Tuesday, August 11, 2015

All In The Mind

*Forewarning: while I do have some biology qualifications, this post is only loosely based on fact, and largely based on personal experience. I have no sports qualification, I'm not a running coach, I'm merely one of the plebs who likes to run and I won't be engaging in any arguments of validity :)

With running in my local neighbourhood taking off like wild fire, a host of new to intermediate runner's ailments are popping up for discussion. While most are injury-related, another common theme is mind-training. Once, the initial euphoria of merely completing an event was enough to satisfy the soul, but as the beginner runner turns the seriousness up a notch, the metaphorical devil on one's shoulder often rears it's ugly head. Why is it that the body is always stronger than the mind? How can we overcome this and achieve our running goals? I've had a few recent discussions with people about training both mind and body so thought a post about the mind games of running was timely.

I'll try to address some techniques I've found helpful to push through the mind's very convincing attempts to grind you to a halt and order a pina colada (while sitting on a bean bag eating a vanilla slice), 5km into a 10km race. But first it might help to understand why we experience such difficulty pushing through a race we are clearly physically able to complete:


Sure we do the bipedal thing pretty well, our centre of gravity is fairly central through our midline, we've got giant glutes (some more giant than others) to propel us forward, unusually large feet for a mammal - I could don my David Attenborough cap and go on, but you get my point, we're not that bad at running. This is a great evolutionary adaptation to pull out when you're being chased by something that wants to eat you. Our fight or flight response usually makes us run, until the threat has gone. In reality that will happen (or you'll become lunch) well before 42.2km, or even 1km for that matter. So it's not that surprising that our head tries to tell our bodies to go have a nap after 1 rep of Yasso 800s. We're designed to conserve energy until it's needed, not run 100 miles through the night all for a small piece of metal we can use to help hold our pants up.

Humour aside, I'm sure this information isn't new to most runners, but it is useful to remember so we can push ourselves through the tough training sessions and the low points in a race. I am by no means an expert at taming the anti-running devil within. I'm not actually very good at it (as I've discussed before, more than once) and have had more than one race failure, where I let my mind convince my physically capable body that slowing down (or stopping) and throwing away all the hard earned training was somehow worth the relief on the legs and lungs. It wasn't. It sucked big time. So over the last year or so I've tried to compartmentalize all the little tricks that help push through the pain.

To the new runner, there is only one piece of advice I ever give. Slow. Down. If you find yourself stopping after 200m or your breathing is so laboured you can't utter a word, you're going too fast. It's well worth building a little slower-paced endurance before trying to smash out some intervals. Let your body feel what it's like to get comfortable running even if it feels like you're barely shuffling. Speed will come later. Join a running club, drag a friend out there with you, try and chat through your runs. Before you know it you'll have run a km, then 5, then who knows what the limit is.

Now to those who have a bit more running under their belt and struggle to push through the distance barrier, or to hold pace for that interval, or to make it through the final kms of a race, here are a few things that have worked for me (in no particular order).

1) Mix things up

Even when I'm not training for anything specific, I like to follow some sort of program. It normally includes a long run, at least one interval or tempo session and some easy stuff. I know that Wednesday is pain day, but that means more often than not that Tuesday and Thursday are easy days. I look forward to long run Sunday, as I often get to catch up with a friend, run through day break and push the endurance limits while clearing my head of the week's chaos. Cross train if you like. Training the cardiovascular system in any way will improve your running. Mixing it up keeps the training interesting and the different types of runs give you a variety of goals to work towards (speed, distance, number of intervals before collapsing in a heap etc). It also stops you from getting bored.

2) Run with friends

Never under-estimate the power of peer-pressure, and I don't just mean in training. Hold yourself accountable by telling someone (maybe not the whole world as too much pressure is fuel for the little devil) of your goals. If you think someone is expecting something of you, you are more likely to put in the work and not give up. There is generally only one person I tell of my running goals, and who you pick is a personal choice (the dog doesn't count), but accountability works wonders.

Along the 'Run with friends' theme, run with someone who's faster than you occasionally. This helps you push yourself further than you might on your own.

3) Be prepared

The best intentions in the world won't make up for lack of training. If you're a bit under-prepared for a race, admit that to yourself and shift the goal posts. No one can run a 3:20 marathon just because they wrote it on their fridge, and trying to without the preparation will end in tears. Being well prepared for a race (and hopefully getting there uninjured) can fill you with the world of confidence. Not everyone is like this, but I'll be confident of a goal time if I can run a third of the race distance, at goal pace, a few weeks out, and recover well. Use the McMillan online calculator. It is an exact science that, given appropriate training, is yet to disappoint me. McMillan predicted my first marathon time to the minute. I cannot sing its praise loudly enough.

"They" claim that the last 6km of a marathon is all mental. The next few points are directed largely at those last 6km (or equivalent proportion of a different distance).

4) Break it up

Any distance can seem daunting, so break it up into less daunting parts. Celebrate making through the first 3 of 6 intervals by saying "more than half way" as you start number 4. Break a 10km up into quarters. 2.5km is much easier to swallow than 10, and once you've done 2, only 2 more to go! I like to break the marathon up into 6 x 7km legs. Counting down 42.2km in 1km increments can make even the most seasoned marathoner become disillusioned, but chopping the session up into whatever distance you feel comfortable with will help to get the job done. Use the next aid station as your immediate goal, or the next gel. I even use this on the treadmill. I'm allowed a drink every 2km (even though my water bottle is right there all the time), so every 2km I celebrate with  sip of water. It may not seem like much of a celebration, but when you're trying to push through the pain barrier, you'll take anything you can get.

5) Pretend a dog is chasing you

You may laugh, but I have done this with success.  Have you ever been chased by a dog? The adrenaline that gets pumped through your body will have you giving the best 100m sprinter a run for his money. It doesn't have to be a dog. Pick your deathly-creature of choice. Are you terrified of snakes? Spiders? Clowns? They're chasing you, and they want your blood. Now run!

6) Think of a time when you have been in more pain

For me this is a no-brainer. Childbirth x 3. Number three will be really quick they said, she'll just slip out they said, stake out at the hospital in case you go into labour they said. Thirty-six hours, and 25 hours of back to back contractions later, the sweet little cherub made her appearance. Unless something goes horrifically wrong, no run I ever do will take 36 hours. Point made. Three and a half hours to run a marathon is a privilege in comparison.

7) Think how lucky you are

I read this on a blog a while ago, and it has merit. Think of how lucky you are to be physically/mentally/freely able to run intervals, enter a 10km event, try and run a PB parkrun. There are many out there who would love to do these things, given the chance, so do it well. Deep stuff!

8) Latch onto something

This could be anything. This could be tucking in behind some big burly guy and holding his pace for as long as you can. It could be reading some scrawny motivational sign that a goofy spectator is waving. It could be keeping the advertising slogan on the back of a stranger's shirt in sight. At Perth Marathon this year there was an ambulance (of all things!) parked up at a medic tent and in huge writing on a sheet wrapped around it read "SHUT UP LEGS". The first time I passed it I laughed. The second time I passed it I thought "That's got some merit". By km 25, when my ITB started hurting, threatening to ruin my perfect marathon, I just kept saying "YEAH, SHUT UP LEGS! SHUT UP!" and even though my knee didn't stop hurting, it helped me to push the pain to the back of my mind and not get distracted from the job at hand.

9) Find your driver

This was the most prophetic moment in my battle against the inner demon. I spent around 4 years working with the "you want this so badly, just do it" mantra. One day I realised I didn't actually "want" to run 10km in less than 45 minutes. At the 5km mark what I really wanted was a hot bath, a piece of chocolate cake and to not be running 10km. Then I discovered it had nothing to do with the run itself. It had everything to do with wanting to be strong. Mentally and physically strong, and running is just the outlet I have found to work on those things. I stopped telling myself I wanted it, and started telling myself I was strong enough, that I had worked hard enough and that I was capable. The day after a 10km DNF where I let the devil win when I knew my body was capable, I realised how strong I have become and ran my fastest 10km - on my own, in the dark. Find whatever it is that you need to tell yourself to make it happen. Maybe like me, it will take 9 years of running to figure it out, but when you do, it will be amazing.

10) Throw the watch away

When all your tricks fail, forget the goals, forget the pace, the distance, the splits, forget it all and just run. Remember the reason you started running, and the reasons you continued, the things you love about running, the people you run for. Hold them close to your heart and just run.


  1. Great blog Pam, intriguing for the non-runner as it applies to other areas of life. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks Ingy. That is certainly true. I can find a running analogy for every aspect of life, so it's no surprise you can spot the inverse :)

  2. Great blog Pam! Mind if I pinch a line or too?

    1. Sorry only just saw these comments. I'm certainly not a regular blogger. Steal away :)