having prevailed on the track or the trail gives more strength to prevail in every day life.
Kastor concludes the interview with the following statement: “I feel so fortunate to have had such great coaches who have given me life philosophies I can carry into the future.” The ability to prevail, in running and in life, also comes through relationship. “Sweat” brothers and sisters remind us that we’re not alone, encouraging us to “make the positive choice” and thus get closer to our goals, whether those are to be faster, stronger, more kind, or more disciplined.