While working on my graduate degree in Exercise Physiology, I administered dozens of treadmill tests on runners and soon discovered a simple way to actually boost performance without even trying. In these tests, we had runners complete several progressively faster stages on a treadmill. During each stage, we measured running economy. Better running economy is one of the major factors leading to better performance in distance running.
During each test, we gave a time countdown – two minutes to go, one minute to go, 30 seconds to go, …….five, four, three, two, one, stop – in each stage. At the end of each stage, the runner would straddle the treadmill belt so we could take a blood sample. Once we got our blood-related measurements, the runner hopped back on the treadmill and the next stage began and we’d repeat the process of keeping them up to date on the time left in the stage. It was during this time count-down where we discovered the unexpected – a way to improve running economy without even trying!
No matter what the ability level of the runner (beginner to elite), when we said “one minute to go,” the runner’s running economy immediately improved. It was a noticeable change in oxygen consumption on the graph and it always happened within the last minute of each stage. It was consistent enough to make us feel that this was not just a coincidence but something real.
It didn’t take long to deduce that when the runner was told that only a minute remained, he would relax, mentally, and as a result, his running economy would improve. He was still running the same pace but just much more economically. Best of all, it didn’t require any training or special workouts. It just required a relaxation of the mind and with this, the body would suddenly become more economical.
Neuroscience now confirms that if the brain is concerned about the effort you are asking of the body, it will increase the feelings of fatigue and can even “cut the power” from the working muscles. It’s a protective mechanism. But, once the mind isn’t worried (consciously or subconsciously), feelings of fatigue and effort are reduced. Once our runners heard that they only had a minute left in the stage (even the final few stages which were quite tough runs), their minds relaxed and their running economy improved. We could see this in black and white on the running economy graph.
Running relaxed, of course, is not a new concept in running. Great coaches and athletes from the past have used relaxed running as way to perform their best. The great sprint coach in the 1960’s – Bud Winter had his “relax and win” mantra. John Wooden’s UCLA basketball teams had their ‘Act quickly but don’t hurry’ method. And I’m constantly telling athletes to relax as they run fast (particularly in goal pace workouts). The point being that if you practice relaxing even during challenging runs, you will improve your running economy and thus can improve performance. It can happen immediately (as we saw with our runners on the treadmill) but it’s always a habit that comes from frequent practice during runs, workouts and tune up races.
On your next few runs, focus on relaxing. As Jerry Lynch, in his classic book The Total Runner says, “let the meat hang on the bones.” Relax your face. Relax your eyes. Relax your shoulders. Run happy from the inside. Let it flow. It may feel funny at first because you have to concentrate in order to relax, but in time, you’ll find that you can run more effortlessly and your body will work with itself instead of against itself. I’ve found this to be particularly helpful in key workouts and races where I tend to be anxious, nervous or keyed up. In fact, before and during each race I run, I frequently say to myself, “Relax and win. Relax and win.” It puts my mind and body in the right place. Try it. I bet it’ll work for you too.
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