How to Train your Brain to Run Faster
Can your brain help you to run faster? Put another way, does mind over matter really a matter when it comes to distance running?
Maybe, consider this…
Have you ever been out for a 3-5 mile run, gotten lost, and ended up running 8-10 miles instead? It was probably miserable, yet somehow, you were able to easily complete a 10 mile long run the next week. Or what about those short 3 mile runs the week before a marathon? I’ve often thought, “there’s no way I can run 26.2 miles in a few days!”
Or why are the middle few intervals of a speed workout always the most difficult? Why is the last interval often the fastest?
A whole bunch of new research over the last several years suggests that fatigue is controlled by your brain. The brain controls your body through a process called teleoanticipation. In short, teleoanticipation starts with the end in mind, for example the distance or time of your run. Working backwards to the current moment, the brain makes real time adjustments to ensure you can maintain your current pace all the way to the finish line…or shut you down.
My last marathon didn’t go so well. Almost from the start of the race, my brain was telling my body I could never hold my desired pace. Although my 16 week training plan went fairly well, I didn’t spend much time training my mind to handle this goal. In truth, I didn’t believe I could sustain my goal pace for an entire marathon.
On race day, the instant I started feeling fatigued, I didn’t stand a chance. My brain began to shut things down in a premature fit of self preservation.
What is Fatigue Anyway?
Fatigue is actually caused by the brain, which reduces its electrical stimulation of the muscles and produces feelings of discomfort to prevent any real damage from happening to the muscles or other organs.If you want to convince your brain that you can actually tackle the distance at the pace you want, you need to train for it.
According to a British Study from 2013 on fatigue and self-talk, the psychobiological model of endurance performance says that exhaustion is caused by an individual’s willingness to quit, NOT muscle fatigue. Either because they don’t want to work any harder, or they think they can’t work any harder. In either case, it appears to be much more of a battle of the will.
Antonio, my running coach, says that when he was racing at the elite level,
…the difference between a good race and a great race has always been how mentally tough I was during the race. I could run 100+ miles week after week, but if I was not mentally prepared to run fast, I would always just have a good race, not a great one.
Whether you’re running 7 minute or 11 minute miles, your brain wants to prevent anything bad from happening to your body. When faced with the unfamiliar, it becomes like an overprotective parent, wanting to remove the thing that is causing pain at the first sign of trouble.
Training at your desired race pace improves your fatigue resistance, and allows your brain to trust your body with more effort. Like a teenager who comes home before curfew, parents are more likely to let them stay out a little later.
Not long ago, I talked with Mark Bertlsen, MA LMFT, about the mental side of running. Bertlsen works with athletes of all kinds at the Minnesota Center for Sports and the Mind. We talked about a few tips that all runners should take advantage of when preparing their mind for the rigors of running long distances.
Sadly, I didn’t implement any of the stuff we talked about before my last race. Perhaps I was overconfident. Regardless, I’ve gone over the information again, and found a few take-aways that might help you:
Use a Personal Mantra - Positive Self Talk
I’ve asked a lot of runners if they use a personal mantra, or some form of positive self-talk during a race or difficult workout. Most runners I know don’t. I don’t consistently do this either, but I’m going to start.
The study mentioned above found that endurance athletes who effectively used positive self-talk could delay the symptoms of fatigue. In essence, they could talk themselves out of slowing down. Part of the study also tested which mantras worked best for each individual.
Athletes were given a whole bunch of ideas, then recorded in a journal which ones worked for them and modified accordingly.
After each workout, they would assess the helpfulness of the statements, to fine tune and determine which statements were the most effective for them.
Train your brain as you begin training for your next race. Test different positive messages that you can repeat to yourself during difficult parts of a run. Run some shorter races before your big one, and further fine tune and test which mantras / self-talk will help you fight through.
Visualization is when you imagine yourself achieving your goals. Research has found that this process triggers your subconscious, and your body follows suit. I did not go a good job of this recently! In the back of my head, I kept visualizing myself falling apart… that’s the opposite of this tactic.
- find your heart rate (stick your fingers on your neck to find your pulse)
- close your eyes
- imagine you are sprinting…
Do you notice anything about your heart rate? Is it increasing?
Bertlsen says this is,
Hebb’s principal… neurons that fire together, wire together. When your brain is thinking of running fast, your heart rate starts to increase… your body doesn’t really know what’s going on, your brain is telling your body what is real. By trying to have positive thinking through visualization, you are prepping yourself for this, and not allowing negative thoughts to come in… you are wiring your brain to think positively when those feelings arrive. To think, ‘I’ve been through this already!’ is a tremendous way to stay focused during a key race.
Michale Phelps is famous for his ability to use visualization in anticipation of both good and bad outcomes, and respond accordingly. This boosts confidence from knowing that there is a plan for every scenario.
If you think this is a little too “mystical” or “fluffy,” Bertlsen says, “Give it a shot! Close your eyes and visualize yourself getting through that last mile and over the finish line.”
Bertlsen says deep breathing is one thing he teaches athletes to utilize to help calm down before a performance.
This is to calm you down… to get into a place where your mind and body can do their best. To focus on controlling what you can control, and letting go of the rest.
Bertlesen uses this little trick for deep breathing:
I like to tie numbers to it… breathe in for 5 seconds, hold for 3, then exhale for 7. Whatever is causing you anxiety, you are now focused on these numbers and not the thing causing it.
To be clear this is NOT how to breathe while you are running! It is simply a way to get your mind in state of calm and to clear distractions and anxiety. Starting in a calm state will make those mantras a lot easier to evoke at the end of a race.
Setting SMART Goals
Setting the right goals from the beginning is a great start. We should have audacious goals in life, but they need to be SMART.
- Specific - Your goals should state exactly what you want to do, with as much detail as possible.
- Measurable - You should quantify (numerically or descriptively) completion. Something that will tell you exactly when you’ve achieved your goal.
- Action-Oriented - Verbs tied to specific behavior to take action will move you closer to achievement.
- Realistic - Goals should stretch you, but be connected to past performance.
- Time Bound - Every goal you set should have a date and time attached. This creates urgency.
Audacious goals are helpful when visualizing your future, but can be a little intimidating in the short term. Break down those big goals into something that makes the most sense to you today. When we see progress, we create positive momentum to move forward.
For example, if you want to break four hours in a marathon, first see if you can break two hours in a half marathon.
How Much Training have You Done with Your Mind?
How you handle “adversity” during a run, is often what separates new runners from experienced ones. Bertlsen says that when we get stressed, we lose part of our higher level thinking.
A door closes between our thinking and feeling sides of our brains… when you freak out, that’s often when you forget about everything [you’ve learned in training], not because you are a bad racer, but because the pathway between the two parts of your brain isn’t connected.
I need to do more of this. I’m not prone to freak out, but I easily let negative self-talk spiral into a destructive force of doom on the race course. Not freaking out and staying focused on what I know to be true is critical to success in every next race.
Train your brain to run faster, along with everything else during your next cycle. Remember, how you train your mind, along with your body, is key to great race performance!