Running With My Brain

Ten marathons, ten days. Run 26.2 miles, eat, sleep, repeat 9 more times. The more I think about this challenge, the more I realise that mental preparation will be as important as physical preparation, if not more so.

Since I started running in 2009, I have read my fair share of literature on the subject. One book that marked me particularly is Brain Training for Runners by Matt Fitzgerald.

You can click on the link to read synopsis and reviews [see my note below], but the basic idea is that the perception of our physical sensations is largely a product of our brain, which can be trained and controlled with a view to making our training and race performance more effective. In other words, when you think you are exhausted, you almost certainly have energy left in the tank — but your brain tells you that you don’t, as a mechanism to avoid over-exertion and injury.

If you have ever run a marathon or half-marathon, you may well have experienced an extraordinary rush in the final quarter mile, where suddenly your fatigue drops away and you find yourself sprinting with energy that you could only dream of a few minutes earlier. That energy, argues Fitzgerald, was there all along. It did not suddenly materialise from nowhere. It seems plausible that the brain “lifts the foot off the brakes” and allows your body to deploy its true reserves, because with the finish line so close there is little risk of physical damage.

What if we could harness these reserves, and tap into them at will? Therein lies Fitzgerald’s thesis, that it is in fact possible to retrain the brain and its mechanisms. Of course, these mechanisms are unconscious and deep-seated, and getting one’s brain to relearn them requires time and persistence. Also it is clear that injury and over-training are a risk, so it is essential to listen closely to one’s body and not be a slave to the training plan.

My quest to finish a marathon in under 4 hours was successful in Jan 2011, largely thanks to the ideas in Fitzgerald’s book that I adapted for my own purposes. Specifically, this involved teaching my brain how to perceive pain and fatigue differently. I deliberately created training situations designed to familiarise my body with the discomfort of miles 20 to 26 of the marathon, which from personal experience I knew to be massively more difficult than the first 20 miles combined.

Thanks to this training I developed a much deeper awareness of my own capabilities, and learned to use pain and exhaustion as gauges of what I could still accomplish, rather than as warning signals to be obeyed blindly by stopping at the edge of the road.

Now I am faced with a challenge of a different nature, one of endurance on a scale which I find intimidating every time I think about it. As I enter now into the critical 6 months before Brathay 10-in-10, I am exploring and testing new ways to use these same “brain training” principles.

The challenge I apprehend the most is that of avoiding injury despite the absence of recovery days. Having completed one series of 10 back-to-back training runs, my next yardstick will be to complete a “100 miles in 10 days” training series. Hopefully this exercise will give me a good idea of where I need to set my “cruising pace” so as to maximise my next-day recovery, and I fully expect it will teach me things about running that I have yet to imagine.

What a journey, and something tells me it’s only just beginning…

As always, it’s important to keep a sense of perspective. The physical challenge is tough by any standards. But it also has a purpose — to raise funds and support the excellent work done by Brathay Trust. Every pound, dollar or euro that you donate will help a disadvantaged young person extract themselves from hardship and deprivation, and will give them a fighting chance to make something of their life.

Please take a moment to visit the Brathay web site, and then click on this link to make a donation.

[note] Yes, that book title up there is an Amazon link. If you end up buying the book — which I do recommend if you want to explore new ways to train — I will donate my affiliate commission to Brathay!

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