It seems that recently I’ve seen more on the discussion about how combining the training of the mental and physical aspects of running results in greater benefit than when those aspects are trained separately. We’ve known that all along, you might argue, because anyone who has completed a marathon will tell you that the mental component is at the very, very least, 50% of the effort. Paavo Nurmi, the original Flying Finn, perhaps said it best, “Mind is everything. Muscle—pieces of rubber.”
There is a great article by Alex Hutchinson in The Globe and Mail about it, which reminded me of the book written a couple of years ago by Matt Fitzgerald called Brain Training for Runners: A Revolutionary New Training System to Improve Endurance, Speed, Health, and Results. That book put in to words a few things that I’d been pondering for years but lacked the capacity to put into any sort of linear order.
The mental aspect of running is, to most of us, the ability to “get tough” when the going requires it, when we need to push in those last minutes or miles so that we can finish what we started. But the mental aspect plays a much larger role than that. It helps us to relax, to monitor our effort over a given time or distance; it keeps us focused and helps us to determine when to push and when to rest. Again from the Nurmi perspective, maybe it is everything.
Training the mental component doesn’t even require a dedicated time each day. It can be done—and should be done—concurrently with the physiological training each day when we go for our run or training session. For most runners, the mental training can greatly help to improve our ability to focus, to relax and to endure.
We can train our abilities to focus and relax each day we run, no matter the effort level. On a recovery day, take out the earbuds and pay attention to your breathing. You can synch your breathing and your steps, according to Budd Coates, author of the book, Running on Air, to help the body relax. Start your runs slowly—glacially slow, if necessary—so that your breathing is always in control, so you can maintain focus and stay relaxed from head to toe longer. You can synchronize breaths and steps on the odd number, as Coates suggests, or you can simply count your breaths—just as a Zen student does in mediation—from one to ten or one to a hundred, over and over. When you lose count or your mind wanders, simply return to the beginning and start over.
In any run of any effort, paying attention to your form can help to increase the mental and physical synergy. And we’re not talking about how your foot lands on the ground, or where it lands in relation to your body; we’re talking about much more general ideas—running tall, light and relaxed. Pay attention to your form relative to your effort: If at any time in a workout, you can’t maintain good, clean form, you’re probably not relaxed and likely going too fast. As with almost anything that is new, there will be a period of awkwardness or discomfort until you get more familiar with the practice.
We can learn to endure discomfort—either the searing pain of the last few minutes of a good 5K or the heavy, leaden, piano-carrying-elephant-on-our backs in the marathon—by regularly introducing some fast, intense work to our program. By keeping discomfort fresh in training—even in base training—we can remind our bodies what it feels like to run in the gutter, so to speak, so that when time comes for some intestinal fortitude near the end of a race, we are well prepared to handle it. Even in base training, every few weeks we can do a short, sharp shock to the system of no more than a few minutes, just enough to stay in touch with that feeling, but not enough to throw a wrench in the big picture.
We can also learn to endure discomfort by training the mind using baby steps. Like one learns to memorize poetry—line by line by line—we can practice the same way when we are doing run training. If we follow a training schedule that is centered on the principles of progression and extension—generally speaking, incremental additions of intensity and volume of intensity, respectively—we can better train our minds to stay relaxed and focused longer so that we can handle discomfort at a much higher level over a longer duration.
When we create a program that progresses toward race paces and durations, we are able to combine the mental and physiological aspects of training in such a way that the training benefits are greater, we can create a well founded confidence, we stay healthy longer, and we enjoy the process more.