January 21, 2009

Contest Within

When it comes to my training and results as a runner, I've been told many times by people, runners and non-runners alike, that I must be "so disciplined". Since June 2005, I have been training mostly five days a week nearly every week.

When I didn't run it was because my body and mind needed to recover from a race that was marathon distance or longer. Since June 2005, I completed a 100km off-road footrace (Oxfam Trailwalker), a 46-kilometer trail race (Six Foot Track), and five marathons (Gold Coast 2x, Canberra, Vancouver and Victoria).

After each of the above races I took a break from training, ie no running for a week, followed by a week of easy runs as I pleased before resuming my training program. While I've also raced in numerous 10kms and half marathons, recovery from these races does not require a break from running, just perhaps a week without any speed work.

I rarely miss a training session, and never just because I don't feel like training. That doesn't mean that I always feel like doing my training, particularly when it is too cold or too hot outside, or I feel tired, or lack time. But I know that once I start running, I will enjoy it. And on the rare occasion that I don't enjoy the training itself, I will feel so much better after my run.

To me discipline has been creating a habit motivated by enjoyment. I love the sensation of running, mentally and physically. Yesterday's run, for example, was an easy 50 minutes. While it was a chilly 5 degrees, a bright sun in clear skies warmed up the day.

Within a few minutes of running, my mind and body relaxed into an easy rhythm moving with my lungs, arms and legs. I basked in the sun, and took in the sight of the mountains and the rock climbers that found it warm enough to cling onto the Smoke Bluffs rocks in mid-January.

I find immediate rewards in running, as well as long-term payoffs, therefore I find being disciplined about doing it easy. I think my real discipline is tested in speed sessions and long runs.

This is where the mind needs to control the body to perform outside of comfort zones. During these runs, the amount of discipline mustered makes a crucial difference. On easy runs my mind can do whatever it wants, as my body is comfortable. But in speed sessions, my body is extremely uncomfortable which it doesn't want to be.

As with all uncomfortable situations in life, the way your mind deals with them determines the outcome. The same goes for running. Let's take the speed session that I find typically the toughest to deal with mentally: 2x 1500 meters, followed by 2x500 meters. My coach will give me goal times that he thinks I should be able to run based on recent results.

His time goals are achievable but typically only just. I know this from experience, so that is my first mental challenge: I know beforehand that I will have to push my body close to its limits. That is going to hurt, mentally and physically. The first 1500 meters will be OK, but it will also determine how the other three repeats will feel and go.

While I have to achieve my time goal, I also have to make sure I don't spend all my energy on that first repeat and have nothing left for the other three. But I also don't want to run too easy, because then it will take me more time to complete the distance than I am allowed. As you can probably tell by reading this, it is easy to overanalyze and psyche yourself out before even having started.

So that is where you need the discipline to control your mind. You must focus, don't allow it to decide beforehand that it will be too hard or too painful or too impossible. You must especially focus on the here and now each step of the way. Do not think about the previous steps and don't think about the steps you still have to take. Relax mind and body, and focus on making each single step the best possible to achieve your goal.

Another mental example are my weekly long runs which are set at 2 hours and 40 minutes in the coming two weeks. While I know my body is ready and capable or doing so, my mind may come up with excuses.

If I allow myself to think after 40 minutes of running that there are two more whole hours - or 120 minutes - to go, I may not feel like continuing. But if I `trick' my mind by, for example, thinking about the run as two parts, each of 80 minutes, it will be easier to deal with.

When I run alone, as I have done mostly since moving to Canada, I typically will do an out and back course on my long runs. That way I only think about running 80 minutes one way, quite manageable. When I reach that point, I simply turn around and retrace my steps.

The mental benefit is that even though I still have another 80 minutes to go, I am able to tell myself (and trust me, I do repeatedly) that I am on the homestretch.

While this may seem far from enjoyable, these thoughts are only a small part of what I think about during a long run. Most of the time is spent thinking about my next key goal, the Vancouver marathon, or the two shorter races I plan to do in between, the First Half marathon in February and the Vancouver Sun Run 10km in April, or I think about things that have absolutely nothing to do with running.

I may think about answers to questions, ranging from irrelevant to meaningful, family, friends, future and - my favorite - nothing whatsoever. This latter state is rare and I truly enjoy it when it occurs. It can happen during easy runs when I am either very relaxed or extremely tired - but it also may happen during a speed session or race when you are completely focused on what you are doing.

This state typically allows you to perform to your true potential, and is often referred to as Being in the Zone.

Below is a paragraph from Running and Being by George Sheehan:

“Discipline in running, discipline in training, comes easily. Discipline in real life is another story. The mind and the will and the imagination are not as easily controlled as the legs and the thighs and the panting chest. Running, of course, helps. The art of running, as Eugene Herrigal wrote of the art of archery, is a profound and far-reaching contest of the runner with himself.”

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