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Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Mental Push: How to Play on the Edge

I've been listening to, reading and researching a lot on the mental game of running. As my physical journey has found better habits and solutions, I suppose it's natural that the mind/brain/mental side of the sport starts to become a focus. It's an important variable of the athletic pursuit, one that is marketed by the products we love, and used as motivation to keep the spirit of the sport alive.

Nike: Great Motivators!
Photo: Nike

But what does it mean? What is the "Mental Game"?

One of the elements that seems to come to the fore, especially when it comes to elite level performers, is the inclusion of the struggle of excellence being "fun". We see images of Kilian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg laughing as they frolic through the European mountains. Local heroes like Gary Robbins, Adam Campbell and Ellie Greenwood push themselves daily on the North Shore mountains with addicted glee, playful ascents and descents, snow running and mud clomping to achieve their goals. They embrace the struggle and approach it with both a serious and focused effort, but it's all wrapped in a bubble of play. And they're killing it! Breaking course records, winning on a global international level, and maintaing positive ambassadorship of the sport.

Emelie & Kilian "training"
Photo Credit: Suunto
So what makes us weekend warriors tick, and how do we embrace that playfulness and incorporate it into our training and racing?

Matt Fitzgerald, in his book "Run, the Mind-Body Method of Running By Feel" talks about how elite athletes always talk about the fun of what they do. "The more we enjoy training, the better we perform," he states in his intro. All too often, when I'm out running with my friends, there's someone, often me, but not always, who is suffering. We hit a hill, and the words, "Ugh, this is gonna suck," or we approach a treacherous technical downhill with dust and rocks and someone mentions, "Sheesh, hope I don't roll an ankle!" This kind of pre-disposed negativity towards an obstacle, when conquered, will make you stronger, but we often don't see it and let that negativity taint our experience.

Published by Velopress

After my last training session with Mike Murphy, I've come to love running uphill. I'm still not good at it, but I really like it when a hill comes up. It's an opportunity to raise my game (pardon the pun). I know the more I do it, that physiologically, the gains will occur, but also mentally, I've pre-framed my mind to feel success with each painful step versus, well, pain! So what's happening on the brain side of things when this occurs. Through my exploration, the thresholds in the brain shift. The feedback that occurs to the brain from the muscles, cardiovascular system and other working parts of the body at some point hit a "safety" system that then triggers fatigue. The more we train, the further that threshold is pushed, so as time goes on, a 2 minute hill repeat that induced fatigue might take 2 minutes and 20 seconds before the fatigue sets in. With further training, it pushes into 3, 4 or 20 minutes! Physically, you're stronger, and the brain recognizes that, in essence giving you a  mental edge on your effort. But the reverse is also true.

The brain sends signals to your muscles on how many fibres to engage, how much oxygen to send, what hormones are needed, and manages other things, such as electrolytes, protein breakdown, and glycogen/fat burning for energy. The muscles don't do this on their own. They aren't compartmentalized aspects of our bodies that just happen to synergistically develop the ability to function as a whole entity. The brain, called the "Central Governing System" by Prof. Tim Noakes makes it all work.

To this effect, our emotional and conscious approach to our training have a major impact on the outcome of that training. The belief that we can make it happen, will benefit from the effort, and the growth of the outcome develops our brain to measure effort differently. In endurance training, when first getting started, the brain starts to panic, and thinks you're going to die. So you reach that point in a long run, start to feel a deep seated fatigue, and slow down. The brain is downsizing the amount of muscle fibre it is recruiting and slows down the metabolic systems to make you stop. So, an early stage long run ought to bring you close to that point and then finish. With a few more weeks of training, the distance and/or time is extended. The brain recognizes that last time this happened, you didn't die, so it allows a further effort. Fatigue doesn't set in for an additional amount of time and you went further. This is one of the goals of Long Run days, one of the most important components to endurance training and racing.

I am also fond of speed training. Not because I need it to go faster, because in a 50k effort, there's only so fast I'll be able to go, but speed sessions also make you hurt a little. It's instant mental fortitude. Like doing weights for your brain. Whether it's a 1000m or 1 mile repeat at faster than 5k pace, the amount of mental energy that's required to complete the interval, recover, and do 2, 3 or 5 more reps is immense. The final reps are mind blasting, and physically exhausting. The benefits of that sensation in a 30 minute interval training session include all the physical parts, like leg turn over, lactic threshold adaptation and tightness of form, but they also force your brain to deal with it. From an endurance perspective, when the hard part hits on a 50k or 50 mile race, you have the memory and experience of dealing with that similar sensation, accepting it, and moving onwards and forwards.

Mental and physical growth are intertwined. The stronger you get, the harder you can push, the faster you can do the same distance and further you can go. Elite athletes learn to reach a point of discomfort, have confidence in their physical capacity to deal with it, and then live there for as long as it takes. Amateur athletes often cut themselves short. On a race or hard training run, they won't allow themselves to get into the hole. "Keep it safe," their mind says, and they dial it back. This works, and is a good thing to prevent injury, ensure a week of training versus one day of recklessness that hurts subsequent training days and forces too many rests, but when done with the proper intent and playful approach, it can be a very good thing to push the mental envelope.

We're cool like that!
A lot of my personal running friends are much faster than I am. I have to push on the days we go out together and I like that feeling. On other days, I like slower relaxed runs where we just cruise along, have zero time goals, and take lots of pictures. I think it's a balance. The only way to get faster is to run faster. The only way to run further is to run slower, but farther. It's not really that complicated. When race day comes, it's supposed to hurt. There will be moments of discomfort, of digging deep, and pushing the limits. Ideally, that feeling isn't a new one. The training leading into the race, past months of hard efforts, and past races all come back and provide the experience to deal with the situation. Those memories, and the feelings that are associated with them exist in the brain. The mental tool box has a lot of tools in it to deal with the problem, and you find a solution that is translated into a better performance.

So the next time you're out on the trail, and you hear joyous screaming on a steep climb, laughter and howls on jumps and treacherous descents, and some "Yeehaw's" on the switchbacks, rest assured, that's the brain being trained.

So, let's go play in the forest. 

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