Seek Suffering for Faster Racing


This brain training lesson results in the most unusual looks from runners. After all, aren’t we usually trying to avoid suffering? Well, in running, you actually have to seek it out in order to be your best. The reason is due to how our brains work.

According to one theory of the brain called the “central governor model,” the brain is set up to protect you from danger. Your brain is constantly monitoring your body, and if it senses something concerning, it begins a process to protect itself. In running, a big part of that process involves sending fatigue messages to your mind. (It’s even proposed that your brain can cut the power to your working muscles as well.)

An example for the new runner is when you go for those first few runs: Your breathing is heavy, your muscles are uncoordinated, and your heart rate is high as your body tries desperately to get the working muscles to do what you’re asking. Your brain sees all of this as a big threat to your normal status, so it sends lots and lots of fatigue messages to your mind. That’s why those first runs are so tough: Not only are you not yet physically trained for them, but your brain is screaming at you to stop.

After a few runs, however, your body starts to adapt—your breathing is more under control and you feel smoother. Most importantly, your brain no longer views running as a threat, so you now have to run faster and/or longer before it sends the same amount of fatigue messages as on those earlier runs.

The trick in training, then, is to gradually yet steadily provide the brain with a little more suffering and a little more suffering. Done across a training cycle, you can get to where you can endure a very high level of suffering without giving in to the fatiguing messages. This is where your breakthrough performances come.

I should note that many runners use the term “pain” when talking about mental suffering, but I prefer “suffering.” I’ve seen too many new runners run through physical pain and injury because they heard a pro runner say that she endured “painful” workouts that helped her to achieve best performance. Do not run through physical pain. Mental pain (aka suffering) is what we’re talking about.

So just how do you do this? The drip method. A little bit of suffering done frequently, with the occasional big exposure, not only gets you physically ready but gets you mentally ready for the demands of the race.

A smart training plan provides one to three workouts per week where you seek out a little bit of suffering. The suffering can come from the speed of the run, the duration, or both. In these workouts, you are forced to combat the fatigue/“stop” messages in order to keep going. If you’ve chosen your plan wisely, the suffering is at an appropriate level, and in most instances you can push through. If you can just keep pushing when you’re tired, you give yourself a great chance at success.

This leads us to another key aspect of brain training: mantra development. When combating suffering, you must find a way to stay on task and avoid giving in to the fatiguing messages of the brain. Most runners develop mantras or thought patterns to accomplish this. For some, it’s as easy as a simple statement like “Stay strong” or “You can do it.” For others, they use physical cues like shaking out their arms or focusing on their running form to keep them going despite the fatigue.

Key workouts provide ideal opportunities to determine the best mental strategy that keeps you on pace. You’ll want to have this in your arsenal for your race.

Lastly, when you build your tolerance for mental suffering in this gradual yet progressive way, it builds your confidence. If you suffer too much (by training too hard too soon), you’ll give in to the suffering and have a bad workout, which erodes your confidence (thanks to that pesky negative bias!). Not so when done correctly. If you have brain training as part of your objective for these key workouts and you train at the right level, then you feel great about yourself after the workout, and that builds confidence that you can achieve your goal.

The take-home message is that to be the best runner you can be, you must seek suffering. Don’t do it on every run, but instead use your key workouts as a chance to challenge yourself physically and mentally, so you develop the mental fortitude you’ll need for your race. Viewing suffering as a goal of a workout will help you to get more out of yourself, and even on those days when things aren’t going well, you’ll see the value in the “bad workout”—they still provide a hefty dose of brain training.



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Written By Greg McMillan
Called “one of the best and smartest distance running coaches in America” by Runner’s World’s Amby Burfoot, Greg McMillan is renowned for his ability to combine the science of endurance performance with the art of real-world coaching. While getting his graduate degree in Exercise Science he created the ever-popular McMillan Running Calculator – called “The Best Running Calculator” by Outside Magazine. A National Champion runner himself, Greg coaches runners from beginners to Boston Qualifiers (15,000+ and counting!) to Olympians.

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