My perception of fatigue is what limits me as a runner.

What I have to come to realize with distance running is that it all boils down to perception of fatigue. Short distance sprinters rely on their physical capacity. Conversely, in distance running, the reason a runner doesn’t finish faster has everything to do with their internal monologue and perceived level of fatigue. It is a mental advantage that separates distance runners, not a physical advantage.

So all of this has got me thinking about the disparity that exists between what I feel when I am running and what is actually happening. It’s not the actual fatigue that’s making me feel horrible, it’s my brain’s response to the fatigue. My running goal each year is the same: to get a little faster. In an effort to make this happen, I do track/speed work each week. This is the time where I work on my speed over shorter distances. From all of this speed work, I have learned that my problem isn’t lack of speed. I know I can run a 6:30 mile. The problem is the lack of endurance, or at the very least the perceived lack of endurance, necessary to run 26.2 miles at a 6:30 pace without hitting a wall and needing to stop. Is this wall real? Or is it an imagined wall? I mean, I know it isn’t real in the physical sense, but you know what I mean.

On my long run this past weekend I asked myself, When is it that I struggle? Is it at certain times of the year? Month? Is it when I have a lot on my mind? Is it when I don’t have anything on my mind? Is it when I’m battling injury? Is it when I’ve been overtraining? Undertraining? Is it when I pay too much attention to how my body is feeling? Is it when I’m too concerned with monitoring my pace? Is it when the weather is too cold or too hot? 

I often know that what I’m feeling doesn’t accurately compare to what is physically happening to me. In other words, my highly unreliable brain tells me that I’m going to run out of steam if I don’t ease up on my pace. Why on earth would I listen to this negative voice? Why can’t I muster up enough mental strength to quiet those negative thoughts? I believe it has to do with how hard my brain is working my body. It’s all about my perception of effort and how hard my brain is working. As my body gets tired, my brain has a harder time working my body. The feeling of fatigue ends up trumping those thoughts in my brain that were propelling me forward.

I’m an amateur, but I’ve read enough from elite runners to know that this desire to stop for inexplicable reasons plagues the elite runners too. The simple fact is that running is hard. It is just plain hard. It’s hard to convince myself to wake up early for a run, it’s hard to kick myself out the door to start my run, it’s hard to keep running at a certain pace, it’s hard to keep running as opposed to walking, it’s hard to avoid shortening my course, and it’s hard to stick to my running plan. It’s just so very hard. This is also why it’s so very rewarding. It’s extremely rewarding to do something that is very hard to do. When we do hard things we get to say, “I do hard things.” How satisfying is that? It’s extremely satisfying. 

One thing I know for certain is that once I cross the finish line of a race I am immediately feeling better. I am feeling better because I accomplished what I set out to do; I crossed the finish line. But often I end up kicking myself because I know, in my runner heart of hearts, that I could have pushed harder. I mean, look at me on that finish line! Am I doubled over in pain, vomiting and shaking violently? No, I’m smiling, receiving my medal, bottled water, and banana and making a mad dart to the beer tent. So why is it so hard for my brain to convince my body to keep pushing? I’m not exactly sure, but since I know that my performance is directly linked to how hard my brain is working my body, I shall try to keep my brain working hard on working my body.
Easier said than done, right?

28 thoughts on “My perception of fatigue is what limits me as a runner.

  1. Hey you took my post I am sending out tomorrow. lol Guess it’s that time of year when we go from the cold to warmer weather that our brains have a hard time saying go, you are free from being bundled up, you can run faster now in shorts and tshirts.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is seriously an amazing post. I totally agree. I think it’s our ancestoral lizard brain we have to overcome. I do the same thing! This year at mile 23 of LA marathon my brain said “stop” you’re out of fuel, that pain means you’re injured, etc. I fought it for a mile and then was able to get past it and speed back up for the rest of the miles and flew over the finish, I cried afterwards and was so thrilled I proved my point, and your point. We can’t listen to our reptilian mind! This was awesome, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. Yay! I love your story & I love the idea of the “reptilian brain.” That’s perfect. This is why we love this sport & the running community. We’re just so connected through this sport. Here’s to our brains working hard to work our bodies!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Perfect timing for your blog entry. I am reading ‘how bad do you want it’ right now and it mentions the mental fatigue, people using bionic implants, get. Didn’t Scott Jurek also write about the “central governor”? I am not racing so your experiences shine a different light on it. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This is great. I have long believed that learning to run is more about training my brain than my body. My body will do whatever my brain tells it to, I just have to get my brain to tell it to do the right things…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Awesome post, I think you are spot on with perception of fatigue.

    I think a couple things have really helped me with dealing with those negative thoughts. 1) Adding a 22 mile long run to marathon training. Stopping at 18 or 20 just isn’t enough for me to have a strong mental game. 2) Adding in caffeinated salt pills. The salt is good for me (I’m a heavy sweater), and the caffeine keeps me focused at the end of the day (I’m also very sensitive to caffeine…I can only drink tea, because coffee makes me too jittery!). 3) Be stubborn! Tell yourself you won’t deviate from your pace!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Fantastic Thoughts! It seems true that it is our brains association to pain that limits our ability to cope with fatigue. Some people are better at being comfortable with being uncomfortable.

    In general, thinking about it is the fundamental flaw with perceiving your effort. Getting out of your own way and allowing yourself to “flow” puts you in that “zone” where pain is okay. The more comfortable you are with certain levels of pain and fatigue the easier it is to access your “zone”. It’s a never ending process of constantly pushing your perception to that next level of effort.

    Have you read the book “How bad do you want it?” by Matt Fitzgerald? If not check it out because It is all about perception of fatigue in endurance sports. You would love it.

    Keep it up!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. This is a great post. There is so much science behind what you’re saying. We can train our brains, it’s muscle like any other muscle. And of course the law of attraction is in play here as well. Yes, we have to do the work, but how we think about the work changes the chemical make-up of the brain. I am very new to running (just over the last year) and how I thought about my first 5k I know is was what got me through it. If I had let any negative energy into my thought process I would have been defeated before I started. I’m using that same process as I now train for my first half-marathon.

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  8. Have you tried introducing fartleks into your long runs? Start out with a few and then ramp up the number, intensity and length of them. I find that even doing a few on a long run will increase my general leg speed… It is definitely all in the kind though. I can run a 6:03 mile on a track but cannot get near that on long runs. Lucky to get 7:30 but more likely in the mid 8’s.


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