Dear Runners,

Last week we talked about the first parts of fatigue and this week I wanted to explore the topic further.  Specifically, I want to spend some time talking about the mental components of fatigue and more importantly, some tools to deal with the mental parts of fatigue.

Justification for Mental Training Techniques

There are several articles in Runners World and which state that non-elite runners who disassociate will have increased endurance but they may run slower.  There is also research showing that athletes qualifying for the Olympics all use mental training techniques. 

This begs the question about why mental training techniques are valuable.  The reality is that all people (runners or not) experience cognitive dissonance.  This dissonance occurs when we are mentally trying to reconcile two conflicting signals, ideas or ideals.  In the case of running these conflicting ideas can occur when we are trying to set a personal record for distance or time and our bodies are sending a signal to our brain that we are fatigued or sore and should slow or stop.  The brain must reconcile these conflicting messages and tell the body to follow one path or the other. 

By using mental training techniques we can help train our brains to handle these conflicting signals and deliver our best performance.

Association techniques

Association techniques refer to the set of mental strategies where we focus on the components of the race itself and our running of the race.  These can include the signals we are receiving from our bodies about breathing rate, footfall, cadence, exertion level, etc.  Surveys of Olympic and elite runners show that these athletes train with association techniques.  They spend their entire race focusing on the cues their body is giving them as well as the cues from the other runners against whom they are competing. 

When we are completely focused on how we are running it is easier to block out external stimuli.  This method of task-relevant thought content can also be called the “the zone” and refers to a state where our efforts feel relaxed but our results are strong.  Time seems to slow down but our sense of internal connectedness seems to increase. 

In this state, our internal running processes are controlled through the Central Governor Model that we discussed last week.  The CGM ensures that our bodies stay in a state of homeostasis while we are running.  The subconscious CGM operations coupled with our conscious strategy of association are generally considered to deliver the greatest performance levels.  However, mastering this technique while not over thinking or becoming focused on the negative signals from the body definitely takes practice. 

Disassociation Techniques

Disassociation techniques include the set of mental strategies where we focus on elements outside of the race.  Running with music is probably the most ubiquitous form of disassociation.  Another form includes running in a group.  That is why long runs generally seem easier with a group as opposed to going solo. Still other forms of disassociation include taking off your watch, daydreaming or just generally tuning out.  Mantras are also a form of disassociation.  By using a mantra a person repeats a word or phrase during difficult portions of a run.  Mantras are designed to give the brain something to focus on other than the negative cues coming from the body. 

Disassociation is considered to be an endurance technique because the focus on external stimuli (music, mantra, conversation) takes our mind off the negative signals that our body is sending.  Simply put, because we are not paying (or paying less) attention to the fact that we are tired, we just continue run.  As a result, our overall distance is increased.

There are other times though when dissociating can be beneficial as well.  For instance, a friend of mine has adult ADD and finds races to be over-stimulating.  She benefits greatly by having music to drown out the stimuli presented by the race.  People who engage in negative self-talk (and many people do this) can also benefit by disassociation because it can mask the signal that normally starts the negativity.  People who start a race too quickly can use disassociation to slow down in the beginning or even out their energy levels throughout the race. 

The reason that disassociation works well in these situations is that the brain is being given a series of signals that are overwhelming and the dissonance created dampens overall running performance (either in speed or distance). By introducing disassociation, we are able to diminish these signals and allow the body to run. 

Behavior Loops

Every time we run a race or just go for a run we are aware of much more than the situation around us.  Our awareness is also influenced by previous runs and races.  Consciously or subconsciously we go back to those runs.  We recall how our muscles felt, how labored our breathing was, any pain, and whether we decided to push through or stop.  Recalling these emotions from the past invokes specific emotions and behaviors in the present.  This process is known as a behavior loop. 

Every person experiences behavior loops several times a day.  In research we view these loops in the context of purchasing behavior but they apply in all areas of our lives and we normally refer to them as habits.  Habits have three core components including; the cue – the signal that tells our brains to go into automatic mode, the routine – which is the actual behavior we perform, and the reward. 

Now let’s think about this in the context of our running.  Say we have a habit of walking the last hill on our route.  Here’s what could be happening psychologically.  We go out for a nice 5 mile run, around mile 3 we are starting to feel fatigue and then at mile 4 we hit our hill.  This hill becomes the cue that tells our brain “uh oh, here is that hill we can’t conquer”.  This cue kicks our brain into the automatic mode which is to “walk”.  Finally, we receive our reward which is the rest from walking up the hill instead of running. 

This process repeats itself on every run.  We are either reinforcing existing behavior loops or creating new ones.  To be clear behavior loops can also be positive, and behavior loops can also be broken.  By identifying the cues, we can intervene in the habit and create a different response.  That hill can trigger a different routine to repeat a mantra saying “I am stronger than this hill” and then the reward becomes the feeling we get when we reach the top.  The process is the same – cue, routine, reward – but the outcome is very different. 

Additional Strategies

There are several additional mental strategies that we can use.  Some of these include; preparing ourselves to know what to expect during the race, planning our race routine and strategy, setting goals, visualizing performance throughout the race, learning from each race, and controlling emotions and negative self-talk.   

Pulling this Together

To pull all of this together there is a lot of evidence that mental training techniques will help increase overall performance.  By taking an internal self-assessment of the cues that slow us down, the times when we want to quit, and then experimenting with the different mental strategies each of us will be able to identify the tools that serve our needs.  Then using those tools during our training runs will help prepare us for our next race or challenge. 

But remember that you have to practice.  You can’t just show up on race day and utter some mantra and expect it to help. You need to practice finding and responding to your mental queues during training and learn to push through them. 

Two of my favorite sayings come from Marnie McBean, a 3 time gold medal Canadian Olympic rower.  I saw her at a conference a couple of years ago when she gave the closing presentation.  Her first statement was, “I don’t train this hard to win on the easy days, I train this hard to win on the hard days”

To me this means that it is easy to push yourself when the run is going well.  The real challenge is to push yourself when things become difficult. The second phrase I took from her speech was: “There is no joy in overachieving on a mediocre goal.  You have to have 1 goal that truly scares you.”  Losing weight, setting a PR, running a marathon can all be scary goals.  Whatever your goals, by training you body and your mind, you will be much better prepared to accomplish them. 

YouTube Video

This video is a 9 minute redaction of a Marnie McBean presentation for Canon.  It conveys some of her words and some subtle but very powerful concepts.  Hope you enjoy.

On a related note, I am not sure if you have ever done this, but sometime you should go to a race to cheer.  Go to the middle or toward the end of the course, or even the finish line…just not the start.  Then watch the people passing you.  Yes, you should cheer them on too!  But notice the people.  The ones in front look like light-footed gazelles.  Sometimes their movements look so effortless that you really have to wonder how hard they are actually working…their movements are just so efficient.  But watch the people in the middle of the pack and even toward the end.  Those people always steal my heart.  They are working so hard for their time and you can tell that is means so much to them.  I love to cheer these people too because it means so much to them.  If you have never done this at a race, try it sometime. 

Run well…


Shawn Herbig is an RRCA Certified Running Coach.  In his day job he owns a market research and data analytics firm called IQS Research. 

© 2013 Shawn Herbig