When the Going Gets Tough - How to Teach Yourself to Tolerate the Pain
Posted Apr 05 2013 9:06am
Often times during training and racing, we find ourselves
faced with a decision – do I keep pushing myself to go harder or do I ease up
and slow down. This is not an easy
decision for anyone, no matter how fast you are. Even competitive athletes struggle internally
with this decision. However, the
difference is that highly successful athletes learn techniques and train
themselves to get through it. Easier
said than done, but a skill virtually anyone can learn. It simply takes a dedicated, consistent
approach to training, much like anything else. There are no shortcuts - If you want to be good at it, you have to practice it.
What I mean is that you don’t just decide one day to go out
there and run as hard as you can for as long as you can, only to do the same
thing tomorrow, but for an extra minute, mile, etc until you are
satisfied. You wouldn’t take that same
approach with mileage, right? RIGHT?!?!? You also wouldn't just show up on the starting line, having never practiced what you are planning to do in a race. Of course not!
Enter the key concept of progressive adaptation. A progressive approach is one in which you
slowly build upon a foundation by applying a little stress, and then backing
off, only to build again soon. As with
your weekly mileage, hopefully you follow a similar approach of slowly building
up mileage for a few weeks, holding at that level for another week or two, and
then taking a recovery week to back off, followed by a return to building. Taking that same concept and applying it to
learning how to push through the pain (both physically and mentally), you
should incorporate workouts designed to simulate pushing
through the specific type of pain you'll experience in the race you are training
Most well informed marathoners should be familiar with
marathon simulation workouts in which you teach your body to become efficient at
running marathon pace and knowing what it feels like. These are commonly long runs (and to a lesser
extent tempo runs) where a significant portion of the workout is comprised of
marathon paced miles (ie 18 miles of 3 x 5 mi at marathon pace, with 1 mi recovery
between each set). It also happens to
work pretty effectively at the mental games you’ll play with yourself late in a
race as you try to focus on nailing goal pace and not slowing down. So in other words, you kill two birds with one stone by working both the mental and the physical at the same time.
In the case of a marathon, the goal of marathon paced running
is to become comfortable being slightly
uncomfortable. Note: Workout like these are
NOT designed for you go as hard as you can go over the given workout distance. That would defeat the purpose of the workout,
which is specificity. Of course,
this approach changes slightly when you change the race distance. Training for a ½ marathon or a 10 mile
race? To be more race specific, you'd need
to get more comfortable being moderately
uncomfortable, otherwise referred generically as moderately hard. In these
types of workouts, you are more likely to have key sessions
through hard tempo runs and long runs.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Regardless of the distance, the progressive approach to your
training physically and mentally remains the same. The example of 3 x 5 mi at marathon pace
isn’t something you would just jump into.
If you tried something like that at the beginning of a training cycle,
you’d likely end up with less confidence, rather than more, and/or injured as a
result of “a case of the too’s” – too
much, too soon, too hard. With a
progressive approach, you place together the building blocks over time. It is only at the peak of training for a
marathon, after you have done all the incremental steps of building up your
physical and mental game, where you would attempt such a workout. So how do you get to that point? Here are a few thoughts on the ways to
progress through more challenging workouts:
– Yea it’s a funny word, but it is what I consider the first building
block. You simply run fast when you feel
like it. No pressure to run for “x”
minutes or distance. Baby steps first.
segments – Starting with something as simple as repeated sets of 1 minute
hard/2 minute easy throughout the middle of a medium distance run. As you build from this, you can flip the set
to be 2 minutes hard/1 minute easy, ultimately building to longer segments like
5 minutes hard/1 minute easy. Note: Hard
in these cases is relative to the distance you are training for –the shorter
the race, the harder you’d run during each segment.
with easy jog recoveries – Hard running segments are now starting to get a
bit longer, but by doing repeats with easy running between sets, you still get
the “break”. Often times, you’ll find
you can do more volume at a hard effort with the break, rather than simply
making it a single extended tempo session.
For endurance races, this can start as 1 mile repeats and build up
(depending on the race distance you are training for) into sets of 3-5 mile
repeats. For something like a 5k runner,
you might start with ¼ mi repeats, building up to 5 x 1k at 5k pace.
– Now is when we start getting into what most runners are familiar with. Tempo runs are longer stretches of runs that are
done in a single set. For example, a 4
mile tempo run at 10k pace. 4 miles of
running at 10k effort takes a pretty large amount of focus, at nearly 66% of
the distance. Getting to this step too
soon might make achieving the goal paces and maintaining the focus of running
that hard for that long a bit challenging.
While some training programs might have you do the same type
of run (ie a tempo) throughout your training cycle, I like to use these various
types to create variety. If there’s one
thing that might also keep you from progressing, its knowing you have the same
workout you did last week, only this time it is a mile longer. To do that week after week after week, to me,
is simply boring and a mental drain. I
think most people thrive on variety, so progressing from one type to the next,
while simultaneously adapting to longer distances, is a win-win in my book.
However, the reality is that most people jump right into the
long tempo run variety without the buildup and find it is difficult. It’s harder on the body and the mind, which
can have a lasting impact on your ability to train for a given race. You want workouts to give you confidence , not
take it away. A confident runner is a
race ready runner and one who will not try to do stupid things or change their
planned runs just because they need to “test” themselves. A runner who builds confidence over a
progressive approach will peak at the right time close to the race, not 4-6
weeks before a race due to going straight to the hardest workouts. And lastly, a runner who employs a
progressive approach is much more likely to remain healthy throughout their
training cycle. So not only are they
peaked and ready to race, they are healthy enough to perform up to their
potential on race day. And ultimately,
that’s the place you want to be when you’re standing on the start line.