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Use Your Brain to Improve Your Running

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Do you ever hit a mental wall during your races or workouts? Is your running hitting a plateau? Do you end your workouts feeling uninspired? Are you looking for a mental edge in your next race? Here are four brain training tricks that I have found to work for me that you can use to give yourself that mental edge in your next race, or even your next workout.

#1) Warm Up and/or Cool Down... and Stretch!

Your schedule calls for a three mile run, today. What do you do? Do you open the front door, or walk into the gym, and rattle off your three miles and then call it a day? If you do, you are missing out on a couple easy opportunities to improve your endurance and overall fitness!

First, you should already be stretching before your runs to reduce the risk of injury. However, you should also not stretch cold muscles (I know I am also guilty of this, but do as I say, not as I do). Before your workout, run a quarter- or half-mile. Then do your stretches and then run your three miles.

Okay, you've just run your three miles. Do you leave the gym, or go grab some water and plop yourself on the nearest recliner? Not, yet! Before you settle into that La-z-boy, do a quarter- or half-mile cool down run, or even a 10-15 minute walk. You should also consider stretching before and/or after your cool down run to help keep your muscles loose as they cool down. Light exercise after your vigorous exercise will help ease your muscles in the transition back to a relaxation.

Your workout called for three miles, but you just ran 3.5 to 4. You just extended your workout! Ever think during a race, "Ugh, I still have x number of miles to go!" or "I wish I had more energy"? Next time you're racing that 5k and you hit the 1 mile mark and your legs are starting to get a little tired and you can't see the finish line and you're thinking "Ugh, I still have 2 miles to go," you can think back to your workouts and say to yourself "This is a piece of cake! I already know I can run 4 miles!" Next time you're racing or even just working out and you need to use that extra energy to keep up your pace and get that PR you will be very happy you decided to run 4 miles during your workout instead of just 3.

And if you remember to stretch your warm muscles before and after your workout, you'll also increase your flexibility and decrease your chances of injury. No one really likes the feeling of tight muscles after a run, anyway, and increased flexibility and a reduced risk of injuries are their own reward.

#2) Finish Faster

Okay, so you're finishing your three mile workout and the end is in sight. Your brain thinks, "Finally, there's the finish. I can relax, now," and as you approach your driveway, or the finish line on the track, you ease up and stop.

Now, wait just a second. Is that how you would finish a race? Amazingly, for a lot of people, that is exactly how a race ends. But, is that how the elite finish their races? No way. The difference between first and fourth place can often be decided by a sprint finish. I know, I know, you probably tell yourself, "Yeah, I slow up at the end of my practice runs, but I would never do that during a race." Or maybe you are one of those runners that ease up the finish line of a road race. After all, it's not really a competition if you're finishing in 25th or 83rd or 112th place, right?

If you ease up to the finish line in your practice runs, you're losing out in a few different ways. First, the phrase "you play the way your practice" is just as true for running as it is for baseball or football or any other sport. Sprinting the last 100-400 feet of every workout gets your body and mind prepared to do the same thing in your next race. That sprint finish at the end of your workout to beat that ugly, beat-up Yugo belching exhaust in your face is setting you up for success in your races. How does your brain and your body know how it will feel to sprint at the end of a race when you don't do it in practice? They won't, if you're skipping that extra bit of practice. You also don't use the same muscles to sprint as you did to run the rest of your 5k or 10k.

Easing up also means you're really practicing running 2.99 miles, not 3.0 miles. .01 miles may not seem like much in your workout, but when you're sprinting for the finish to beat that out-of-shape-runner-you-would-be-embarrass
ed-to-finish-behind you will thank your lucky stars you've practiced for this very moment.

#3) Run Further

This goes along with #2, but pushes it in the direction of #1. If you ease up and stop at your driveway - or even if you sprint to it - you're still teaching yourself to run exactly that distance. And when you run exactly that distance, that is exactly what you will run in your races.

Next time you're at the track, on running back to the house, when you're sprinting towards the finish line, don't just sprint TO the finish line, spring THROUGH the finish line.

One of the problems with running TO the finish line is that as your approach it, your brain begins to tell your body that it's almost there and your body starts to ease up. This is similar to the effect a visible bathroom has on you when you really have to pee. So long as you don't know where the nearest bathroom is, you are in pain, but your bladder muscles are holding strong - not forever, but they know they have to hold on for a while longer. However, as soon as you see the bathroom your brain tells your bladder that relief is around the corner and they being to prepare to release and suddenly, if someone or something gets between you and that toilet, you just don't know if you can hold it any longer. Yet, if you hadn't seen that bathroom, you probably could have held it for at least a few minutes longer.

So, when you are finishing your workout, don't just run TO the finish line, run THROUGH it for at least 50 to 100 extra feet. This will get you mentally prepared to do the same thing in your race. Your brain will stop seeing the finish line as the relief point and you will get that extra power to sprint THROUGH the finish and pick up those extra seconds and a possible PR or beat one more runner.

#4) Plus Drills

Plus drills are extra practice you tack on to the end of your workouts. In a plus drill, you practice running the last quarter-mile of your race as fast as you can to see how many other runners you can beat.

Here's how it works. The slowest runner in your group (based on race times) goes first, trying to run the last quarter-mile of the race (or one lap around the track, or wherever you happen to be) followed 10-15 seconds later by the second slowest runner. This runner is followed 10-15 second later by the next runner, and then the next, on up to the faster runner. The idea is to pass more runners than pass you. If you pass 2 and get passed by 1, that is a "plus" hence the name "plus drill."

Obviously, this works best with a large team, but you can also modify the idea to practice it with a couple other friends, or by yourself on the track or on the street. On the track, challenge yourself to see how many runners you can pass - oblivious as they may be. Maybe one of them will take notice and give you a run for your money. On the street, see how many cars you can pass - or if it's a particularly fast street, how few cars you can let pass you. Maybe see if you can keep pace with a certain speedster doing 20 in a 15mph zone. Modify it to suit your situation. It'll not only help you finish faster, it's also an extra quarter-mile you can tack on to your run and it's also great speed training you can add to almost any workout.


These are four simple training steps that will not only help you improve your physical fitness, they will also help improve your mental fitness. If you practice to mentally give that extra effort and re-train your mind to run THROUGH the finish and run THROUGH the pain, your body will follow. Half of racing is having the strength to push yourself when you need to. If you can push yourself in a workout, you will have the training to be able to push yourself when it really counts. And learning to dig down deep will help you not just in running, but in every other aspect of your life.

So, go ahead, push yourself. I dare you.

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  Member Comments About This Blog Post:

ANNALISSAS 8/6/2010 9:55AM

    Yes, mental blocks all the time and the desire to do just what is laid out in front of me. But I have a constant nudge in the back of my mind that says just do one more than you want to, Just run to that next mailbox, etc... when I push myself like that is when I feel so great for the rest of the day and when the results really start to gain momentum.
I think the mental aspect is more than half the challenge for most, once you can get over a couple you feel like you are capable of so much more.
Thanks for the insights!

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Run, Tykxboy, Run!

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Today I had a breakthrough of sorts. I have been more and more frustrated with my seeming lack of energy on my morning runs, but none of my solutions worked. I've tried less water, more water, drinking then sitting, chewing gum, stretching, walking, knee straps, Powerbars... None of them worked... Until today. Hopefully, it's a lasting solution. What is my novel solution to this vexing problem of mine? It's simple, really...

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Going Backwards

Thursday, July 29, 2010

So far, I am not very optimistic about this whole running in the morning plan, but not for the reasons I originally expected. For one thing, I am not a morning person and I have trouble waking up any time before 8am (and after). I was also worried about staying hydrated in the warm, dry Las Vegas mornings after 6-8 hours of sleep. I did have over 5 weeks off from running after the birth of my daughter, but previous to that I was running between 3 and 5 miles with no problem. So, it came as some surprise to me to discover that my biggest problem with running in the morning has been sluggish and heavy legs and a seeming lack of strength in my lower body...

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  Member Comments About This Blog Post:

PPELTON 7/30/2010 11:10AM

    Might I suggest that you take it a bit more slowly. Maybe walking in the early hours of the morning. I live in Palm Springs and I am also HEAT challenged. I set out at 5am and walk 5k before its 100*. Another option is a treadmill or even go to an indoor gym.....I don't look at your situation as a backwards movement, just a stumbling block. You will get past this FIGHT ON! and Never give up! I B*e*l*i*e*v*e* in your success!

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I Don't Do Mornings... Or Do I?

Thursday, July 01, 2010

After four days, my half marathon training is proceeding as planned. Instead of heading to the gym after work, I now wake up early to get my runs in before work. So far it is working out, but it's not much fun and I still would much prefer to run after work.

Unfortunately, this compromise has become necessary for a number of reasons...

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Thursday, July 01, 2010

It's been quite some time since I last ran or set foot in the gym, but I am not as upset about it as I ordinarily would be. The reason? My new baby girl, Brianna. She turned one month old, yesterday. The week prior to that I had a week of wild land firefighting training which consisted of 3 days of classroom training and 2 days in the field. Altogether, that means I've gone nearly 6 weeks without a serious workout. That, plus a lot of convenient meals instead of quality meals, and I can definitely feel my body falling out of shape. Today, that all ended.

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