Mentally tough as a skittish rabbit
Mentally tough as a skittish rabbit. This is what I labelled myself after an important track session. Granted I was hot, tired and emotional so my feelings towards my effort may seem a little extreme, but even after giving myself time to reflect, I still feel my mental focus was the limiting factor for the way I performed. My training leading up to this particular session would support this.
It’s a battle I’ve been waging for most of my athletic life - is my mental focus or “toughness” my limiting factor or am I legitimately at the edge of my physical limits. My smarts tell me it’s mental and I’ll explain why.
The common thought is that fatigue occurs in the body, it’s physical. When running, once we reach a certain intensity (whether it be speed or duration) our muscles begin to “run out of gas” and we slow. And this was definitely how I felt as my track session progressed. But there is another train of thought*, which was first proposed in the early 1990’s by an Exercise Scientist named Tim Noakes, MD. Noakes questioned why so many athletes, while seemingly fatigued, where suddenly able to speed up during the final stretch of a race. If the muscles were truly “out of gas” then these bursts wouldn’t be possible. After experimenting
with his hypothesis Noakes concluded that physical fatigue occurs first in the brain and not in the body. It’s our brain that shuts down our muscles as an innate way of protecting ourselves. Our brain creates a perception of muscle failure before we actually harm ourselves and this is why at the end of a race, when all of a sudden there is a focus that overrides this protection mechanism, we can suddenly speed up and improve our performance.
So if we can override our brain (the central governor) at the end of a race with a strong focus on one thing - the finish line - we should be able to train ourselves to keep this innate protection at bay. I’m just yet to develop the focus to do so. I actually see this as a huge potential to improve even more. I just need to find the right motivation when training and racing so I can harness my focus to improve my performance.
To give you context regarding my track session, let’s look at my biofeedback. I was programmed to complete 5 x 1200m with 2mins rest between each interval. I was then to follow this with 2 x (5 x 200m on / 200m float). All intervals had specific timing requirements set by my coach. This was a session to determine if I was on track for achieving my race goal so the motivation should have been there to perform.
I monitor my Heart Rate Variability each morning to determine my daily readiness to train (how stressed the body is) and it was a solid 9 out of 10. So from a stress perspective my body was ready for intensity.
Here’s how my heart rate progressed throughout the session.
The first two 1200m intervals were bang on target and you can see a nice progression of my HR (First blue line). My HR recovery is also great which compliments my HRV score from the morning so physically things are looking good (Green line).
It’s intervals 3, 4 and 5 where things started to deteriorate. If we take HR as the marker for physical exertion, in each interval it drops and over the consecutive intervals it also drops.
Not what you would expect with a body that is pushing the limits of performance. I remember these 3 intervals very clearly and I was hurting, or so I kept thinking. Despite what my mind was telling me my HR is saying that I was nowhere near my physical limit. My central governor was shutting me down and I didn’t have the ability to override it. I had no strong focus to be able to push through my perceived pain.
During my extended rest break I was angry with myself for such an effort. I almost stopped the session there but then got angry at myself again. This anger I felt actually gave me the focus I needed and as you can see from the HR data my efforts greatly improved. I hit all my split targets for the second part of the session and actually felt as if I could run faster.
So this begs the question. Do I need to run angry? Is that where my focus needs to be in order to override my central governor? It doesn’t seem sustainable but it’s a start.
Long distance runner Lizzy Hawker may have some valuable insight for me. During her record breaking 24hr road race in 2011 her support person, who was a meditation teacher stated “that watching her perform was an extraordinary experience: The running, of course - but, as a meditation teacher, I was absolutely astonished by the level of Lizzy’s concentration and focus, and for how long she was able to maintain it.” ^
Lizzy’s account on her ability to withstand such pain when running over such long distances comes back to what she calls focused harmony of body and mind. To become so absorbed with the task at hand that body and mind are working together with no distractions. And I think the key point here is focusing with no distractions. The pain of running is not distracting, the incline, the running surface, the sweat dripping in your eye, it’s all periferal to your goal of finishing what you set out to do.
If we look to the true masters of this harmony, the Buddhist monks, we can understand the potential power it can provide. One of the practices in Buddhist monasticism called the Kaihōgyō is where Buddhist ‘marathon monks’ train 1000 days over a period of 7 years, progressing from a marathon a day for the first 100 days in the first year, to 84km a day for 100 days, followed by another near marathon a day for the last 100 days in the 7th year. The focus required to complete such a task is astonishing and the fact that only 46 men have
ever completed this is testament to the dedication required. Now I’m no ultra runner, nor do I ever want to be but the principle of overcoming one’s pain while running is the same. Training your mind to be in harmony with your body through meditation is a way we can harness our focus. I speak of this as a novice in the practice but I am starting to meditate and train myself. Hopefully it won’t take 7 years...
As I finish writing this blog I have just completed my latest track session and it was awesome. Despite some significant DOMS from my impromtude trail race on the weekend I was able to hit every target - and do it with confidence. So what’s changed since my session that sparked this account?
One, I know I physically perform better when under scrutiny and opening this blog up for anyone to read means that I am feeling exposed.
Secondly, and more influentially, school’s back and this means I am back to my familiar routine. Enough cannot be said for the impact routine has on our focus and therefore our performance. It is the foundation of any success. Remove distractions through routine and good organisation and you will be surprised at how much better you perform, at anything! It allows for more intense and deeper focus. Being a stay at home dad the kids are literally not in the picture now when I train. I didn’t need to get angry for my latest session as I was free to “be present” at the track and just worry about my task at hand. There were no distractions
and my focus was strong. I was able to be a minimalist in order to be a maximalist. Minimise or eliminate anything that is peripheral to your goal in order to maximise your focus and energy on the task at hand.
As Master Miyagi has said “Your focus needs more focus!”
* Tim Noakes MD and his work is detailed in the book Peak Performance by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness, 2017.
^ Taken from the book Runner by Lizzy Hawker, 2015.