Runners and triathletes know the different elements of pain that you go through while training and racing. To become faster you have to push through the pain sometimes. Below is an article that will help you find ways to push through the pain.
“Dig deep, now.”
“You’ve got to want this.”
You’ve heard them before, and probably used them too: the cliches spouted to motivate runners in that critical moment when the wall of pain and fatigue from a tough workout or race reach their evil zenith. Those cliches are as much a part of running as . . . well, pain and fatigue.
Coaxing a runner through that wall is one of the sport’s greatest challenges. It’s the not-so-secret ingredient in the sport’s formula for success: run + run harder = PR.
Learning to push through the pain requires more than a few cliches; in fact, it may be even more complicated than many runners and coaches think. Top sports psychologists and researchers say that to do so successfully, you have to understand a few things about the brain, and as much as you possibly can about yourself as a runner. Even then, you’re up to a challenge as complex as the brain itself.
NO TWO MINDS HURT ALIKE
Dominic Micklewright studies fatigue and body/brain interplay at the Sport, Performance and Fatigue Research Unit at the University of Essex, Wivenhoe Park, in Colchester, United Kingdom. Micklewright says the problem is that the sensation of pain isn’t directly related to physical changes in the body; it’s a reaction to a signal sent to the brain. In short, pain is literally all in our heads.
According to Micklewright, as an athlete increases speed in active muscles, hundreds, even thousands, of neurological impulses arrive in the brain. As the athlete works harder, this neurological deluge intensifies. That’s when things get complicated.
“What muddies the waters is that pain is very subjective. No two people’s experience is alike,” Micklewright says.
In other words, one person’s “excruciating” could be another’s “tolerable.”
Micklewright points out that when some runners compete in front of a crowd, they say they don’t notice the pain in the same way as when they run alone–evidence, he says, that each of us, depending on the situation, can process the raw data differently. He says this point is further underscored by an odd reality shared by people who are ticklish: If you tickle yourself, you don’t react; if someone else does the tickling, you end up giggling like a 2-year-old.
And if you think your gregarious Uncle Leo, who holds his hand over the candle flame every year at Thanksgiving in a display of macho bravado, tolerates pain better than the shy kid brother who used to yell bloody murder when you jabbed him in the ribs, it’s not your imagination. According to John S. Raglin, professor and director of graduate studies in the kinesiology department at Indiana University, “There are inherent differences in pain tolerances. For example, extroverts tend to have a higher tolerance for pain.”
These differences in the way individual runners process pain make it difficult to formulate a generalized approach to getting through it. Researchers still have work to do.
One conclusion is clear: A one-runner-fits-all approach does not work. Runners not only interpret pain differently, but are also motivated by diverse reasons to run. A runner who simply wants to beat his goal time each race is, in all likelihood, not going to push himself quite as hard as the would-be scholarship winner or Olympic trials qualifier.
“Even if [two] runners are 90 percent the same, the 10 percent that they’re different will be what’s important,” says Darren Treasure, the performance psychology consultant for Nike’s Oregon Project, the Portland-based program headed by Alberto Salazar that trains many of the nation’s elites, including Mo Farah, Galen Rupp and Dathan Ritzenhein.
“There comes a moment when a runner has to ask, ‘Do I step up or step back?’ That individual asks, ‘Can I do this? It hurts,'” Treasure says. “You have to become more in tune with what’s happening.”
WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW CAN HURT
What many runners need in those teachable, pain-filled moments isn’t a breather. It’s information. According to Treasure, details about the workout itself–“OK, we’re doing 10 x 800s at 5K pace”–isn’t enough; context matters. To put it another way: You can’t expect to run through a brick wall without getting a glimpse of the reward on the other side. All of Salazar’s proteges are taught the special objectives of their training. So they show up for each workout knowing what they’ll be going through–and why.
Having a clear idea of what the training is meant to do is very important, Treasure says. “Even in the case of someone like Galen–he knows what he’s going to do, but Alberto is still there to tell him what he’s going to achieve.”
In fact, Salazar and Treasure take the time to remind each athlete of their training objectives before every workout–a strategy that becomes invaluable when teachable moments occur.
“We ask, ‘What are you trying to achieve tomorrow?’ We’ll use that information during the workout (when things get difficult) to pull them back into the moment. We do this every single day,” Treasure says.
If you use Salazar and Treasure’s approach, after rep number six of that 10 x 800 workout, when you’re bending over, clutching your shorts, you don’t have to fall back on cliches. Rather, you can hearken back to the rationale for the workout: “This is the tough part. You’ve had a good base of miles up to now, but it’s time to focus on speed and endurance. These next four reps are really the keys to getting you to that next level.”
WHAT ABOUT THE DISSOCIATION THING?
Treasure’s approach may draw skepticism from nonelite runners or those who are simply trying to motivate themselves. After all, Micklewright’s research indicates that elites such as Rupp and Goucher, when they understand the objectives of their training, will cope with pain in vastly different ways than the rest of us. “Elites use the associative approach; they relish and enjoy it. It’s a kind of benign masochism,” says Micklewright. Nonelites, on the other hand, tend to dissociate from the pain by talking to their running buddies or cranking their favorite tunes on their MP3 players.
So the question is, will a little information about their workouts help nonelites embrace the hurt? Eddie O’Connor, the sports psychologist for the Performance Excellence Center at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Center in Grand Rapids, Mich., says, surprisingly, “Yes.” O’Connor advises coaches to teach and runners to know what to expect, what they’re working toward, and then to look for the moment of maximum pain and run with it.
At this point, O’Connor says, stay in the moment, focus on this step, not the next 6 miles. “Embrace it. Make it the reason you’re out there.”
SCARED TO DEATH. OR OF IT.
Humans fear the unknown. After a lifetime of avoiding pain or being protected from it, the reason a runner won’t push through a wall of exhaustion could be good old-fashioned self-preservation.
Raglin believes one big challenge is teaching runners that pain–the kind that comes from running effort and fatigue–won’t kill them. That seems a bit dramatic, and for good reason–pain can lead to a dramatic emotional response: The runners worry about the pain, fear sets in, so they back away from the pain.
Although it’s more than a little ironic, the best methods for changing the way you think about painful training may be to put yourself through painful training, albeit with the thoughtful, personal approach favored by Treasure and O’Connor.
“The more people are exposed to pain, the less they respond emotionally to it,” Raglin says. “There’s a line where the pain no longer carries an emotional response. It’s part of a learning curve when they discover that it isn’t harmful, and that they are actually getting something out of it.”
Micklewright suggests runners might speed through the “pain learning curve” by having a few preplanned DNFs. He argues that experienced athletes know how far they can push themselves at the beginning of a race and still have enough to finish because, in all likelihood, they have failed to finish and/or run themselves to near-collapse before; therefore, an intentional DNF may help a less-experienced runner get a handle on what it takes to PR.
“In theory, a runner, to get closer to his goal time, needs to land right at the finish line and collapse. So to get to the theoretical best time, the best experience is to DNF. If you always get to the finish line, how do you know what your limits are?” Micklewright says.
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