Monday, September 26, 2011

It's All In Your Head... Mostly

There are so many things in life that are less scary once you've done them. The unknown is intimidating. Once you've completed a new challenge, it loses some of the mystique and you wonder what kept you from doing it sooner. Triathlons were like that for me. I was intimidated by triathlons because I didn't know what to expect. Now I wish I had tried one sooner. Now I know they're a lot of fun and nothing to be scared of.

Marathons are different though. In some ways, my first marathon was easier, mentally, because I didn't really know how hard it would be. I didn't know what it felt like to feel so completely drained. I didn't know my legs could feel that heavy. I didn't know the last six miles could seem that long. I didn't know walking would be so difficult the next day. With marathons, I think experience can be a disadvantage... especially if your goal is a fast time. The marathon is such a daunting event that the mental challenge is as difficult as the physical challenge.

"You have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can't know what's coming." - Frank Shorter, 1972 Olympic Marathon Gold Medalist.

I only have two weeks of peak mileage left in my training. This week ends with a 20 mile Long Run. Then I have a recovery week before another peak week ending in a 22 mile Long Run. Then I have a few weeks of tapering to let my body recover for the race.

There is mounting evidence that Long Runs of 20 miles or more are not only unnecessary for marathon training, but can do more harm than good for some runners. Running that far can definitely take it's toll on your body and if you aren't prepared for it, you can injure yourself before you even get to the race. In fact, I've told plenty of people that if they can run a half-marathon comfortably, they can battle through a marathon. You don't have to run 20 miles to be able to run 26.2.

For me, these two Long Runs are about mental training. 26.2 miles takes a long time and it's easy to get bored or to psych yourself out. It's even possible for your brain to make you feel tired and sore because you've subconsciously done the math and your brain is worried that going farther or faster could cause damage. So your brain makes you feel exhausted and shuts down energy consumption to encourage you to stop. You might be physically able to keep going and you might have plenty of energy stored in reserve, but you won't feel like it because your brain acts as an emergency 'governor' to prevent injury.

The book Brain Training for Runners focuses on redefining your limits by training your brain not to push the panic button when you push to an extreme. It explains the mental component of training in a way that is easy to understand and offers training programs that prepare you for half or full marathons.

I have been interested in how far we can push the limits of human performance and how much those limits are defined by the physical versus the mental limitations of human beings. New records are being set all the time. Physical achievements that were once considered impossible are now routine and 'impossible' has been redefined. Some of this progress is due to improved physical training. We know more about the body and how to fine-tune and specialize it than ever before. But some of the progress also comes from a better understanding of the mind.

Here are two quick links to examples:

1) A Little Deception Helps Push Athletes To The Limit
This article is about a study that tricked cyclists into beating their own personal best performances. They repeatedly rode as fast as they could over a certain distance and eventually became familiar with their physical limits. They were then shown a virtual rider on a computer screen that they were told represented their best time. In fact, the virtual rider was programmed to ride significantly faster than each cyclist's personal best. Despite the increase in speed, the cyclists were able to keep up with the virtual rider. The cyclists rode significantly faster than they thought possible because they were tricked into thinking it was possible. The article goes on to explain other examples of tricking the mind into allowing the body to perform beyond its expected limitations.

2)Radiolab Podcast About Ultrarunner Diane Van Deren
Radiolab is an awesome podcast about interesting stories and science. I highly recommend it. ( This particular episode talks about Diane Van Deren and her seeming advantage as an ultra marathon runner. (An ultra marathon is any race longer than a marathon... many are 50 or 100 miles long.) Diane is an interesting example of mind over matter because she is missing part of her brain. She was diagnosed with epilepsy and had brain surgery to remove part of her right temporal lobe in an attempt to control her seizures. Between the residual effects of the seizures and the removal of part of her brain, Diane's mental limitations might actually be an advantage to her as a distance runner. She has difficulty with time and memory. Some people suggest this makes it easier for her to run hundreds of miles at a time because her brain has no data to help her decide how tired she should be... she is constantly living in the moment with little concept of how far she has gone or how far she has left to go. Another theory is that her brain now processes emotions differently and she might have a different (or diminished) emotional reaction to pain. Whatever the cause, she is an interesting case study into the effects of the mind on performance.

For years, I've run the marathon while playing mental games to break up the remaining distance into manageable chunks. At 6 miles, I would think, "I just have to do that three more times." At 13 miles, "Halfway there!" At 15 miles, "Just 5 more until 20." At 18, "Run 2 and then 3 and 3." I did the math over and over, trying to make the miles I had left seem like small, achievable goals. The problem is, I was still going over and over the remaining miles in my head. I was constantly reminding my brain how much farther I had to go.

When I ran a marathon in Olathe, Kansas in April, I decided to spend as much time as possible completely focused on how I felt in the moment. Instead of playing with the numbers and thinking about the distance ahead, I did mental checks of how I felt at any given moment. "How am I breathing?" "How do my legs feel at this pace?" "Do I have a little something extra right now?" "Can I pick it up a little bit?" "Do I need to back off for a minute?"

I ran a 3:19... my second-fastest time... with only half of my usual training on a day with heavy winds that I just planned to run for fun.

So I have two very long runs left in my training. My plan is to use them less as an opportunity to prepare my body, and more as an opportunity to practice living in the moment and preparing mentally for the marathon.

Goal For The Day: Rest.
Distance: 0.00 Miles.

Notes: I feel pretty good after yesterday's Long Run. My back is giving some indication of being tweaked, but nothing horrible yet. Lot's of stretching!!!

Daily Miles: 0.00 Miles.
Blog Totals:
  Run - 365.24 Miles.
  Bike - 144.45 Miles.
  Swim - 10,050+ meters.

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