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6 “head games” to play to help you get running again
Photo by BigStockPhoto
“People make a big mistake when they say, ‘I need to be motivated.’ You motivate yourself. I might inspire somebody, but that person has to be motivated within themselves first. Look inside yourself, believe in yourself, put in the hard work, and your dreams will unfold.” –Billy Mills, 10,000-meter Olympic gold medalist at the 1964 Tokyo Games
Editor’s Note: In his book ‘RUN SIMPLE: A Minimalist Approach to Fitness and Well Being,’ Duncan Larkin offers runners tips for simplifying—ditching fancy gear and gadgets in order to reap the “maximum physical and mental benefits of running,” along with eliminating boredom and preventing burnout. In these excerpts from chapter 8, ‘Head Games,’ Larkin explains how to deal with six negative sentiments that often plague runners.
I Don’t Feel Like Running Today
You aren’t human if this thought doesn’t enter your mind at least once a week.
Running takes a lot out of you. It can be especially rough on your feet and legs. Your body remembers this, and so you can become conditioned to resisting this prolonged bout of inevitable suffering. Throw in elements like a blizzard, heat wave, or tropical storm, and these negative feelings are compounded.
The best way to combat this thought is to tell yourself that you are going to put on your trainers and run for at least 10 minutes. No matter what, you will put forth that small effort. That is the arrangement. If you start trying to make deals with yourself—crafting excuses why the 10-minute rule is baloney—then set the timer on your watch, take a deep breath, and put feet to pavement.
Usually, by the time your alarm goes off, you’ll be happy you’re running. Ten minutes is a good duration, because by the time it expires, it will take you at least 10 minutes to return home, giving you approximately 20 minutes of running for that session—not a bad period of time of exercise when you were contemplating doing none.
One thing to try when you’ve lost all sense of motivation in the middle of a run is to start walking. Walking is not going to give you the same training stimulus as running, but it’s decent exercise nonetheless; it’s putting your legs in motion, which is better than calling a loved one and asking to be picked up at the side of the road.
Something else to think about when you have no desire to run is the nobility of any type of self-improvement. By being a runner of any ability, you are someone who is taking positive steps toward improving your health. Many people make excuses not to exercise, but on this particular day, you weren’t one of them. You got out there and gave it your best. When the bad times come for you, think of this concept. And when you get outside and take your first steps on a run, listen to your feet hitting the pavement. Count the steps and think that for every step you hear, you are getting healthier and transforming yourself into a better runner.
Bored Because You Don’t Think Your Run Is Doing Anything for You
This kind of “What the hell am I doing with myself?” feeling is prevalent among marathoners and ultramarathoners. Anyone investing hours at a time out on the roads is bound to question the meaning behind it all. Without bothering to learn about the physiological reasons for training the body to adapt to physical stress, instead look at things with the mindset that all these miles, no matter how slow they go, are indeed doing something for the body.
Tell this to yourself over and over again during your runs when the dark moments of doubt begin to take root. In this modern day, the mind may be evolving and adapting quickly to flickering text messages, multitasking, Tweeting, and laptops with 20 browser sessions open, but the body is thousands of years behind. With distance running, the body takes a lot of monotony in order to adapt and improve.
You aren’t going to get better overnight. You have to put in the time and the work. In order to make a real dent in your marathon personal record, you have to be constantly on the run, strengthening the legs and conditioning the lungs. In the end, the marathon is really about efficiency. Physiologically speaking, it’s about how efficient the body is at converting your fat stores into usable energy. This efficiency has to be taught through a long and slow process that is repeated continually. Long and slow anything can be boring, but it’s definitely not senseless. And that’s the important part you have to drill into your head. Any successful run is progress—make that your mantra.
I Can’t Stick with This Workout
When you feel this way, it’s time to apply coping strategies. If you are giving 100 percent in a track workout, the concept of doing another one or another five repetitions can be daunting. When you reach that level of pain, the body wants to flee the scene and hide under the bleachers. So here are some tips for you when the lactic acid is pumping and you are doubled over, afraid to look at your watch and see that you have to start running really, really fast in a mere five seconds.
Focus on the number of repeats you are going to do. As you go deeper into your plan and as your fitness improves, you are going to do more repeats in each subsequent session.
If you need to do one or two more repeats than last session, then give yourself some forgiveness on your goal pace. A good rule of thumb is an additional five seconds in a mile repeat session, but go ahead and come up with your own “zone of forgiveness.” The more experienced you get with track workouts, the better you will know your body and how much time to give yourself.
If you are attempting more repetitions than you’ve done before, try going to a track to do the workout where you can get the pace feedback you need at 200m intervals. Bear in mind, this instant feedback may run counter to the over- all “run by feel” approach that this book espouses, but there are some special cases, like this one, when checking your watch to make sure you are on target is allowable.
If you have to complete more repetitions this session, don’t time the extras. In other words, if you are to do six reps and you did five last week, then your last rep, your sixth, will not be timed.
Bring a special treat to your workout. For a hot day’s workout, it could be something like a little piece of candy (a candied orange slice, in my case), or a towel that you will wet, or a bag of ice that you will put on your head. At the end of the repeat, reward yourself accordingly. Think about your little reward as you spin around the track.
Another thing you can do is make a deal with yourself— something bigger than eating a piece of candy. Tell yourself that if you stick the workout—or just complete it—you will treat yourself to a nice meal at your favorite restaurant afterward. If you’re a bibliophile, you will treat yourself to a trip to the bookstore—something worthwhile that will bring a smile to your face, something worth the work.
Try to find workout partners who are doing the same number of reps you are doing. Waving goodbye to them can be demoralizing when you have one or two more reps to complete out there in the sweltering land of buzzing cicadas, while they are off to get into their air-conditioned cars and drive home to cold drinks and rotating fans.
Remember that not every repetition is going to be a strong one. Your body can be an enigma—or a stubborn mule—and you have to consider yourself lucky when you can successfully harness the mind and body to the point that you can get the body to do what it’s supposed to do.
For all the other times—when, for example, the ball of your right foot hurts, or you have a stitch in your side—accept that you are human.
Run the reps relaxed; tell yourself to stay limber during each lap.
Make peace with your suffering. Running is a rare recreational sport in that it can take you into realms of pain you aren’t used to being in. We in the West live such a comfortable, relatively sedentary life, and so asking your body to suffer is a bit unusual. As a human, it is your nature to avoid this kind of misery. But try to embrace it. Tell yourself that it will be over relatively soon and that your body is getting stronger because of it. Tell yourself also that you know you will encounter some form of suffering on race day and that the pain you are undergoing in your workout will make things easier for you.
I’m Not Cut Out to Be a Runner
If you are capable of running, then you are cut out to be a runner. Don’t think that you aren’t cut out to be a runner. Don’t let other people convince you of that.
Don’t waste your time wondering if you got the right gifts from the gene genie to run as fast as you want to run. Don’t wallow in doubt about exactly where that genetic wall is for you when it comes to achieving a dream goal. Sure, genes do play a role in determining your running potential, but persistence, positive thinking, and lots of hard work may shift that proverbial wall. Just how much, I can’t be sure.
Why don’t you have some fun trying to find out?
Why not challenge your mind to see what it can convince the body to do? For Billy Mills, in that famous Olympic 10,000-meter race, believing in himself translated into running nearly a full minute better than his previous personal record.
If you are convinced you are cursed with a heavier endomorphic body type, then turn the negative into a positive.
Heavier runners can evolve into strong, sturdy runners. Stronger runners can usually handle more volume with less chance of injury than their brittle, nimble counterparts.
Regardless of how you look, if you can run, you’re a runner, and you should be proud of that fact. Keep trying.
That being said, I believe that runners, regardless of body type or goal, need some sort of fire in them to keep them running. It doesn’t have to be a wildfire that’s been lit by an arsonist. A fire can be pretty much anything that gets us out there onto the roads and trails. A fire can be the desire to impress a loved one, lose weight, win a bet, or simply feel we are taking positive steps toward improving our overall health.
You Used to Listen to Music on Your Runs. Now What?
According to the American Ornithologists’ Union, there are 914 species of wild birds in North America. How many of these species can you identify by call? How many can you identify by sight? Ever heard the crickets during a long run on a warm summer’s night? How about the creaking sound that birch trees make when a strong wind blows through them—ever heard that? Did you know the stream along your run route makes different noises in the winter and the spring?
Get my point?
Removing those silly earphones opens up the real world around you. There is plenty of natural music out there. And if getting you to commune with nature isn’t convincing, how about the safety concerns with music blaring in your ears while out running? In the past, runners have been killed or injured because they didn’t hear cars, falling trees, or even trains.
We are so overstimulated these days. We crave things flashing in front of our faces and blasting in our ears constantly. We need music and get bored without it, because we have been conditioned that way.
Silence seems to have lost its virtue.
The next time you run without your music and there are no birds to hear—no stream, no creaking trees—just listen to your feet hitting the ground. That rhythmic pounding should be music to your ears, because it’s the sound of progress. It’s your source of great strength.
Oh, No, I Have Taper Brain!
This section is geared for the marathoners out there. The hardest part of training for many runners isn’t doing something like 6 x 1600m on the track, or running for an hour at goal pace; it’s the taper. Why? Because if you are putting in the hard work, then you are used to continually driving yourself to the point of exhaustion. When it’s time to taper, your mind and body go through a bit of shock. Taper brain sets in. Here are some symptoms of taper brain:
- Loss of confidence.
- Legs feeling heavy.
- Loss of motivation.
- Fear of the upcoming race.
Anxiety that the reduced mileage and workload brought on by the taper result in a loss of fitness.
General sense of irritability and unease.
If you find yourself suffering from taper brain, there are a few things you should do. First, understand that nearly everyone suffers from this condition. The taper is a significant shock to the system. But you need to ignore some of the body’s natural impulses in your taper. After a week of reduced mileage, you may feel like you need to get out on the track and run hard.
Don’t do that.
You need the rest. Drastic measures in a taper will do nothing for you other than possibly ruin your chances to reach your race-day goal. Instead, realize that what you have on your hands during your taper is a golden opportunity: free time.
You don’t need to be out running, so you can round yourself out a bit as a human. If you were once a great philatelist, break out that stamp collection and magnifying glass. If your spouse has been telling you that you used to make the best homemade bread before you got the running bug, get out the rolling pin and don the apron. Always wanted to start learning Latin? Now’s your chance!
In other words, do something else with your time besides fretting about your lack of running. Trust me—a well-executed taper should err on the side of laziness. You’ve earned the right to relax, so go do it.
During your taper runs, you can occasionally push the pace, but be careful. A general rule to follow is not to do any- thing faster than goal pace.
The weekend before a marathon, I used to do 2 x 2 miles at marathon pace with 2 minutes of relaxed running between the repetitions. I used this final workout as a confidence booster. If my taper made those miles feel good, which it usually did, then I knew I was going to have a great race. If the miles were challenging, I told myself I especially needed that second taper week and really backed off my training then.
Duncan Larkin is the news editor at Competitor.com and a freelance journalist who’s been covering the sport of running for nearly a decade. He’s run 2:32 in the marathon and won the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race in 2007. His first running book, RUN SIMPLE, was released last year.