"Now if you are going to win any battle you have to do one thing. You have to make the mind run the body. Never let the body tell the mind what to do. The body will always give up. It is always tired in the morning, noon, and night. But the body is never tired if the mind is not tired.”

- George S. Patton, U.S. Army General, 1912 Olympian

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Mentally Managing Pain And Fatigue

I've tried to be more conscious about what I'm focusing on since my tough 21-miler a few weeks ago when I slammed into the wall around mile 18. I again went back to the study of 1996 London Marathon runners and the conclusions the authors came to regarding mental race strategies. This time I was struck with their observation that elite runners tend to spend a great deal more time focusing on how they feel (internal disassociation) than non-elite runners. Basically they focus more on what they're doing and less on distracting themselves.

As my Saturday runs became longer I tried to pass the time by distracting myself. It wasn't that I was particularly bored, I just didn't know how or what to think 2 1/2 hours. I could cheat and get by on my shorter weekday runs because I knew I wasn't in any danger of crashing, so I found myself struggling once I was out on the road for longer periods of time.

For the last few weeks I've made a conscious effort to make my shorter runs more effective. Consequently, my longer runs have benefited accordingly. Running Within contains a couple of excellent chapters on mentally overcoming fatigue. Briefly, here are my interpretations of six mental strategies the authors discuss regarding the management of pain and fatigue:

1. Focus on small, manageable goals. One mile at a time, running to the next light post, one more lap, whatever it may be. It will take mental training to be able to truly focus on running one mile, and then doing 10, 15, 20, 26 times, or whatever your distance is, but if you can break your run into small segments and focus on achieving these small goals, the larger goal won't seem as daunting.

2. Focus on your form, pace and breathing (my addition). This is 100% internal association and it's what I've been focusing on the most over the past few weeks. Whenever I catch my thoughts wandering, whenever I start up a hill or whenever I start to feel a little fatigued, even on a short Monday afternoon run, I block everything out and think of three things.  First, is my form efficient? This most often involves me dropping my hands, which creep higher and higher as I get tired (making for tense shoulder muscles, which wastes energy). Second, is my leg turnover smooth and light. If my heels are scraping the ground, I need to pick them up and run light. Third, is my breathing in sync with my body movement. Breathe in on the left foot. Breathe out on the left foot. It's a rhythm I've been in since day one last summer. It's natural now, but when I get tired, I almost always find that my breathing is not in sync with my leg turnover. Arms, legs, breathing. Let your body run like a well-tuned, efficient machine. Not a clunker.

3. Visualization. Call this internal disassociation if you'd like. Our bodies respond physiologically to images. Visualize yourself finishing your race or approaching your family and friends along the course. Visualize your muscles relaxing. Put yourself back in an exciting or happy moment. Some of these images will produce a smile, some may produce a tear, some may give you goosebumps. By learning to focus on these images, you will be prepared to do so when fatigue sets in and you need a bit of physiological stimulation to reset your body and mind,

4. Change your beliefs regarding pain and fatigue. Do you view these feelings as feelings of failure? Or do you view them as an opportunity to experience a breakthrough in your personal level of achievement? You're only feeling pain and fatigue because you have pushed yourself closer to your perceived limit of ability. How great will it be to push through these feelings and come out on the other side, now with limitless possibilities as to your potential? Shift your mindset from the negative to the positive and all of the sudden pain and fatigue are no longer enemies, but friends. Friends running with you on your way to achieving your goals.

5. You're not alone. Particularly in a race, look around. Chances are you're not the only one feeling these things. But you will be one of the few who knows how to handle them -- and that will set you apart. Take confidence in this.

6. External disassociation. Certainly there is a time and place for it. Sing a song, create a rhyme, hi-five the aide station volunteers, tell your life story to the runner next to you (only with their approval of course). For some runners, this is what gets them over, through or around the wall.

I encourage you to find what works best for you. It's going to be different for everyone, but hopefully I've given you some options to work from.

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