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?