Friday, September 17, 2010

Comfortably fast

My last post was written more as a note to myself than anything else.  I wasn't concerned that you, my fabulous readers, questioned my toughness.  I was more concerned that I was losing my edge and needed a little reminder that I did in fact come equipped with the badass gene.

With that established, I was able to move on to more constructive problem solving.  I am embarking on a process to get at the root(s) of my problem with self confidence/fear of failure or whatever it is that is wrong with my mental running game.  As with any other aspect of my running, these are deeply rooted problems that first need to be properly diagnosed before they can be treated.  I liken it to changing running form.  I read a great story about a coach who is changing one of his runners' form (can't honestly remember where I read it).  The obvious problem with this runner's form is that one leg has an excessive back kick out to the side.  He diagnosed that this runner was kicking out because she was staying on the ground for too long with each foot strike.  To correct this, he can't just tell her:  "don't let your foot stay on the ground for so long."  She can't act on that.  The solution is to do drills that help decrease the amount of time her foot is on the ground and to do those drills over and over and over until her body and mind are trained to recognize the difference and change her form.

This is why advice from people about using mantras, visualization and other mental training techniques have not resonated with me.  They may or may not be useful treatment for what ails me.

What I am finding useful is taking the time to explore the root of this problem.  The first step was to convince myself that I am not a wimp.  Chuck 50 reminded me of that, and I am serious about wearing my airborne wings on my racing uniform in Chicago as a tangible reminder of her.  I think it is great to have runners to look up to who embody the characteristics you want to emulate.  It's even better when you can draw on examples from your own past and can use those to motivate yourself.  You've done it before.  You can do it again.

The next step in my diagnostic analysis was to think about what in particular is driving this lack of commitment to suffering in workouts and races.  I think I know the answer.  As I wrote in one of my first posts in this blogging journey, I hated to run for 37 years of my life.  I mean, really hated it.  I tried it many times but could not convince myself that the pain I felt when running was worth repeating regularly.  It's no wonder that I felt this way since the most regular experiences I had running were during military fitness tests where I was required to run 1.5 miles all out.  I never trained for these tests and felt like absolute death every time I did one.

When I finally caught the running bug, it was because I finally felt comfortable running, and I discovered this by running for longer distances at slower paces.  So, my new life as a runner was constructed on a foundation of comfortable running.  My unstated (and likely subconscious) goal in every race and training run to date has been not just to run as fast as I could, but to run as fast as I could while remaining in a given comfort zone.  I was telling The Genius the other night that I cannot think of a race or training run where I pushed myself into a zone that I would characterize as suffering.  Sure I often don't feel good in races and training runs, but I don't push myself harder when I feel that way.  I always back off.  This is also likely the reason why I recover so quickly after my marathons.  I don't push myself into that suffer-fest territory that probably causes more physical stress requiring more recovery.

Given the level I've reached with my running, I would have to argue that this has actually worked out very well for me, and I've really had no reason to make any changes.  To get to the next level of competitive running, however, I realize I will have to push myself out of that comfort zone.  This will be hard, and I will need a lot of practice to break my old habits.  I need to build confidence that I can sustain a harder level of effort than I have in the past.  This also needs to be a deliberate process.  I have a training plan that details the physical workouts that I need to do to race a certain time.  I will need to overlay a brain training plan on top of that to develop my mind as well.

This is a work in progress and I am in the R&D phase right now.  I'm gathering my tools and resources so I can start figuring out what works and doesn't work.  While this sounds completely hokey, I have downloaded some podcasts and mp3s on hypnosis for runners as well as ordering a copy of a training plan guaranteed to make me more fearless in my sport.  I'll let you know how those work out.

One of the main reasons I'm delving into this so deeply is because I had started to see a noticeable deterioration of my love for running in the last year or so as my expectations for success increased.  I started to find myself not just getting nervous jitters before a race or hard workout, but feeling negative thoughts bordering on dread and anxiety.  That is ungood.  Uncovering the root of those fears and that anxiety will be part of this process too.  It' going to be an interesting journey.  I can tell already.


  1. I wish I could give sage advice on the head. I wish you could give me sage advice on the head. Strangely, I see my own loss of intensity (but not loss of enjoyment) in a lack of "nervous jitters." I'd always told myself not to lose sleep about tomorrow's race because it's no big deal, and now I can sleep like a baby because I accept that it's no big deal. But it is.

    I think I need to prioritize. Be nervous about the big ones, but don't sweat the small stuff.

    Perhaps it'd help if you don't think of having to "suffer" in workouts. For me, the toughest workout is the Interval of 1200s or 1600s. I don't do them often. But I suffer mightily. Other than that, though, my paces are based upon my condition and neither require nor should be too fast for my own good. So I can do a 20 minute tempo run at 6 flat pace and hurt a bit or up it to 5:50 and suffer for no marginal benefit. For long runs, I'm always trying to slow the pace down (although I don't especially "suffer" when I go "too fast" for them because that's kind of fun).

    That's something Charlie Spedding wrote of in his book. You shouldn't look at workouts as "hard" or "easy" but as "perfect," i.e., that they do what they are designed to do, no more, no less.

    You are, you know, a really fast runner. You do really quality work. You've done it before, you'll do it again.

  2. Joe: Well, what you've written is sage advice. Your point that suffering in workouts is not necessarily a desirable thing is particularly useful. Pushing to that point of suffering requires extra recovery and may even lead to injury. I've read in numerous places that you want to end a workout feeling as though you could have done at least an extra rep.

    This is what I need to figure out, though: how to practice pushing through that "bad feeling" (which is so hard to put into words but runners know what it is) so that I build confidence in my ability to push hard when I feel bad. I'd like to be able to practice that in training rather than relying on races to hone the skill.

    My plan for right now is to continue working on this in some, not all, of my long runs this cycle. I have about a half dozen hard, long runs (many at GMP or slightly faster) left in this cycle where I can practice not taking water breaks if nothing else. I'll be coming up with mental exercises to practice during these workouts and just see what I think works.

    Thanks for your advice and confidence.

  3. i think faster runners are always trying to find that line... between getting the most out of our bodies and pushing over the edge. you don't want to cross that line because then it becomes a death march. i should clarify that when i talked about suffering in previous comments, it is more describing being out of a comfort zone. getting the heavy breathing, the legs feeling tired, maybe a side cramp. if a person is truly suffering and falling apart, then it becomes nothing but diminishing returns. the body breaks down and gets slower and slower. and that's no way to race or train. quite honestly, i have never gotten the impression that you stayed too far in your comfort zone when you raced. because if that were the case, then your last mile would be crazy fast compared to your first miles (because you had left too much in the tank). one way to train your body to deal with the discomfort in a race though, is to prepare it in training. i would think you already do this, but trying to negative split every workout really helps. in other words, start out fairly comfortable and get faster as you go along. stronger and stronger. so you may do those 10 x 800s we've talked about and start at something comfortable like 2:48, but finish the 10th one in 2:38. same thing for tempo runs... start out at something fairly easy like 6:00 pace but try to get the last mile in the 5:30s. that's what i do and i feel like it does prepare my body and mind to deal with the discomfort of racing. so when the body is getting tired, it's used to pushing even harder.
    i do agree though, that when you have higher standards for yourself, there's more potential for nervousness before races. in some ways it was so much more carefree when you were just a casual runner, wasn't it? yet the thrill of achieving goals and getting faster is so fun too. but that's the key: keep it fun, otherwise it can get the best of you.

  4. tmeat: Your negative split suggestion is a good one, and yes, I love to do that when I can. However, I have to be willing to push myself in those last few reps or miles, and that's precisely what I'm not able to do. Since you do it all of the time, you think, "what's the problem?" My problem is that I let myself stop short. I make excuses. I give in. It's not as simple as changing my workout plan. If it was, I would have done it long ago. It's not a physical limitation. It is a mental one. Just like you found in your trail run with Leonard. Your mind was slowing you down. Once it was freed, and the last bit of your run was in sight, you took off and ran harder than you thought you could.

    That's what finally happened to me in that negative split marathon. I freed my mind and suspended disbelief in the last half of the race. I ran a half marathon PR in that second half and ran it all by feel. Based on the workouts I had been doing, I had no business running the pace I was running, but I just didn't even think about it. I was comfortable the whole time. Those days are super rare, and I actually believe I will likely not have a race like that again. Rather than hoping for another day like that, I'd settle for feeling like I didn't give in to the pain at the end of a race.

    I know this problem is not unique to me. I've read reams of articles about elites that suffer from lack of confidence and tube in races as a result. Alberto Salazar says that the psychological counseling/training his athletes get is the most important element of their training. He says he'd give up everything else and keep that if he had to. That's a pretty strong endorsement.

  5. Jaymee, this was a particularly good post. My current coach makes every hard workout a fast finish effort. That's half the equation but, as you point out, having the motivation to actually executive your last repeats, miles, etc. at a faster pace is another issue.

    If you can get someone to help you, try having a friend stand on the track with a stopwatch during your next track session. Have that friend yell at you to run faster during the last few reps. It works.

    Do this enough times with the same person, and you will internalize that "Faster! Faster!" voice and can bring it to all of your workouts. Think of it as a form of mental training, but with its roots in physical/relational experience.

    This is the only way I can run fast in the pool right now. I hear my coach screaming "Faster! Run to the line!" in my head.

  6. Ugh. Typos: "executive" = "execute"

  7. JT: I was appalled at your typo. Thanks for correcting;)

    This is all very helpful for me in that it's helping me narrow down the scope of my "issue". My workouts, as written, are typically fast finish or at least hard effort at the end of a long run. Track workouts, like Joe's dreaded 1200 repeats, are not my problem. I can click those off and negative split all day long. That's because there's always a break involved. Doesn't matter how long, but I get a break. The workouts I struggle with are the long, sustained effort workouts, and I believe these are the ones that best simulate race conditions. You don't get a break so you have to pace yourself appropriately and get used to working harder at the end just to maintain the same pace. Forget negative splitting. I'm happy to finish at the same pace I start at without a water break. Given that, it's probably pretty obvious why the long tempo run has always been my nemesis.

    Julie, I like the idea of you envisioning Sandra in the pool (or maybe she actually is there with you) riding your butt to keep you going. I think the key there is that you have someone that matters in your running world and commands respect pushing you. It's a little harder to haul someone with those creds along on a long tempo run. But, I think your point was that I need to look for opportunities to connect experience in my training with a motivating visualization that I can pull from. I agree that would be helpful.

    The benefit I will get from these changes is less about seconds off of my race times and more about conquering fear and feeling better about my performances and running in general. To do that, I have to continue to dig up the bones of this skeleton and expose them before I can start trying new tricks to fix it.

    That exposure and your feedback is all part of the process. Thanks.

  8. This is a good post Jaymee. One does have to get out of one's comfort zone (especially in races), although not in all training sessions. Some though. For most sessions, I like Joe's 'Charlie Spedding perfect training.'

    It's difficult being a marathoner, as you don't want to be practicing positive splits in races (or long tempos). Going out hard is a sure way to get out of one's comfort zone. Milers can cope with that type of thing.

    For training, I like the idea of sometimes doing crazy things to purposely get out of one's comfort zone - like a track time trial where one starts a good bit quicker than what's "possible" and holds off the inevitable slow down for as long as possible.

    For training hurt motivation, read the last half dozen chapters of "Once a Runner."

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. I'm way late here but I just wanted to say that his pots has really inspired me. I started running this year after 29 years of hating even the thought of running. I, too, was in the military and forced to run 1.5 miles all out without any training. I hated it and it was, in fact, the reason I didn't reenlist. I just didn't want to run. Reading that bit of your post was like reading my own mind.

    Anyhow, you are inspiration to me!