The Peak-End Rule Could Explain Why We Keep Signing Up For Painful Races
The good news: If we can harness the power of the peak-end rule, we can actually enhance our training.
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Originally from Triathlete
Why is it that in the middle of a race you’re thinking, “There’s no way I’m doing this again,” but a couple of weeks later, you’ve already signed up for another one? Do runners suffer from post-race amnesia? Probably not. Instead, it probably has to do with something known as the peak-end rule.
Psychological studies have shown that how a person remembers an experience may be just as important as the experience itself, and our emotions play a huge role in shaping memories. The peak-end rule is based on the idea that the most intense moments of an experience (the peaks), as well as the end of the experience (the end), have a significant impact on our perception of what happened.
A peak might be the thrill of a fast downhill, enjoying a scenic view, or running with a friend. But a peak isn’t always positive. That’s why we also remember experiences like suffering through hard intervals or bonking.
The mind also emphasizes the final moments of an experience. It’s why race organizers put so much effort into creating an exciting finish line with loud music, cheering crowds, and shiny medals. Weeks after the race, what’s an athlete going to remember more: the mundane hours spent alone on the run, or running down a tunnel of cheering spectators?
“The build up of the finish line experience for amateur athletes has really accelerated in the last 10-12 years,” says Jim Rutberg, CTS coach at trainright.com and co-author of The Time-Crunched Cyclist and Training Essentials For Ultrarunning. “One reason why events like Ironman, Leadville, and Unbound Gravel sell out in minutes is because they’ve heavily invested in that finish line experience.”
Rutberg explains that athletes can leverage this idea and use it to their advantage in triathlon training. “Something as simple as managing your experience at the end of a workout can improve your perception of how that individual training session went, how you feel about yourself as athlete, your motivation to continue training, and how confident you are in your preparation for an upcoming event.”
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How to use the peak-end rule in training
The best way to incorporate the peak-end rule into trail running training is by getting creative with workout structure and planning ahead to ensure a positive finish experience.
The emotional connection we get from training with others can help create a peak experience. “You might not remember the 20 miles of suffering, but you will remember the enjoyable connection you had running with your friends. That can make the miles fly by,” says Neal Palles, a psychotherapist, mental performance consultant, and ultrarunning coach.
“People tend to train their weaknesses and race their strengths. If the bulk of a workout was spent working on your weaknesses, finishing a workout with the thing that makes you feel strong, just feels good. It reaffirms your ability and confidence as an athlete,” Palles says.
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When planning a run, select the end point purposefully so the workout finishes with a fun downhill or ends in a scenic location. Think about an environment that’s going to make you feel good and provide a mental boost.
For those long, weekend runs, save your favorite snack for the final 30 minutes. Rutberg worked with a triathlete who kept a bag of jellybeans in his jersey pocket as something to look forward to at the end of his workout. This method can be applied to races as well. “Palate fatigue is a real thing in an Ironman,” Rutberg explains. “Incorporating variety and foods athletes will find appealing late in the race are important aspects of a successful nutrition strategy.”
Create a “finale playlist” of 5-10 songs for the last 20 minutes of your treadmill run. Listening to your favorite power ballad or rock anthem is a great way to overcome fatigue at the end of a hard workout, Rutberg says.
Those who ride or run on platforms like Zwift get a two for one. They benefit from the social connection, and they receive “rewards” like unlocking a cool kit or getting a bike upgrade, things Palles describes as “little dopamine hits that create a pleasurable experience.”
Having a tool like the peak-end rule in your repertoire can make a huge difference in confidence, self-belief, and motivation at the point in a training block when fatigue is high.
“An athlete can start to lose perspective on why they’re doing what they’re doing,” Rutberg says. “Sometimes, we just have to get the job done. We will ride up the same hill five times, run around a track for who knows how many laps, and swim staring at that black line for as long as it takes. But, at the end of the workout, managing how you finish and breaking away from that monotony can make a big impact on how you perceive that training session.”
Create the peaks during a race
This strategy might work great in training, but can you apply it during a race? Absolutely.
“The events we do are so long that something is guaranteed to go wrong,” Rutberg says. “That’s why it’s important to teach athletes how to adapt to adversity by redirecting negative thoughts.”
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Instead of thinking, “I’m terrible,” reframe it to think, “I feel terrible right now.” Acknowledge the negative emotion and then let it go. If you find yourself spiraling into a negative mindset during a race, counter those thoughts by creating your own peak, instead of letting them happen arbitrarily.
Lift up your head and look around at the beautiful scenery. Realize you have the privilege of competing alongside fellow athletes in a supportive community. Thank a volunteer. Give a spectator a high five. You might be shocked at how a small positive experience can change your entire perspective and even improve race performance.
“Acknowledge that your feelings are valid,” Rutberg says. “You may feel miserable and that’s fine. Then, the question becomes what are you going to do about it? An important aspect of mental training for endurance athletes is learning to redirect negative thoughts to create something that’s going to be a peak experience.”