Archive for the ‘Mental Mechansims’ Category

Cortisol and the stress response

June 2, 2014

Cortisol, a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal gland, plays a key role in mobilizing the body’s resources to cope with stressful challenges, including the challenge of running. Among its many roles is the regulation of blood glucose. When demands are high, cortisol acts to conserve glucose for the brain by minimizing uptake of glucose into other tissues and by promoting the production of glucose in the liver.   Because healing is not a priority when dealing with an acute challenge, cortisol suppresses inflammation and the immune system. In a healthy person, cortisol levels return to normal over a time scale of 30-60 minutes after the stress resolves. However if the transient surge of cortisol required to deal with acute stress is not switched off, cortisol inhibits healing by suppressing the formation of collagen while promoting breakdown of protein, thereby damaging many tissues of the body.

Recent evidence from a study by Skoluda and colleagues indicates that endurance athletes tend to have persistently high levels of cortisol. This increases in proportion to training volume. Thus the regulation of cortisol is potentially of great importance not only for ensuring that an athlete obtains benefits from training, but also for long term health.

The relationship between cortisol and inflammation is complex. In the short term cortisol suppresses inflammation, but sustained elevation of cortisol can lead to a suppression of the receptors that mediate the effects of cortisol on body tissues, and consequently, sustained elevation of cortisol can actually promote chronic inflammation which in turn damages tissues by laying down non-functional fibrous tissue as described in my recent post.

Although excessive cortisol is harmful, reduced ability to generate cortisol when required can be even more harmful. Addison’s disease, a rare condition in which the adrenal gland is damaged by autoimmune attack, is characterised by non-specific symptoms such as weakness and fatigue, and can be result in fatal inability to respond to stress. There is some evidence that sustained stress can reduce the capacity of the adrenal glands to produce cortisol when required, though the concept of adrenal fatigue, popularized by some alternative-medicine practitioners, remains an ill-defined entity.

Cortisol production is regulated by a feedback mechanism that takes account of information about the overall metabolic state of the body. This feedback system acts via the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA). The release of cortisol from the adrenal glands is stimulated by a hormone, ACTH, that is produced in the pituitary gland. The release of ACTH is in turn stimulated by a hormone, corticotrophin releasing factor, that is secreted by the hypothalamus. Information about the state of the body is funnelled via the amygdala and hippocampus in the temporal lobe of the brain, to the hypothalamus. This complex feedback system allows a diverse array of neural and hormonal signals to control cortisol release in a way that balances the catabolic effects of cortisol, promoting tissues breakdown, with the anabolic effects of other hormones, such as DHEA (a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal glands) and growth hormone, produced in the pituitary gland, that play a role in promoting the repair and strengthening of damaged tissues.  Thus many complex, interacting processes are involved in ensuring the optimal balance between mobilising body resources to deal with acute challenge and subsequent healing. Factors such as levels of ongoing stress from life circumstances and age contribute to the balance.

 Strategies for optimising the stress response

In summary, an athlete requires healthy adrenal glands which can generate enough cortisol to meet the challenge of stress but then to switch off cortisol production to promote recovery. The simple principle is that for optimum training benefit and long term health, we need to avoid excessive stress. However, the best way of achieving this is likely to determined by individual’s genes and life circumstances. While each individual has to find what works for him or her, there are several issues likely to be relevant to most athletes.

1)      Avoiding over-training. As demonstrated by Skoluda, the sustained excess of cortisol is greater in those who train more. Both volume and intensity matter though it is noteworthy that prolonged duration of exercise promotes increase in cortisol, whereas high intensity promotes hormones such as growth hormone and anabolic steroid hormones that promote strengthening of tissues. Consistent with this, some evidence indicates that the over-training syndrome is more strongly linked to high volume training than to high intensity training.

2)      Recovery from training and racing is crucial.   Not only does inadequate recovery increase the risk of persisting inflammation (as discussed in my previous post) but it impedes the transition from the cortisol induced catabolic state to the anabolic state required to rebuild and strengthen body tissues. This raises the major question of how best to determine if recovery is adequate. Subjective indices such as the Profile of Mood States, and autonomic measures such as resting heart rate and heart rate variability provide a guide, but no single test provides the full answer.  This is an issue I will return to again in the near future.

3)      Resistance training promotes the release of anabolic hormones and has many other beneficial effects on metabolism including increased sensitively to insulin. The major metabolic benefits of resistance training can be achieved by two 15 minute sessions per week.

4)      Life-stress and relaxation. Many of us have relatively limited control over the pressures of work and other responsibilities. However the way we react to these pressures is largely under our own control. Sleep plays a cardinal role. During sleep, cortisol levels fall while release of growth hormone is promoted. During our waking hours we can do a great deal to minimise stress. In recent years, the practice of Mindfulness has been proven to be effective in treating clinical disorders including anxiety and depression. It is a technique derived from Eastern meditative practices in which the aim is cultivation of a calm, non-judgmental awareness of one’s present physical and mental state.   Accumulating evidence indicates that this mental state is the optimum state for individuals such as US Navy Seals for whom remaining calm and focussed under intense pressure is crucial. Some studies show that Mindfulness lowers cortisol levels, while other studies have found evidence of beneficial reduction in stress and improved sleep but did not observe significant reduction of cortisol levels. Mindfulness is a knack that can be acquired by practice. Although the evidence for its effectiveness is still preliminary, my own experience is that it is effective in lowering mental and physical tension. I practice it at any time when I feel pressure is building, and also experiment with employing it while running to promote a constructive focussed mental state.

5)      Fuelling before and during training is a debateable topic. Some evidence indicates that training in a fasting state leads to improved endurance performance, perhaps mediated by the development of increased capacity to utilise fat as fuel, but overall the studies have yielded mixed results, as I have discussed in a previous post. I suspect this is because training in a fasted state also promotes increased cortisol levels that might be harmful. I have made appreciable gains in fitness in the past following training in a fasted state, but suffered one of the few serious muscle strains I have ever experienced after three weeks of high volume training predominantly in a fasted state.   This is mere anecdote, but when combined with the mixed evidence from scientific studies, leads me to conclude that training in a fasted state should be done cautiously, ensuring that overall stress levels are not excessive.

6)      Long term nutrition.  In light of the mechanism by which the hypothalamo-pituitary axis (HPA) adjusts cortisol levels in order to maintain metabolic homeostasis, it would be expected that a diet that promotes healthy energy metabolism would also be expected to promote healthy regulation of cortisol. As discussed in several of my recent posts, there is growing evidence that a Mediterranean diet promotes healthy metabolism. In accord with this, the available evidence indicates that a Mediterranean diet does promote healthy regulation of cortisol. For example a study of Spanish women found that those who chose a dietary pattern closer to the Mediterranean diet, with high mono-unsaturated fatty acid intake, showed more stable regulation of cortisol by the HPA.

 Conclusions

The evidence obtaind by Skoluda indicating that endurance athletes suffer sustained elevation of cortisol suggests that taking steps to maintain healthy regulation of cortisol is likely to result not only in a better response to endurance training but also in better long term health. This might be achieved by avoidance of over-training, ensuing good recovery, incorporation of some resistance training into the schedule and a number of life-style adaptations including adequate sleep, stress reduction via strategies such as Mindfulness, and a healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean diet.

Wilson Kipsang and Memories of Running in the Zone

April 26, 2012

My recent posts have dealt with two linked themes.  On the one hand I have speculated about ‘natural running’ characterised by harmonisation of a kinesthetic sense of where one’s limbs are in space, with well-practised movements dictated by the laws of physics and biomechanics.   On the other hand I have returned to my recurrent theme of the apparent conflict between the fact that running requires the generation of large forces yet conscious effort is often counter-productive.  The muscular actions that are required for getting airborne and repositioning the swing leg are largely automatic, and best left to the non-conscious control system in our brain.  Attempts to impose conscious control create a risk of mistimed or excessive force that is not only inefficient but also risks injury.  If we are to perform at peak level, the challenge is to achieve a conscious overview of the non-conscious control system that harmonises our rational planning with automatic action.

There is indeed a well known mental state in which this is possible – the elusive mental state popularly known as the Zone.  It is a state with four principal characteristics: complete focus; harmony within oneself; total confidence and the experience that performance is virtually effortless. It is the state most clearly seen in top-level tennis. It is the state that allows a player to spring sideways with racquet outstretched to make a cross court shot that skims a few centimetres above the net and raises a cloud of chalk dust from the line in the far corner of the court.  There is no way that such precision of motor control could be achieved by conscious control.  When a player in is in this frame of mind he simply knows he going to win.

Running in the Zone

Running in the Zone is less dramatic but the feeling can be as powerful.  I was reminded of this by Wilson Kipsang’s seemingly effortless victory in the London marathon a few days ago.  Though actually it was his performance in Frankfurt last October that evoked more powerful memories for me.  I watched this video clip of the final two Km of that run in which he came within a few seconds of the world record, set only a few months earlier in Berlin by his countryman, Patrick Makau.  Watching Kipsang’s lithe and powerful legs while I listened to the German commentator brought back a personal memory of an event over forty years previously.   The magic was enhanced by my limited understanding of German: good enough only to allow me to appreciate that the excited yet controlled voice was reeling off the passing kilometres, and the minutes and seconds that indicated Kipsang’s progress towards Makau’s world record time of 2:03:38.  But my lack of full appreciation of the commentator’s words heightened my awareness of the power and elegance of Kipsang’s gait. To my eyes, he was the archetypical illustration of a runner in the Zone.  As in London, where he missed the count-down for the London course record by a few seconds, in Frankfurt, he missed the world record by a similar amount despite the shower of tickertape and flashing lights as he crossed the finish line.

Small town glory

For me, it evoked a memory of much humbler surroundings.  As I have mentioned before, in my younger days I could reasonably have been described as a sub-elite marathon runner, but as a track athlete I was an ‘also-ran’ with limited talent, prepared to run any event, from 400m hurdles to 3000m steeplechase or 5000m, as required to earn points for my club.

I won less than a dozen races in my entire track career.  The most memorable was a mid-week evening 10,000m on the old Adelaide Harriers cinders track.  As described in a previous post, it was a low key meeting but offered one of the few track 10,000 races in the local athletic calendar. I arrived straight from work only just in time to line up at the start, without even time for a warm-up.  From the gun I was running confidently and harmoniously.   Within a few laps I was calmly confident that I would win – though in fact I had never previously run a 10,000m on the track and had no realistic knowledge of what lay ahead of me.  I was simply running effortlessly with all-embracing focus, complete harmony within myself and with calm confidence.  As the laps slipped by, I continued to run harmoniously and virtually effortlessly. Even the sprint over the final 300m felt more like a celebration than a challenge. I have no record of my time.  It remains my lifetime best as I have never had the opportunity to race 10,000m on the track since, but the memory of the race matters more than a record of the time.

The following Saturday, I lined-up for the 5000m in the local interclub series.  The field included most of the top 5000m runners in South Australia at that time, but that mattered little to me. My goal was to win points for my D grade club and for this my placing among the A grade competitors mattered little.  Nonetheless, some of the aura of the previous Wednesday night still cling to me, and as the leaders jockeyed for position in the home straight with a little over one lap to go, I was in fifth place, on the shoulder of the current state 5000m champion.  Although the pace was a little faster than the 10,000m pace a few days earlier, again I was running harmoniously and almost effortlessly.  Up to that point the thought of winning had not even occurred to me, but suddenly it seemed possible.  With a little over 400 metres to go, I surged to the front.  The sound of the bell and the sight of the open track curving away to my left as I entered the final lap remains as clear in my memory as the event at the Adelaide Harriers track the preceding Wednesday evening.  I was oblivious of the runners behind me as I rounded the bend and sprinted along the back straight.  It was a wonderful feeling, but of course it was too good to last.  With 180m to go the state champion slipped by, and in the home straight I faded to finish in sixth place.  I did of course secure maximum points in the D grade competition, so sixth place was more than was required of me.

In the minds of the leading runners jockeying for position as we approached the final bell, I would have scarcely warranted a second thought.  So I was delighted when the state champion came up to me afterwards and said:  ‘You started your run too soon but I couldn’t just let you go. You looked too dangerous.’  To know that I had even appeared to be a threat is a pleasing memory, but even more satisfying is the mental picture I still retain of sound of the tinkling bell and the sight of the clear track ahead as I led into the last lap.  Perhaps if Ihad held off my sprint for another 100m I might have finished even nearer the front but I have no regrets for having seized the moment when I did.

These memories are largely nostalgia for times long ago, but I did enjoy a minor reprise of the feeling of being in the Zone on my way to victory in the second division of East Midlands Fetch Challenge mile three years ago.  Nowadays, I step onto a track only occasionally.  However I do still cherish the experience of running in the Zone.

The elusiveness of the Zone

One of the paradoxes of the Zone is that if you focus too much on being in it, you cease to be a detached observer of your own mental and physical state, and the Zone dissolves.  It is an elusive mental state that cannot be grasped too tightly.  Being in the Zone is not in itself the primary goal.  However provided you can allow your conscious mind to trust the non-conscious control system in your brain to look after the fine details, it is possible to do things beyond the capacity of your conscious mind.  I believe that my few fleeting moment of ‘small-town glory’ on the track many years ago were a product of this state  Of course no mental tricks can make up for lack of strength and aerobic fitness.  But if you want to run at the limit of your physical capacity, I think it is a crucial element.

If one examines carefully the various descriptions of his mental state provided by Usain Bolt, the theme that emerges most strongly is mental focus. Here is his response to Desmond Howard’s question: How about during the race? What do you see? What do you hear?’, in an interview for ESPN.  ‘The first 40 or 50 meters, I’m aware of almost everything because that’s the weakest part of my race, so I always check immediately if I got a good start. Maybe after 20 meters, I check again — trying to tell myself to keep my technique right. I look around a little bit, but I don’t really hear the crowd much over 100 meters because I’m so focused.’  His mental state during the acceleration phase is dominated by intense focus but his description does not convey the sense of effortless harmony and self confidence that characterises the Zone.  A man of his physique has to work hard to get his long legs and large frame up to speed.  Video recordings show his torso rocking from side to side as he strains to push against the ground.  His own account confirms this picture.  But once he is at top speed his stride length is an advantage, and everything fits into place.  Watching the cruising phase in video recordings of the 100m final in Beijing, the World Championship in Berlin in 2009 or many other races during his period of world domination everything about his demeanour conveys a sense of effortless, harmonious self-confidence.  He is a picture of a runner in the Zone.

It is noteworthy that Bolt is aware of the weakness of his acceleration phase.  It is a weakness that arises from the physique that serves him well later in the race. In part, he is the world’s fastest sprinter because he is has the capacity to perceive his own weaknesses.  Being in the Zone does not replace the need for strength, skill or, in the case of endurance running, the need for aerobic fitness.  It reinforces these things and is reinforced by them.  It is a mental state that allows us to exceed the capability of our conscious mind.  If Bolt can achieve harmonious mastery of his own huge frame in that first 40 metres, he might release the latent skill that will take another 0.03 seconds off his time.

I believe that a factor of key importance for any runner who aims to run as well as they possibly can is the ability to create the circumstances that open the door to the Zone.  Developing this capacity is as important as building aerobic capacity, strength and skill.  As a result, the goals of each training session includes not only enhancement of some aspect of aerobic capacity, strength and/or skill but also specific attention to cultivating the ‘present-centredness’ that is the foundation of the Zone.

Zone-oriented training

Because of the Zone defies capture, the goal of Zone-oriented training is not to achieve the Zone, but simply to create the circumstances that allow it to happen.  My own experience suggests there are five key elements.

  • The first is body awareness.  The goal is subliminal awareness of every  part of the body, but I find it most helpful to focus mainly in my thumb and forefinger as each arm swings down to my waist, in turn.  The action is not forceful but it is firm and precise.
  • The second element is relaxation of muscle tension.  The light pressure of thumb against forefinger allows my non-conscious brain to calibrate the tension in my arm and the opposite leg optimally, while I also direct attention to relaxing my shoulders.
  • The third element is harmonising my breathing with the rhythmic movement of arms and legs.  Not only does the depth of breathing and ratio of breaths to strides provide me with a sensitive measure of where my effort level is in relation to my anaerobic threshold, but the awareness of the rhythm acts to stabilise this rhythm and enhance the sense of calm detached conscious observation of my non-conscious motor control system in action.
  • Fourthly, I aim for a feeling of lightness.  Largely this is based on conscious awareness of the impact of my feet on the ground.  I am subliminally aware of, and from time to time overtly attentive to, the way in which the load is distributed over the arch of my foot during stance, as I observe the light sound of my footfall.
  • Finally I cultivate an awareness of the rapid forward swing of the leg from stance.  This is entails a mental image of a graceful arching trajectory rather than a deliberate contraction of any particular muscle group, though my understanding of biomechanics suggest that iliopsoas does most of the work, facilitated by recoil of the Achilles tendon at lift-off, and a light contraction of the hamstrings.

 More recent memories

My ability to sustain present-centredness was tested in an interesting way a week ago.  The riverside paths on which I run are fairly popular with people walking their dogs.  Most days I encounter at least a dozen or more dogs, and over the course of each month I can expect to meet several hundred animals of varying breed and temperament.  In the open spaces along the riverside, most dog-walkers release their charges from the lead, so it is not surprising that from time to time I am chased by some poorly trained animal.  Usually I stop and point to the ground while saying in a firm voice: ‘Stay!’  In most instances this is at least moderately effective, except with little yappy dogs, whom it is best to simply ignore.  However last week as I ran along the banks of the Trent with a pleasing feeling of relaxed harmony, I found myself the quarry of a Great Dane.  Great Danes have a lineage that extends back to their original breeding from wolves for use in wolf-hunting, but generations of domestication have made them reasonably docile and they rarely exhibit a strong prey drive.  However this fellow appeared to have identified me as prey.  As he would have stood at least 7 feet tall on his hind legs, I doubted that I would sounded very authoritative if I stood my ground and commanded ‘Stay’.

The memory of a similar experience  as I ran along the banks of the River Soar a few miles from it confluence with the Trent a year ago, flashed into my mind.  Shortly after passing an unfriendly-looking Alsatian prowling along the bank, I was aware of a flurry of movement behind me and the beast leapt to grasp my wrist in his jaws.  The power in those jaws was terrifying.  I did not know what to do, but on impulse, I kept running.  Mercifully he opened his jaws within a few moments and to my surprise, let me go.  After I had put a few hundred metres between myself and my attacker I stopped to inspect the damage.  Apart from the lacerations where the teeth had gripped my forearm, I was unharmed.

So here I was again, in a similar situation.  This time the dog was even bigger but he hadn’t yet sunk his teeth into me. So I just kept running, trying to create an impression of calm confidence.  I continued to focus on opposing my thumb lightly against my forefinger as each arm swept down in turn towards my waist, to facilitate a neatly timed, relaxed footfall.  I was aware of the dog’s jaw impacting with my ankle but he didn’t get a grip.  I was also aware that my heart thumped in my chest.  As I continued running with an outward appearance of calm, I could hear a distant female voice calling.  It was apparently the dog’s owner, and he abandoned the pursuit.  I had no wish to invite any more trouble so continued on my way.

Later in the day when I examined the recording from my heart rate monitor I was both dismayed and amused to see the record of how my heart had responded.  The relevant segment of the record in shown in the figure.  There was a dramatic paroxysm in which my heart rate fluctuated crazily for about 10 seconds, but then settled back into a regular rhythm, just a little faster than before the attack.  Within half a minute it was back to its usual level.  While the heart trace demonstrates that I did not succeed in maintaining a perfectly harmonious physical and mental state throughout, it appeared I had done reasonable well in recovering my equilibrium.  I will never know just how intent the dog was on bringing me down, or indeed whether he was merely issuing a warning as the Alsatian had a year earlier, but I am pleased to know that I managed to remain calm and fairly confident with scarcely a perceptible adjustment of my stride.

Re-covering heart rate equilibrium after eluding the jaws of a Great Dane

Conclusion

In summary, if one wants to run at one’s best, establishing the ability to create the circumstances that facilitate this centred harmonious, virtually effortless and confident mental state is a crucial complement to the tasks of developing aerobic capacity, strength and skill.  Many of my most memorable running experiences over the years have been associated with this magical zone.  I hope that even as my strength ebbs with the passing years I will still retain ability to evoke this state.

I believe that many great athletes, among them sprinters such as Usain Bolt but also marathon runners such as Wilson Kipsang, have the knack of summoning this mental state.  Whether or not Kipsang will achieve it again in London in October this year is not certain, but as I watched that video of his run in Frankfurt, it appeared to me almost certain that sometime within the next year or two he will eclipse Patrick Makau’s world record.

Running naturally using sense and science

April 11, 2012

A few months ago I had a fairly clear idea about the content of my next few blog posts: my debate with Robert over the New Year period (recorded at length in the comments section of my Dance with the Devil article) had prompted me to tackle the issue of applying Newton’s equations of motion to running in a systematic manner, so my immediate priority at that time was a few technical articles on the mechanics of running.  After those articles, I intended to return to the issues of developing aerobic fitness; the influence of hormones such as growth hormone on tissue repair and regeneration; and some further accounts of my experiences with monitoring my heart rate.   This broad sketch is still on the drawing board but I have been waylaid by many interesting diversions. Apart from one post on the heart of the runner, that I felt could not wait too long because it was, in a way, my tribute to John Hadd, who had died while running a few months earlier, my posts this year have been heavily focussed on Newtonian mechanics, but many aspects of running mechanics remain untouched.

I anticipated that after the main article, posted on January 16th, in which I outlined the application of Newton’s equations to the motion of the runner’s centre of gravity (COG) and demonstrated the inevitable reality that getting airborne efficiently – the essence of efficient running – demands a short, sharp push against the ground, that I would easily tie up a few loose ends: important issues such a identifying optimum cadence and more peripheral issues such as dealing with wind resistance; but I had under-estimated the magnitude of the task.  In that first article, I had alluded in passing to the energy cost of repositioning the swing leg.  However I intended to by-pass this tricky topic by focussing on low to moderate speeds where repositioning costs are a minor fraction of the total energy cost.  However, Simon, whom I had come to know, at least in cyberspace, as a kindred spirit sharing a sceptical fascination with Pose technique, would not let me get away so easily with ignoring repositioning costs.  Others have jointed the debate from various perspectives, and as a result, I am still far short of my initial goal of reviewing the implications of Newton’s equations.  I continue to ponder the issues of aerobic fitness, tissue regeneration and heart rhythms, but my planned updates on these topics have been delayed.

The conundrum of the push

However, I have not been able to ignore another issue.  The conundrum that it is almost certain that for most runners, conscious focus on delivering a short, sharp push against the ground is not the best way to run safely and efficiently, except perhaps when sprinting.  It is this conundrum that has fuelled my long-standing fascination with Pose.  Despite the ‘looney-toon’ cartoon physics proposed by Dr Romanov in his book, ‘Pose Method of Running’, and unfortunately still lingering in articles on the Pose Tech website, there is little doubt that this irrationally-inspired running technique  has helped a large number of recreational runners to enjoy safer, more satisfying running.  There have also been many individuals disillusioned by being told by Pose coaches that their Achilles tendon injuries are simply due to not doing Pose properly, and others who have been disappointed that their race performances have not improved in the way they had hoped.  However, there does appear to be some magical injury-reducing ingredients in Pose.  One of these is the necessity to cut one’s training volume while developing the skill to perform the technique.  Furthermore, the reduced stress on the knee is an easily understood consequence of the Pose emphasis on forefoot or midfoot landing, though ironically it is the forefoot landing that puts the Achilles at risk.   The recommendation of high cadence reduces the magnitude of the force required for each step.  However, I think an even more important issue is the fact that the illusion that gravity provides ‘free energy’ allows Pose runners to achieve the essential short-sharp push against the ground without trying.

The secret

Is there a secret?  Many comments that have appeared on internet discussion threads in recent years imply that the secret lies in ignoring the physics; that  it is subjective experience that counts;   that we should perhaps revert to the noble primeval state of our Palaeolithic ancestors who are thought to have engaged in persistence hunting, barefoot, on the African savannah two million years ago.  The core idea is that thinking about what you are doing gets in the way of doing it.  In fact I strongly agree that attempting to exert conscious control over skills that our unconscious brain has learned to perform is often counter-productive.  However I do not believe that the secret is to revert to a primeval Palaeolithic state.  In fact I do not believe that would be natural.  In the two million or so years that separate early members of the Homo genus, such as Homo erectus who apparently had developed the musculo-skeletal features necessary for endurance running, from Homo sapiens with his/her large skull, we have developed an extraordinary capacity to achieve our goals, a capacity residing largely in our brains.

For several millennia, this capacity was strongly shaped by spirituality.  In the video recording of persistence hunting in our own era by bushmen in the Kalahari, narrated by David Attenborough, there is a moving moment near the end, after the quarry has been killed, in which the hunter strokes the head of the dead animal in acknowledgment of the spirit with which it had eluded its pursuer in an eight hour run across the savannah.   Spirituality is a key human persisting attribute.  If we are to be truly in tune with our own nature, we need to find a way to integrate the legacy we have received from our Palaeolithic ancestors with the capacity for science that is embodied in Newtonian mechanics.  For the present discussion, we can put aside relativity, quantum mechanics, and string theory.  Our Palaeolithic ancestors, perhaps unencumbered by too much weighty remembrance of the past or planning for the future, lived much more in the present moment, in which sensations not only of sight and sound, but also the sensations of the body in its environment, dominated awareness.  Can we run in a way that utilises both sense and science?

John Woodward, a practitioner of the Alexander Technique based in the Lake District where he teaches the art of running barefoot across the Lakeland fells, summarises the challenge: ‘.. in our modern lives our thinking caps (our heads) have become disengaged from our kinesthetic (body) sense. Unlike our ancient ancestor we are rarely in the vivifying moment but we languish in some past memory or crave some future state.’

Feldenkrais

I have been diverted into this train of thought by some challenging questions and comments on my article  on Natural Running (posted  on 29th March), especially by Hans, a Feldenkreis practitioner who had attempted various ways to escape his previous injury-prone running style before trying Pose, under the guidance of Jeremy Huffman.  Jeremy is an elite athlete with a sub-4 minute indoor mile to his credit, who has subsequently become a strong advocate of Pose, and frequently comments on this blog.  Jeremy helped Hans find the practical answer he was seeking, but left him with the challenge of understanding how Pose had worked while Feldenkrais had not.   Feldenkrais had been developed by Moshe Feldenkrais, who was an engineer who attempted to integrate a sound scientific understanding of human movement with a holistic awareness of one’s body in space.  Moshe Feldenkrias did not develop a theory of running but others, such as Feldenkrais practitioner, Jae Gruenke, have done so.  Hans concluded the emphasis on avoiding driving and pushing was a key issue in the success of Pose.  In his comments on my blog he initially questioned the necessity of the push.  After we had discussed a number of actual and hypothetical experiments that he devised, he was willing to accept that the push occurs, but proposed that the action of the leg might best be described and experienced as springy, rather than a push movement.  He agreed that that muscle work is involved in creating the springy effect, but this could happen without conscious effort

I agree that it is desirable to maximise the recovery of energy via elastic recoil, and certainly accept that it is best to let this occur with minimal conscious effort.   However, my own view is that we need a somewhat more comprehensive approach.  I think that it is best to cultivate a holistic perception of one’s body in space while applying a range of principles that are derived not only from physics and muscle physiology but also from neuroscience.

Some background

Perhaps it is time to give a little more detail about my background.  I began my scientific career as a physicist over forty years ago and subsequently have been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity do research in many different fields of science.  From physics I moved to biochemistry, or rather I integrated physics with biochemistry while holding joint academic posts in physics and biology.  Eventually, after several decades of diverse scientific and clinical experiences, I became what might be most accurately described as a neuroscientist, though I have always resisted labelling myself as a practitioner of a single discipline.  In the early 1990’s I was involved in some of the earliest investigations using modern brain imaging techniques to attempt to delineate the brain mechanism associated with willed action.  Since then I have continued to study brain function, mainly focussing on the conscious processing of information.  I am certainly not an expert in either the perceptual or motor systems in the brain.  Nonetheless, in some of my recent work using brain imaging techniques combined with electroencephalography (EEG), I have investigated the way in which the perception of bodily sensation engages the brain’s executive systems.

Although this work is exciting and high tech, it is also extremely primitive.   Indeed, while I am confident that neuroscience will furnish us with concepts that help us to understand many of the types of processes that go on in our minds and bodies, I believe it will never provide an understanding that matches the richness and diversity of personal experience.

In the days when I was doing my PhD in physics, I was also a marathon runner and a mountaineer.   Though physics, running, and spending time in the mountains were an integral part of my life, there were only a few strands that linked these activities.   Over the years, the rest of life’s activities displaced the running and, eventually, the adventurous aspects of mountaineering.  However nowadays I am once again running and also enjoying the hills and mountains, while I am still a scientist.  My forays into the intricacies of the human mind and brain have given me a slightly firmer foundation from which to try to integrate science, running and an appreciation of the natural world

The messages from neuroscience

Perhaps the most relevant message from cognitive neuroscience to the runner is that we can only focus consciously on a very small number of items of information at any one time, but the neural representation of many other aspects of a situation can be subliminally active in the background.  Furthermore, our brains are exquisitely sensitive to unexpected events. Thus we cannot focus on all of the aspects of running mechanics within a single gait cycle, but if we have practiced the actions and experienced the sensations often enough, the neural representation of most aspects of running are subliminally active, and are likely to enter into conscious awareness if the expected rhythm misses a beat.  In an attempt to instil the expectation of the pattern of activity involved in the swing of the leg from one stance to the next, I practice drills such as the Swing Drill.

The next important point emerges from our understanding of the sensori-motor systems: modern brain imaging has consolidated the observation of neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield at the Montreal Neurological Institute in the 1930’s, that the brain allocates far more of its processing resources to the hand than to the foot.   The region of the motor cortex devoted to the hand  is far greater in area than that devoted to the foot.  However, our brain can learn to integrate a complex set of muscle contraction into a single action.  Therefore, it is plausible that if we can link a set of movement of the hand to a set of movement of the leg and foot, we might be able to control this complex but integrated action more precisely.  Therefore I practice a version of the Change of Stance drill to establish in my brain a non-conscious motor program that combines a down sweep of my hand from a position near the sternum high on my chest wall towards my waist, with a quick extension of the flexed hip and knee of my elevated leg to the ground.  As I sweep my hand down, I hold forefinger and thumb lightly opposed to inculcate a sense of tidy but relaxed movement.  When I run, I rarely attend consciously to the extension of hip or knee but focus mainly on this brisk but relaxed and economical down-sweep of the hand.

This was the final sprint in a half-marathon a few years ago. I am 4449. The strain of running with a torn hip adductor, wrenched during a clumsy turn near the halfway mark, shows in the tense muscles in my neck and left shoulder, but the right hand, with forefinger and thumb lightly opposed at my waist is fairly well coordinated with the (non-conscious) push of my left leg.

The next important point to learn from the way in which our brain develops from infancy to adulthood, is that we learn how to detach unnecessary movement from a motor act.  A young child, when trying to do some intricate task with one hand, often exhibits mirror movements with the other.  Although we usually avoid this in adulthood, at times of stress, we are prone to introduce unnecessary movements.  Perhaps Paula Radcliffe’s tortuous movements of the neck during her 10,000m races in the late 1990’s were an illustration of this.  You can also see it in the picture of me.  However we have the capacity to release tension in unneeded muscles.    When I run I cultivate an awareness of the tension in my shoulder muscles, aiming for a sensation of the trapezius muscle relaxing to allowing my shoulders to relax downwards and slightly back.

I also find it helpful to maintain awareness of the pattern of pressure on the soles of my feet during stance, and to adjust this according to terrain and speed.  I do not run barefoot, except for short distances on grass, but do wear fairly light-weight shoes.

I regulate my level of energy expenditure largely by awareness of my breathing.  When breathing comfortably at a rate of one breath every six steps (about 30 breaths per minute),  I know I am in the lower aerobic zone, with minimal accumulation of acidity in my blood stream.  I can run for hours at this pace.  When my breathing rate increases to one every four steps, there has been mild accumulation of acid, but my body is dealing with it.  Nowadays I will be struggling after an hour at this pace, though a few years ago I could maintain this pace for about two hours.  When breathing rate becomes one breath every two steps, the acidity is accumulating rapidly.  This is only OK for the final stages of a race, or during high intensity intervals.

Some of these aspects of body awareness are well known to coaches and athletes; others, such as my focus on the down sweeping hand are experimental.  The over-arching principle is the cultivation of a holistic awareness of the sensations and movements involved in running, allowing for effort in the right time and place, while maintaining an overall sense of light, relaxed progress across the ground.

Final thoughts 

Here is John Woodward again, describing a workshop that he and his colleagues offer: ‘We perpetually stream down one route – the mechanical one: WE RUN MECHANICALLY. The aim of the workshop is to first and foremost stop the flow of traffic down the mechanical road the route well travelled. Like repositioning the points on the railway we want to initiate a flow down the road less travelled. This will enable the Thinking Gear to re-synchronize once more with the body. In this way we might begin to run creatively. There’s a number of key things about this invitation to re-route the traffic onto the road less travelled, the road to the present moment.’

I am not fully in tune with all of this statement.  I do not think we need to stop the traffic flow on the mechanical path.  I think the word ‘synchronise’ is the key concept. If we, as members of the species Homo sapiens, are to run truly naturally we need to find a way of synchronising the two routes: the mechanical path guided by knowledge and shaped by practice, and the path through sensations in the present moment.  I am still at the beginning of working out how this might be done.  My current experiments in running holistically might be clumsy, half-blinded attempts towards the goal.  I will value any comments.

Note added 12 April 2012

With regard to the proposal that it might be desirable develop a holistic sense of what is happening to the body, even though our attention is not focussed consciously on every aspect, there is a very informative picture in today’s Guardian newspaper, showing Prince Harry and Usain Bolt being silly for the sake of a photo-opportunity.  http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/apr/11/how-the-royals-became-cool   They are imitating a well known advertisement for Richard Branson’s company, Virgin. In the advertisement, Branson’s face is superimposed on Bolt’s body, as he mimes shooting an arrow from a bow.  In this Guardian photo of Harry and Bolt, note how the index finger of Bolt’s right hand is aligned perfectly with the index finger of his left hand.  I suspect he wasn’t consciously thinking about this as he posed for the photo.  Simply, his brain has an extremely good sense of where the ends of his limbs are at all times.  I think that is one of the reasons Bolt is the world’s fastest sprinter.  I think we can improve our running by improving our bodily awareness. In particular, awareness of the end of the index finger can probably associated with subliminal awareness of the location of the foot.

The future belongs to Africa

December 28, 2010

A few months ago I speculated on whether or not some non-African runners might make an impact in the big city marathons in the near future. I focussed on Dathan Ritzenhein as he prepared for the New York marathon, and Ryan Hall who was aiming for a US record in Chicago.

A year earlier, Ritzenhein had joined a group of selected athletes in the well-funded Nike Oregon project.  The athletes live in a house in Portland, Oregon, where the bedrooms and living room have a controlled atmosphere that makes it possible to live high (that is in an atmosphere with oxygen content similar to an altitude of 12,000 feet), yet train low (near sea level), under the guidance of Alberto Salazar.  In order to adjust training load according to body physiology, various high technology devices are used to monitor heart rate variability (based on fairly sound science) and brain omega waves, which as far as I am aware is at best based on speculative science, and is perhaps as mind-boggling as the Cryosauna Space Cabin, in which temperatures of -170 degrees C are employed to hasten muscle recovery.  In my post on 4th September, I expressed some concern that Salazar had attempted to change Ritz’ running style, encouraging him to land on the mid or forefoot, despite his well know susceptibility to metatarsal stress fractures.  So far, the outcome has been disappointing.  Dathan achieved 8th place in New York, in a time of 2:12:33.

Ryan Hall was training with Terrence Mahon at Mammoth Lakes at an altitude of 7800 feet.  I was concerned by the approach to training that led to what he described as a brutal training run of 12 miles climbing from 7,000 to 10,000 feet over Tioga pass, a week before his tune–up in the Philly Rock and Roll half marathon.  He ran poorly in Philadelphia, and subsequently withdrew from Chicago.  Around the same time he also announced that he was leaving Terrence Mahon’s training group.

Meanwhile, in 2010 Kenyans and Ethiopians were again dominant.  The winners of the five World Marathon Majors were:

Berlin, Patrick Makau (Kenya, born 1985) 2:05:08

London, Tsegaye Kebede (Ethiopia, born 1987) 2:05:19

Boston, Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot (Kenya, born 1988)  2:05:52,

Chicago, Samuel Wanjiru (Kenya, born 1986) 2:06:24

New York, Gebre Gebremariam  (Ethiopia, born 1984) 2:08:14

The fastest marathon of the year was the Rotterdam Marathon, won by Patrick Makau in 2:04:48.  It is noteworthy that the oldest of the winners of the 5 Majors, Gebre Gebremariam, was born in 1984. All are younger than Ritzenhein and Hall, both of whom were born in 1982.  All the signs indicate that the Africans will continue to dominate marathon running for the foreseeable future.

In their review of the highlights of long distance running in 2010, IAAF statisticians A Lennart Julin and Mirko Jalava reported that 59 of the athletes in world top 100 marathon runners were Kenyan while 28 were from Ethiopia.  Of the top 18, 10 were from Kenya and 8 from Ethiopia.

Whatever the role of genes or high altitude training, a major factor must simply be the power of cultural expectation.  Just as Bannister’s 4 minute mile opened a floodgate, a floodgate has been opened in Kenya and Ethiopia.  Aspiring young Kenyans and Ethiopians know that times faster than 2:10:00 are not only possible but to be expected of themselves and their compatriots.  Conversely, perhaps the high tech of the Nike Oregon Project has created a barrier in the minds of US marathoners that appears as insurmountable as the 4 minute mile once did.

Integrating the runner’s mind and body: the role of HRV

September 12, 2010

In his response to the post in which I presented my daily Heart Rate Variability (HRV) recording for August, Rick provided a link to the blog by Carl Valle in which he raises the provocative question that HRV is the ‘new lactate’ [1].   On the whole Carl’s posting was typical of a coach who brashly denies the value of scientific data yet takes for granted that he/she knows how to advise his/her clients.  This implies that there is some mystical source of wisdom that transcends science.  I believe a good coach observes, draws conclusions, makes predictions and offers advice, though sometimes he or she cannot put the underlying series of logical deductions into words.   The thinking style of such a coach is indeed almost pure science but it is a science that sometimes defies words.  This might be called intuition but it is not magic.   There is indeed a rich stream of activity in the human mind/brain that defies words yet is crucial for excellent performance in almost any sphere of activity, physical or mental.  My own interest in HRV and the question of how it might be best understood and used, is closely related to my speculations about how best to achieve the coordination between mind and body necessary for optimal performance, taking account of the fact that most of the communication between mind and body is non-verbal.

One piece in the kaleidoscope of memories and ideas that fuel my speculation is the most memorable race of my life.  It was a very low-key event; a 10,000m in a meeting in my home town, Adelaide, one summer evening almost 45 years ago ago.   I had not made any advance plan to run.  I had finished work rather late but on the spur of the moment decided that I would see if I could get to the track on time for the start, because in those days there were few opportunities to run 10,000m on the track. It was my first, and so far, only 10,000m race.  I arrived in time to line up for the start, but without any opportunity for a proper warm up.   However from the moment the starter’s gun fired, I was into my stride.  I did not consciously plan my pace as I had never run a 10,000 race before, though I frequently ran distances around 8-10K for recreation, so I suppose my body had a good non-conscious estimate of the magnitude of the task.  As the race unfolded, I ran with an amazing feeling of grace and power.  I was calmly aware that I was headed for victory, but winning was of little importance.    Perhaps endorphins contributed to my transcendental state but any circulating endorphins were not a reaction to pain; I was simply running well and enjoying it.  I have kept no record of the finishing time, nor indeed of my PB for any other event run in my youth, but that matters little.  The memory I treasure is the feeling of grace and power.  I doubt that my family or friends would use words like graceful to describe me, but in fact from time to time since then, I have had flashes of that same sense of grace and power – though sadly, not often in recent times.

Another sparkling fragment in the kaleidoscope comes from a different time and place, Beijing 2008, and a different level of performance entirely: Usain Bolt’s victory in the 100m final, in the world record time of 9.69 seconds.  With 15 metres to go he was about 8 metres clear of the rest of the field; his arms spread in celebration; not a triumphant thrust of the arms, but an open gesture accompanied by turning his head to the crowd as if inviting everyone to celebrate with him.  It is tempting to think that he might have recorded an even faster time if only he had been concentrating on the race – but I doubt if that is true.  In fact his legs still drove powerfully forward to the finishing line.  It is more likely that he is such an amazing runner because he does not concentrate on his running in the conventional manner.  In the press conference afterwards he grinned: ‘“I was havin’ fun. That’s just me. Just stayin’ relaxed. I like dancin’.”

Mindfulness

Although perhaps the differences are more prominent than the similarities, what both of these illustrations have in common is a mental state, a ‘zone’, in which there is time and space to savour the moment; the body does not need to be driven by conscious determination.  It is state of unhurried awareness; but not detachment.  Perhaps this mental state is a variant of what is known in contemporary psychology as mindfulness: a calm awareness of ones breathing and heart beat, one’s muscle tone and posture, one’s thoughts and feelings, and of consciousness itself.

Although mindfulness-based therapy has recently become a popular form of therapy for the stresses of modern life [2,3], the concept of mindfulness is deeply rooted in all human cultures.  The Oxford English Dictionary unhelpfully defines it as “The state or quality of being mindful; attention; regard”, and notes that it was first recorded in the English language as ‘myndfulness’ in 1530.  The concept is even more strongly associated with the teaching Buddha who lived around 500 years before the beginning of the Christian era.  In the celebrated but perhaps apocryphal ‘flower sermon’, Buddha’s disciples were puzzled as he silently contemplated a lotus flower.  After it dawned on one of the disciples that the message was that enlightenment comes through contemplation, Buddha is reported to have claimed that this wisdom was transmitted by some mystical form of communication that transcends time and space and does not depend on letters or words.

But one does not need to invoke mystical power to account for non-verbal communication.  Modern neuroscience provides abundant evidence for non-verbal modes of processing and transmitting information.  Since the French neurologist Paul Broca established in the middle of the nineteenth century that the left frontal lobe of the brain plays a crucial a role in the generation of speech, a great deal of evidence has been assembled to demonstrate that logical, verbally mediated goal orientated mental processing is largely the work of the left hemisphere.  The right hemisphere has a gross structure similar to that of the left hemisphere but the subtle details of its internal and external connections facilitate non-verbal processes.   However, it would be simplistic to regard the brain as an organ with two competing halves, one verbal and one non-verbal.  The functions of the brain and body are integrated via a complex web of connections, neural and hormonal.  Neuroscience is beginning to unravel the principles underlying this communication web to an extent that was inaccessible to Buddha, but the details are complex and for practical purposes we are only a little further than Buddha in understanding how to tap into the power of non-verbal mind-body interactions.

Integration of mind and body

The understanding of the natural world provided by modern science frees us from many of the superstitions of our forebears, but there is a danger that we will lose that intuitive grasp of the wisdom that defies words.  There appears to be a contradiction between science that reduces the natural world to laws expressed in the language of mathematics and the intuitions that coach Carl Valle appears to extol in his blog. I do not accept that there is a real contradiction. Science is does not have to be purely reductive and it can certainly encompass non-verbal communication without resorting to mysticism. I believe that monitoring of HRV in combination with the practice of mindfulness, provides one way of using technology to foster constructive non-verbal mind body interaction

One of the communication systems within the complex web that mediates non-verbal mind-body interaction is the autonomic nervous system.  The parasympathetic division of the autonomic system mediates recovery from stress and can be engaged by meditation that encourages mindfulness. In light of the role that acute inflammation plays in the damage to muscles, tendons ligaments and joints that is an inevitable, indeed crucial part of the response to athletic training, it is of particular interest that mindfulness can modify the levels of the messenger molecules, such as interleukins and other cytokines that communicate to the brain information about tissue damage and help to regulate the inflammatory process.  The parasympathetic nervous system is intimately involved in the anti-inflammatory process, and HRV, both high frequency variability but also low frequency  variability, is associated with levels of cytokines circulating in the blood stream [4, 5].

Reliable measurement of HRV

As I have discussed on several occasions previously (eg 13 July 2010), two studies by Antii Kiviniemi and colleagues from Oulu in Finland demonstrate that adjusting one’s training regime according to a daily measurement of high frequency HRV (such that training intensity is decreased on days when HRV is reduced) can lead to greater improvement in fitness than training according to a fixed schedule [6.7].  However, my own experience is that high frequency HRV fluctuates erratically from day to day unless you adopt a standardized procedure for the measurement.

I have found that the most consistent measurements are obtained by recording HRV during two minutes shortly after getting out of bed each morning.  To standardise my physical state, I stand in a relaxed posture while breathing slowly and regularly.   To standardise the state of my mind I practice mindfulness.  I focus on the flow of air into and out of my lungs, the pulsation of my heart in my chest and the tension of my postural muscles.  Although I merely observe my thoughts and feeling in a manner that is not goal orientated, the awareness of oxygen flowing into and out of my body often prompts thoughts along the paths related to James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis – the proposal that all living organisms can be considered as components of a single self-regulating organism capable of keeping the earth’s environment healthy [8].  Sometimes I am reminded of the lesson that Hilary Stellingwerff learned during high altitude training in Ethiopia; ‘Finally, on all my recovery runs, the Ethiopian athletes stressed the importance of running on soft ground in the forest to make sure you go slow enough to really recover. They don’t worry too much about their pace, but instead about “getting good oxygen” from the trees and “soft ground” for the body.’

I believe that my daily ritual serves two purposes.  First, it leads to relatively consistent day-to-day HRV measurements.  Significant departures from the usual range of values indicate either excessive stress from training or from some other aspect of my life, as described in my post on 29th August, and help me adjust training intensity appropriately.  Second, in light of my hectic lifestyle, I think that starting the day with two minutes of relaxed contemplation makes a small but valuable contribution to maintaining a degree of calm throughout the day.  But the value of this is speculative, and I agree with Carl Valle that measurement of HRV is of limited proven value so far.  My own motivation is as much driven by a curiosity about what might work as by what is proven.

There is a third and even more speculative purpose in my ritual.  To what extent can training in mindfulness create the ability to invoke that mental state in which the body produces its best without the need for potentially obstructive gritty determination; a state in which there is time and space to savour the moment, to feel grace and power while running? Maybe this is an unrealistic romantic goal.  It flies in the face of our inclination to believe that it is only by disciplining our bodies in training and while racing, that we can achieve our peak.  But perhaps in the attempt to get the most from our minds and bodies we exult the power of discipline and struggle, and we lose the magic that allowed Usain Bolt to celebrate his victory in Beijing 15 metres before the tape.

My own experience provides some limited evidence that mindfulness can improve running performance.  When running intervals, my breathing rate increases to around 85 breaths per minute when I become anaerobic.  If at this point I focus on the distance still to be run, my breathing feels laboured and painful.  If instead I focus on the sensation of powerful expulsion of air from my lungs and then the subsequent surge of air back into my lungs, the feeling is usually an exhilarating sense of power.  When I employ a similar exercise in mental focus during intervals on the elliptical cross trainer (which has a power meter) my power output increases by an extra few percent without a corresponding increase in conscious effort.

Why not simply listen to the body?

One might argue that there is no need to invest in a heart rate monitor with the capacity to record R-R intervals in order to learn how to listen to the body.  I accept that the findings of the studies of HRV guided training by Kiviniemi and colleagues [6.7] are encouraging but not compelling.  Nonetheless, the evidence demonstrates that HRV can be a good index of autonomic nervous system function if interpreted appropriately, and that autonomic nervous system function is a useful index of the interactions between mind and body that mediate inflammation and recovery.  Perhaps the autonomic system also plays a key role in producing the optimal interaction between mind and body while running.

My own experience suggests that achieving optimum consistency in measuring HRV requires development of the skill of mindfulness – the objective awareness of one’s own bodily and mental function.  I suspect that this mindfulness has some similarity to the state of detached contemplation advocated by Buddha, though I suspect Buddha might have concluded that any concern with quantitative measurement was alien to his concept detached contemplation.  However, Buddha did not have the benefit of our current knowledge of physiology and neuroscience.  I believe that both the traditional oriental understanding of the interaction between mind and body, and the understanding provided by modern neuroscience, are useful models of reality.  Like all scientific theories, both are only models. As outlined by Isaac Asimov in his famous essay entitled ‘The Relatively of Wrong’ charting the development from mankind’s belief in a flat earth to our current understanding of a slightly pear shaped earth, all scientific models are wrong [10]; most have some utility within a certain domain in which they fit the observed evidence.  Better models provide a more accurate description over a wide range of circumstances.  I believe that it is likely that a traditional oriental understanding of the interaction between mind and body can be very helpful in creating as situation in which mind and body harmonise to produce maximal performance, but if this is the case, the traditional understanding must also harmonise with the evidence from modern science.

If we adopt the simplistic view that the goal of training is merely to improve physiological quantities such as aerobic capacity or strength, we might miss out on some of the wisdom embedded in traditional oriental understanding of mind-body interactions.  Some approaches to running, such as that advocated by Danny Dreyer in his method of Chi running [11], appeal to traditional oriental wisdom.  Insofar as such approaches encourage harmony between mind and body they might be helpful, though I think that ultimately it is likely to be more effective to integrate traditional wisdom with a realistic application of knowledge of physiology, mechanics and neuroscience.  Chi running, like Pose, assigns a mystical role to gravity that is contrary to the laws of Newtonian mechanics.  Hence, while Chi and Pose might be useful for many recreational runners whose major goal is avoiding injury, especially for individuals prone to knee injury, these methods are unlikely to be of much use for elite runners who need not only to harmonise mind and body but also need to maximise the efficiency of movement.

I think that the skill of mindfulness might play a useful role in helping integrate traditional oriental wisdom into an approach to training that also takes account of modern science.  Hence, I believe that curiosity in this concept is well justified, even though I cannot at this stage claim compelling evidence that it is worthwhile. I am not trying to sell snake oil.  There is no point expecting that simple mental exercise will abolish the need for training.  Without well developed aerobic capacity and adequate strength, running is unlikely to be either graceful or powerful, but neither will it be so without good coordination between mind and body.

References

[1]  http://www.elitetrack.com/blogs/details/5343/#When:09:39:23Z

[2] Kabat-Zinn J (1990)  Full Catastrophe Living: Using the wisdom of your body to face stress, pain and illness. Delcorte press, New York

[3] Williams M, Teasdale J, Segal Z and Kabat-Zinn J (2007) The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness.  Guilford press, New York & London

[4]  Haensel A, Mills PJ, Nelesen RA, Ziegler MG, Dimsdale JE (2008) The relationship between heart rate variability and inflammatory markers in cardiovascular diseases. Psychoneuroendocrinology 33, 1305—1312.

[5] Taylor AG, Goehler LE, Galper DI, Innes KE, Bourguignon C. (2010) Top-down and bottom-up mechanisms in mind-body medicine: development of an integrative framework for psychophysiological research.  Explore (NY). 6(1):29-41.

[6] Antti Kiviniemi, Arto Hautala, Hannu Kinnunen & Mikko Tulppo (2007) Endurance training guided individually by daily heart rate variability measurements. Eur J Appl Physiol. 101(6):743-751.

[7] Kiviniemi AM, Hautala AJ, Kinnunen H, Nissilä J, Virtanen P, Karjalainen J, Tulppo MP . (2010) Daily exercise prescription based on Heart Rate Variability among men and women. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 42(7):1355-63

[8] Lovelock JE and Margulis L. (1974). “Atmospheric homeostasis by and for the biosphere- The Gaia hypothesis”. Tellus 26 (1): 2–10.

[9]  http://www.powerbar.com/articles/266/living-the-high-life-training-in-ethiopia.aspx

[10] Asimov I. (1989) The Relativity of Wrong. The Skeptical Inquirer, 14 (1), 35-44

[11]  http://www.chirunning.com/shop/home.php

The Mind of the Marathon Runner: London 2010

May 5, 2010

Why was the men’s marathon in London 2010 such a damp squib? The field was one of the strongest assembled for a big city marathon, and the weather, though a little humid, was fairly good for marathon running.  But Tsegaye Kebede was on his own for the last 8 km and the winning margin was 64 seconds.

Not only did the field include the formidable trio of Kenyans, Samuel Wanjiru, gold medalist from Beijing; Abel Kirui current world marathon champion; and Duncan Kibet, the second fastest marathon runner in history with a time of 2:04:27, but also Zersenay Tadese from Ethiopia, who had set a stunning world record in the half marathon in Lisbon five weeks earlier, though he had yet to complete an international marathon; Emmanuel Mutai, second placed between Kirui and Kebede in the world championship in Berlin in 2009; and Jouad Gharib, third in London in 2009.

Despite the fact that Wanjiru had suffered disruptions to his training due to injury in January and had expressed some doubts about the outcome for the race in a pre-race interview, as described in the discussion with Ewen following my posting on 27th April, the strength and depth of the field still appeared to promise a tightly fought finish. This seemed even more likely when a large leading group reached the half way point in a time slower than 63 minutes. 

Then shortly after halfway Mutai increased the pace dramatically, and only Kirui and Kebede were able to stay with him.  By 30 Km, Mutai had dropped back.  Nonetheless, for a few Km it looked as if the ‘end game’ might be a great duel between Kirui and Kebede.  But suddenly Kirui was no longer there.  Unfortunately, on account of the greater interest of the BBC in the women’s race, especially in British hope, Mara Yamauchi, the cameras did not record the moment when Kebede made the decisive break, but for the final 8 Km he had the race to himself, crossing the line in 2:05.19.  Mutai had moved forward again to second place in 2:06.23, and Jouad Gharib was third yet again, in 2:06:55, while Kirui had dropped back to fifth place, and Tadese was seventh, almost 7 minutes behind Kebede.  Wanjiru and Kibet had dropped out.

It is probable that various factors confounded the hopes for a hard fought race to the line.  One possible factor was the disruption of air travel due to the ash from the Icelandic volcano.  This undoubtedly caused a serious problem for Mara Yamauchi, who was forced to make a complex 6 day journey from her home in Japan.  While one can have sympathy with Mara, travel disruption appears a less credible excuse for the elite men, who were airlifted to London by private jet hired by the London marathon organizers at considerable expense.  So what might have been the main factors?

Mind and brain

Two scientific studies add to the growing evidence that the determinants of athletic performance are far more complex that the physiological aspects of physical fitness, such as oxidative capacity of muscles, muscular strength or cardiac output. 

A recent study by Macora and Staiano from Bangor University provided a graphic illustration of the influence of mental evaluation of the task ahead [1].  In the first stage, a group of fit young men cycled on a stationary bike at 90% of VO2max (an average power output of 242 watts) until the point of exhaustion; the point at which they could no longer maintain that power output.  This point was reached typically after about 10 minutes.  The participants were then required to attempt immediately to produce the maximum power output possible in a five second burst.  The peak power achieved during this five second burst was 731 watts, which is more than three times as large as the power output during the sustained test to exhaustion.  This clearly documents the fact that our mind sets limits on the power output our body can achieve, according to the expected duration of the demand for effort.

Even more recently, a study by Gant and colleagues from Auckland University  has demonstrated that sensory stimuli which trigger an expectation of a fresh supply of fuel can act via the brain to increase the power of muscle contraction [2].   Swilling a carbohydrate rich mixture in the mouth without swallowing produced an increase in muscle power not observed after swilling a similar tasting drink without carbohydrate.    Furthermore, the increase in muscle power associated with the carbohydrate-rich drink was accompanied by an increase in brain activity in the part of the cerebral cortex that controls muscle contraction, demonstrating that the effect was mediated by the brain.

What both of these studies show is that signals from the brain set the limit on power output, and these signals can be adjusted by both conscious and non-conscious mechanisms.  The crucial question that these studies raise is : how much can we train the brain to increase power output when it is most needed?  Athletic training largely focuses on developing peripheral physiological capacities such as blood supply to muscles and cytochrome levels in mitochondria.  However, perhaps more attention should be paid to training the central nervous system.

Competitive middle and long distance runners fall into two categories: aggressive front runners and those with a strong finishing kick.   In part, natural physical endowment plays a role in determine which type of runner you might be, but training and mental preparation are also crucial.   Perhaps the most famous aggressive front runner was Steve Prefontaine who cultivated the mental toughness to crush his opponent by setting a murderous pace from the start.  However, perhaps because of my Australian roots, I think I have learned more through pondering three famous athletic duels, each with an Australian link.

Landy and Bannister

My early memory of sport are dominated by the challenge of the 4-minute mile.  Like many young Australians at the time, all my hopes were invested in John Landy.  In the early 1950’s I loved running, though my own involvement was entirely non-competitive.  I simply enjoyed running to and from school.  As the years went by, I looked forward to the day when I would be able to run in the mile on sports day at school, but I never dreamt that I would actually win a schoolboy mile state championship one day.  To be realistic, my lack of dreams on my own behalf was well founded.  I only won that schoolboy championship race because atrocious weather and a water-logged grass track converted the mile into an endurance event, well suited to my preparation based on running to and from school.  While my lack of dreams of glory for myself were well founded, it was almost unthinkable that Landy would not be the first to run a mile in less than 4 minutes. 

It was era when the world’s first commercial jet airliner, the De Havilland Comet was famous for crashing, and the piston-engined Lockheed Constellation with its elegant dolphin shaped fuselage and three finned tail, was on the verge of obsolescence.  International sportsmen often traveled by ship.  As a result we were far less aware of the leading European or American athletes, such as Roger Banister or Wes Santee. Landy filled  the foreground of our awareness.  In the antipodean summer of 1953-54 Landy recorded 4:02.x on four occasions, and then set out for Europe where he would renew his attempts in the European summer, pushed by stronger competition.  When we heard that Oxford medical student, Roger Bannister had broken the 4 minute barrier in May, assisted by his pace-making friends in an event at Iffley Rd, it seemed such an anti-climax.  In June, Landy snatched back the world record with a time of 3:57.9 at Turku in Finalnd.  However the real battle would occur in August 1954 when Landy and Bannister lined up for the mile at the Empire Games in Vancouver.      

As a runner who had done much of his racing far from the more competitive environments of Europe and America, Landy had relatively little experience in tactical running.  In contrast, Bannister had honed his legendary final kick with scientific precision in sessions with his friends Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway   In that miracle mile in Vancouver, Landy decided his best strategy was to establish a good lead by the end of lap three, and was about 10 yards ahead at the bell.  However the crucial moment occurred as the runners came off the final bend and into the home straight.  Landy looked over his left shoulder as Bannister stormed past on his right.  Bannister won in 3:58.8, though both runners recorded a time under 4 minutes. 

Bannister and Landy were both men of outstanding character.  Landy will be long remembered by his compatriots not only for his herculean attempts to break the 4 minute barrier, but also for magnanimously stopping to assist Ron Clark  when he fell during the 1500m final at the Australian National Championships in 1956.  Landy went on to win the race.   Landy achieved a lifetime PB for the mile almost a second faster than Bannister, but Bannister quite deservedly has a much more secure place among the running greats, and he emerged as the victor in that dramatic head-to-head contest, largely because of Landy’s momentary loss of confidence coming into the home straight.  

Pirie and Kuts

In 1956, the international tensions of the deepening Cold War were exacerbated when Russian tanks had rolled into Budapest to crush the Hungarian revolution.  However, the dominant event looming in the minds of many Australians was the Melbourne Olympics.  By this time, Emil Zatopek, triple gold medalist in Helsinki four years previously, was fading and the dominant figures in 5000m and 10000m were Valdimir Kuts from Russia, Sandor Iharos from Hungary and the Englishman, Gordon Pirie.    Kuts, a Red army officer with an aggressive front running style, had captured Zatopek’s 5,000m world record 1954.  In 1955, Sandor Iharos snatched that record from Kuts.  Then in June 1956, in Bergen, Norway, Gordon Pirie achieved a convincing victory over Kuts, while taking possession of the world record with time of 13:56.8.    In 1954 Zatopek’s record for the 10,000m had fallen to Iharos.   The Hungarian held it until Kuts took it in a race in Moscow shortly before the Games with a time of 28:30.4. 

Unfortunately Iharos’ career disintegrated in the turmoil following the Hungarian revolution, and the expectation for Melbourne was a battle between Kuts and Pirie, certainly in the 5,000m and perhaps also in the 10,000m.  Pirie had established his supremacy over Kuts in the 5,000m in Bergen, but Kuts arrived in Melbourne in great condition, fresh from his 10,000m record-breaking run in Moscow.  However Pirie also took pride in his gritty endurance based on prodigious volume of training, much of it at high intensity.  He ran over 200 miles per week.  His coach was the ‘father of interval training’, Woldemar Gerschler.   It is probable that in Pirie’s mind he nurtured the belief that he could crush Kuts in the 10,000m as well as the 5,000m. 

This was not going to be an amateur contest such as we had seen in Vancouver two years before between a privileged Oxford medical student and a gentlemanly Australian.  In the fifties that adjective didn’t seem such an oxymoron – in those days amateur athletics cultivated an Arthurian aura of honour in Australia as in Britain.  But, in the Olympics we expected a ‘bare knuckle’ confrontation between a forthright non-establishment Englishman with an axe to grind, and a Russian army officer who appeared to embody the ruthlessness of a formidable monolithic state. 

The final of the 10,000m occurred first.   Both runners believed that they had the endurance and toughness to prevail in a long surge to the finish, and the pressure built up with Kuts setting the pace. With five laps to go, Pirie took the lead but a lap later, Kuts surged back,  Pirie cracked and Kuts held on to take the gold medal in an Olympic record time of 28:45.6.  Pirie struggled to the finish in eighth place, 64 seconds behind Kuts.  In the 5,000m, the memory of Bergen had been replaced by the raw experience of the battle for mental supremacy a few days earlier, and Kuts again took the gold with Pirie trailing 11 seconds behind him in second place.      

As an incidental footnote to the international tensions of 1956, after the infamous ‘blood in the water’ polo match between Hungary and Russia, it was in Melbourne that the tradition of athletes from different nations mingling with goodwill during the closing ceremony of the Games was introduced, replacing the previous tradition of marching in ranks behind national flags.

Tergat and Gebrselassie

Forty-four years later, the Olympics returned to Australia, this time to Sydney.  I too returned to Australia that year, not on account of the Games but to visit my dying father.  In the intervening years I had too been a medical student at Oxford and had experienced a frisson of excitement running on the Iffley Road cinder track where Bannister had run the first sub-4 minute mile.  But by 2000, I was overweight and unfit.  I was now living in Vancouver.  The old Empire stadium where Bannister had defeated Landy had long since been demolished, but, inspired by the forest trails of the Pacific Spirit Park, I was just beginning to run again.  Shortly after my arrival back in Adelaide, one afternoon I was assisting my elderly mother into a taxi outside the house where I had spent my childhood, on our way to visit my ill father in the Royal Adelaide Hospital, when my elder brother drove past.  He stopped the car about 150 yards down the road, and because it seemed the natural thing to do, I set off unthinkingly at a brisk trot along the road to greet him. As I returned to the cab, the driver grinned at me: ‘With a turn of speed like that, you should be in Sydney, mate.’   Although there were more serious things on my mind that day, that little incident has stuck in my memory. 

The centre of gravity of distance running had moved unequivocally to Africa.   From the midst of an astounding wealth of talent among Kenyans, Ethiopians and Moroccans,  two outstanding figures had emerged to dominate the 10,000m in the closing years of the century, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia and Paul Tergat of Kenya.  Gebrselassie had set a world record of 26:43.53 at Hengalo in 1995, and after losing it, regaining it and losing it again, he had recaptured the record with a time of the on 26:22:75 in 1998, again at Hengalo.  In the intervening time, Tergat had been in possession of the record for almost a year, with a time of 26:27:85 run in Brussels in 1997. 

Although Gebrselassie arrived in Sydney in 2000 as the current world record holder, Tergat was currently in great form, having recorded a time of 27:03:87 in Brussels only a month before Sydney.   He was determined to reverse the finishing order in Atlanta in 1996, when Gebrselassie had narrowly defeated him.   However a review of other previous head-to-head confrontations suggested that Gebrselassie was usually able to call upon some extra reserve when needed.  In both the 1997 and 1999 world championships, Gebrselassie had taken the gold medal and Tergat the silver.

The race was utterly spectacular. A pack of three Kenyans and two Ethiopians loped away from the rest of the field. At the bell, Haile was in a commanding position in second place, with his compatriot Assefa Mezgebu at his side, but all five were running strongly.  Tergat knew of Haile’s capacity to mount a devastating final sprint, whereas most of Tergat’s previous victories over his rival had been cross country events requiring physical strength. It is probable that he was thinking that his best strategy was to launch a strong attack relatively early in the final lap in the hope that his strength would prevail.  It was certainly crucial that he should begin the final sprint before Haile.  250m from the finish, Tergat made his decisive move.  He burst clear of the leading pack by a margin about 1 ½  metres, with Haile in pursuit.  As they sprinted around the curve, Haile slowly narrowed the gap, but on entering the home straight the space between them was still almost a metre and Tergat continued to look strong.  In that heart-stopping final 100m both athletes sprinted with amazing power.  The gap was narrowing at a scarcely perceptible rate and it looked as if Tergat might just hold on to his slender lead.  Less than 10 metres from the line Haile drew level and Tergat showed a faint flicker of weakening.  He dipped towards the tape desperately, but Haile had crossed the line less than a tenth of a second ahead of him, in a time of 27:18.20.

Conclusions

All three vignettes were duels between two fairly evenly matched athletes at the peak of their powers.  In all three instances, the stronger athlete prevailed, but the excess strength was more mental than physical.   The margins were quite different: Tergat crossed the line 0.09 seconds behind Gebrselassie, whereas Pirie was 64 seconds behind Kuts.  While it is probable that Pirie and Kuts were a little less closely matched than Tergat and Gebrselassie, the principle factor accounting for the difference in margins was the fact that the decisive test for Pirie occurred four laps from the end, whereas the decisive test for Tergat occurred only about 4 metres from the line.  According to Wikipedia, Kuts subsequently reported that if Pirie had held on any longer in their titanic battle, he, Kuts, would have submitted [3].

But the key feature of all three vignettes was the crucial point at which the battle was lost.  Landy looked over his shoulder as he came of the final bend with 100 metres to run; Pirie cracked as he and Kuts surged at a ‘suicidal’ pace with 4 laps to go; and Tergat’s posture sagged in a desperate dip only a few metres from the tape.  While the crux can be more easily identified in the body language of the vanquished, the mental state of the victor was equally important.  Bannister had developed his devastating final kick in training with his colleagues, Chataway and Brasher. Kuts had developed the mental strength to sustain a murderous, potentially even suicidal pace, long before the final lap, as he developed his aggressive front-running style.  Gebrselassie had demonstrated repeatedly during the five years leading up to the turn of the millenium that he could always dig a little more deeply whenever required in the final lap of a 10,000m race, and as he followed the powerful figure of Paul Tergat down the home straight in that titanic battle in Sydney, somewhere in the recesses of his brain was the confidence that he had the power to prevail.

Back to London 2010

As the three medal winners from the 2009 world championship in Berlin applied the pressure that demolished the remainder of the elite field shortly after the halfway in London 10 days ago, there were few pointers as to which of the three would eventually be the victor.  Mutai, who had been second in Berlin,  had initiated the surge in London, but after about 8 Km, he apparently sensed that he was not as strong as his two rivals and dropped back, conserving his energy for a final effort that would secure second place here, as in Berlin.  Kirui had been victor in Berlin and had that memory to buttress his confidence.  Unfortunately due to BBC’s preoccupation with the women’s race, I do not know what tipped the balance in favour of Kebede.  Did he have the confidence to surge again, as Kuts had done to crush Pirie in the 10,000m final in Melbourne?  Whatever happened, Kirui, like Pirie fifty-four years previously, cracked, and eventually finished almost three minutes behind Kebede.

The race failed to provide the exciting finish promised by the strength and depth of the field assembled at the start, but in retrospect, the way in which various factors ranging from Wanjiru’s  pre-race loss of confidence due to injury in January; the vagaries of travel though the dust of a volcano cloud; and above all, the way in which the mental strengths of the three medal winners from the world championship in Berlin determined events in the second half, made London 2010 an event to contemplate and savour.  

References

[1] Macora and Staiano (2010) ‘The limit to exercise tolerance in humans: mind over muscle’ (Eur J Appl Physiol.. [Epub ahead of print])

[2] Gant et al (2010) Brain Research, DOI: 10.1016/j.brainres.2010.04.004

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pirie

Getting high at the sweet spot

April 2, 2010

In response to my recent post about the sweet spot in the mind, Mystery Coach reported the very interesting comment by Alberto Salazar about his tremendous improvement when he took the antidepressant, Prozac. He reported that within a few days his running returned to a level that he had not been at for years.

In his response to my post, Ewen had described his experience of  a fairly ’sharp’ tipping point — he reported how he finds that when training his is going well, his mind is strong and he is enthusiastic to continue to improve the training. Then when he becomes tired for whatever reason, his mind weakens and he finds it hard to drag himself out of the slump.

I think this describes very well what happens when we train beyond the sweet spot.  The body’s distress signals, which include an increase in release of cortisol from the adrenal gland, triggers a depressive response that results in further increased release of cortisol creating a vicious cycle that tips us into a downward spiral   It is crucial that training produces a balanced strengthening of mind and body. If the body outstrips the mind, we become like Alberto Salazar when he was depressed – the mind prevents us achieving our potential.  If the mind becomes stronger than the body we risk serious injury to the body.

But what happens at the sweet spot?  Maybe the sweet spot is another term for the runners high.  This is often attributed to the release of natural opiods in the brain.  Maybe this can happen, it is not what I would describe as the ‘real runners high’ – the real sweet spot.

Memories of a balmy evening summer evening in Adelaide

I have a very vivid memory of one evening many years ago when I experienced the ‘real’ sweet spot and it did not feel in the least like an opium-induced deadening to pain. On the spur of the moment I had decided to run a 10,000m in a midweek evening meeting on the old Adelaide Harriers cinder track.  It was a small local meeting, but it provided one of the few local opportunities for a 10,000m on the track at that time, in the late 1960’s.  I arrived at the track late from work, and did not even have time to warm up, but perhaps the rush to get there on time had provided both the physical and mental warm-up I needed.  At the sound of the gun, I experienced a surge of energy and confidence.  By the end of the first lap I was leading.  In the second half of the race I was lapping runner after runner – perhaps not all that impressive because the old AH track only about 350m per lap, but I felt unstoppable   I do not have a record of my time when I breasted the tape – I wasn’t particularly interested in PBs in those days.  However I am sure that I had run at something near my usual 5000m pace; but instead of the pain that I was accustomed to experience in the final laps of a 5000m, the final few laps in that small local event on that balmy Adelaide mid-summer evening are among the most treasured of my running memories.

 Dopamine

Although I did not know anything about brain chemistry then, I am fairly sure that the dominant brain chemical that fueled that high was dopamine. In fact in the 1960’s the role of dopamine was scarcely known to science.  It had first been identified in 1958 by the Swedish neuroscientist, Arvid Carlsson.  He eventually shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2000 for his contribution to unraveling the mysteries of dopamine.  A few years ago,  I had a discussion with Professor Carlsson at a scientific conference during which he had described to me an experiment that he had performed on himself during his attempts to elucidate the role of dopamine in the brain.   He described how one evening he had been planning to play tennis with some friends after work, but in the early afternoon he had administered to himself a drug which drastically reduced the levels of dopamine in the nerve terminals of his brain.  The consequence was a total deadening of any enthusiasm for anything.  He descried graphically but simply how he had not turned up for the tennis match after work.  He simply could not summon the energy required.  I was reminded on my opposite experience on the Adelaide Harriers track many years previously, and I wondered what part the natural release of dopamine had played in my experience that evening.

There are artificial ways to produce a massive release of dopamine.  Both amphetamine and cocaine achieve their effects by promoting the release of dopamine in the brain.  This was demonstrated in the sad case of Tommy Simpson, who died at age 29, about 2 Km short of the summit of Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France, as a consequence of using amphetamine together with brandy.

It is pure madness to interfere artificially with the normal balance of mind and body.  However, I suspect that one of the consequences of a well balanced training program is the natural development of a harmony between mind and body: a situation in which the physiological messages generated by physical effort – perhaps a combination of the effects of both adrenaline and cortisol – produce a surge of dopamine in the brain that enhances motivation and induces the central governor to allow even greater physical performance.  The details of this proposed mechanism are speculation, but my experience as both a runner and a neuroscientist incline me to believe that the core of the theory is not only plausible but probably true.

 

Conclusions 

If so, what are the practical conclusions? The first conclusion is that the goal of training is to produce seemingly effortless running.  There is little denying that training sessions should be hard, but the goal is construction, not destruction.  Perhaps the best interval session is a session where you know that you could have done yet one more interval even a little faster.  The best long tempo run is one where you could have maintained the tempo just a little further.   Because training sessions rarely have the buzz that comes with racing, a good training session should be harder than racing, but not that much harder.  And it must be followed by adequate recovery.  Leaving your guts on the training track too often is not the way to achieve the elusive sweet spot where mind and body work in harmony.

Sweet spot in the mind

March 27, 2010

In my recent posts I have examined the evidence that there are two closely related sweet spots that matter to athletes: the sweet spot at which the training load is just right to produce peak performance and the sweet spot at which training load is optimal to maximize longevity of both general health and running performance.   In those posts I also examined the question of the possible close relationship between these two sweet spots – a relationship suggested by the evidence that similar or even identical processes are responsible for both the effect of training on performance and the effect of training on health.   The processes common to both effects come under the general heading of inflammation – the complex set of biochemical processes by which damage to body tissues mobilizes either repair and strengthening; or, if opportunity for recovery is inadequate, leads to chronic inflammation, deterioration in performance and perhaps even to sustained ill health.

 Although our genes might play a part in determining the training loads at which these sweet spots are to be found, there is good reason to believe that both of these sweet spots can be moved to a higher level (that is, to a higher training load) thereby improving peak performance and improving health.  However to do this we need to understand more about the mechanism of the training effect and about the nature of inflammatory processes.  We also need to understand more about monitoring recovery.  I touched on these issues last week and will return to them in the future, but meanwhile, it is crucial to consider a third sweet spot: the sweet spot in the mind.

Any exploration of what distinguishes an Olympic gold medal winner from the finalists who did not reach the podium usually comes up against the evidence that there is remarkably little difference in physiology – in measurements such as VO2max or anaerobic threshold or muscle strength or blood hemoglobin levels.  We know that all of these peripheral physiological measurements are relevant to athletic performance, but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the distinction between the champion and the other finalists is more subtle.  It is probably to be found in that most subtle and complex of all the components that make up a human being: the human mind.

Recognition of the role of the mind in elite performance has provided a powerful boost for the discipline of sport psychology, but I am afraid that I am almost always disappointed by the writings of sports psychologists. In comparison with the subtle wisdom of a good coach, the simplistic wisdom of many sports psychologists is about as impressive as the simplistic notions of a scientist who tries to explain human behavior on the basis of observation of lab rats, in comparison with the illumination of the human mind provided by a great novelist or playwright.  The mind is far too complex to be reduced to simplistic notions such as the power of positive self-talk – despite the fact that there is indeed a grain of truth supporting the power of self-talk.  Positive self talk is directed at enhancing self-belief but for many of us, something more subtle than positive self-talk is required to establish strong self-belief.

However, just because the mechanisms of the mind are too complex to be reduced to a few simple principles does not mean that we can safely ignore it.  In fact the power of the mind matters not only for the aspiring Olympic champion, but for any competitive athlete and indeed for any recreational runner who simply runs for enjoyment and good health.   One of the most intriguing hypotheses regarding the role of the mind of the athlete is Tim Noakes theory of the central governor: a mechanism within the mind (or the brain, since mind and brain are two sides of one coin) that acts to limit physical output so as to limit the risk of damage to the heart and other muscles.  While the details of the nature and role of the central governor remains a topic for debate, the core idea that the mind sets limits to exercise tolerance seems to me to be established beyond dispute.

Mind over muscle

A simple but graphic confirmation was provided in a recent study by Macora and Staiano from Bangor University: ‘The limit to exercise tolerance in humans: mind over muscle’ (Eur J Appl Physiol. 2010 Mar 11. [Epub ahead of print]).   They required a group of fit young men to cycle at 90% of VO2max (an average power output of 242 watts) until the point of exhaustion; the point at which they could no longer maintain that power output.  This point was reached typically after about 10 minutes.  They then asked the young men to attempt immediately to produce the maximum power output possible in a five second burst.  The peak power achieved during this five second burst was 731 watts, which is more than three times as large as the power output during the sustained test to exhaustion.  This of course is no surprise to anyone who has ever sprinted at the end of a marathon, but it clearly documents the fact that our mind sets limits on the power output our body can achieve, according to the expected duration of the demand for effort.

There are many strands of evidence linking the mind to the benefits and harms of training.  As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the fitness and health benefit of exercise can be influenced by what you believe about the potential benefits.  But perhaps even more relevant to the notion of the sweet spot in the mind is the observation that serial measurements of maximum power during an anaerobic test might be a fairly reliable measure of over-training. 

Tests of anaerobic capacity and of the state of mind

The Wingate test is a well recognized test of anaerobic capacity.  The participant is required to produce maximum possible power output on a stationary bicycle during a 30 second burst.  A power output of 690 watts is typical for the average male and 450 watts for the average female.  A very fit male athlete might achieve a value over 1000 watts.   This value is usually regarded as a measure of the anaerobic capacity: the ability to produce energy from the ATP and phosphocreatine energy systems. In an over-trained athlete, peak output in the Wingate test falls.  For example , former  medical director of the British Olympic Association, Dr Richard Budgett reports a study in which the peak power achieved during the Wingate test was reduced from around 1150 watts to 850 watts in over-trained athletes (BMJ 1994;309:465-8).  While it is perhaps possible that the loss of peak anaerobic capacity in the overtrained athletes was a direct reflection of loss of biochemical capacity of the muscles, the evidence from Macora and Staiano’s study of the influence of the mind over muscle in which the limit on peak power was set by the mind, makes it far more likely that the decreased anaerobic capacity recorded in over-trained athletes is actually due the protective role of the mind.

Thus if we are to be effective in finding the sweet spot on the crest of the inverted U at which training load is just right for maximum performance and/or health, we also need to understand something about the sweet spot in the mind. 

Hormones: long range messengers linking mind and body

As described in last week’s post, it is likely that the key to understanding both the over-training syndrome and the health risks of excessive training is an understanding of the mechanism of inflammation.  In addition to the various local chemical messengers such as the molecules known as cytokines that act at the site of muscle damage to mobilize the inflammatory response, two of the body’s major long distance chemical messenger systems play a crucial role in adjusting the overall reaction of the body (and mind) to the stress of heavy training.   These two hormone systems are the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal system (known for short as the HPA axis) which regulates the release of the hormone cortisol from the cortex of the adrenal gland, and the adrenergic system which regulates the release of adrenaline from the adrenal medulla.  The adrenergic system is a part of the autonomic nervous system which plays a crucial role in regulating many visceral functions including the heart rate, as well as engaging in reciprocal interactions with the mind.  The HPA axis also regulates many body systems, especially the immune system, and it too engages in important reciprocal interactions with the mind.  One of the manifestations of the interaction with the mind is the phenomenon of depression.

Depression

Perhaps depression is to the mind what inflammation is to body.  It is a response to stress or trauma that mobilizes repair, but it can get out of hand and become a chronic disabling illness.   In part this is an analogy, but the overlap is not purely analogy: both the adrenergic nervous system and cortisol play an important role in the response to stress, and both are involved in inflammation and in depression.  Depression is associated with increased levels of cortisol and with a failure of the normal feedback mechanism by which the brain regulates the release of cortisol from the adrenal cortex.   The interaction between cortisol and depression is reciprocal: the fact that synthetic corticosteroids used to treatment many immune system disorders can cause depression, and that diseases such as Cushing’s disease in which the adrenal gland produces too much cortisol, can result in depression, confirms that corticosteroids can cause depression.  However, depression arising from other more overtly psychological causes results in elevated cortical and impaired HPA axis function, illustrating that the arrow of causality can point in either direction.

So it is plausible that depression has evolved, alongside inflammation, as a component of an integrated mechanism for dealing with stress and/or trauma.  Neither acute inflammation or depression are pleasant experiences, but provided that they do not get out of hand they are both potentially beneficial.   How might depression be beneficial?  Perhaps the most direct way is via the inhibition of unnecessary activity.  Depression produces slowness and lethargy of both mind and body.   For the athlete this scarcely seems a benefit, but as we discussed last week, the most important requirement for obtaining benefit from training is ensuring adequate recovery.  A mechanism whereby heavy training induces a state of reduced activity is in fact exactly what is required.  Post-training lethargy only becomes a problem when it is excessive and prolonged –it is probably the earliest and perhaps most reliable indicator of the onset of over-training. 

Depression has other features: in the early stages there is self-questioning and re-appraisal.  Like inflammation, it is associated with increased musculo-skeletal soreness – another early sign of over-training.  Humans are social creatures and it is probable that depression serves social roles as well, roles such as the facilitation of empathy and bonding.  These various beneficial roles of depression reflect the adaptive side of the condition.  Like the manifestations of inflammation, these benign influences can rapidly turn malignant once depression crosses the boundary separating a transient adaptive response from an entrenched illness.  The self-questioning is replaced by loss of self-confidence, guilty feelings and pessimism.  There is loss of enthusiasm and enjoyment; poor appetite and disturbed sleep.  It then becomes a clinical problem requiring treatment.

Profile of Mood States

However, it is the intermediate zone, between the benign adaptive response and overt clinical illness that is of especial relevance to athletes.   There is quite good evidence that sub-clinical features of depression are among the earliest and most sensitive indicators of over-training.   Lack of enthusiasm for training, lack of competitive edge, lethargy, anxiety, irritability, poor appetite and sleep, and disproportionate soreness in the muscles, are among the most sensitive indicators of over-training.  Several studies have shown that the a questionnaire entitled Profile of Mood States (POMS) is valuable in the early diagnosis of over-training – revealing changes in mood that appear well before the deterioration in performance that is the definitive manifestation of the condition.  (Budgett R., ‘The overtraining syndrome’, BMJ 1994;309:465-8)

The POMS assessment assigns scores to six aspects of the mental state: Tension, Depression, Anger, Vigour, Fatigue and Confusion.   These scores are usually represented with the scores for the six items arranged horizontally across a chart.  A healthy fit athlete usually has a marked peak for Vigour and low scores for the other five items, apart perhaps from a mild elevation of tension.  So the chart has the appearance of a single iceberg protruding above a fairly calm sea.  However, as the over-training syndrome develops the sea becomes more choppy and eventually a ‘reversed iceberg’ appears, with two pronounced peaks corresponding to Depression and Fatigue while Vigour has descended into a trough.

POMS in over-trained athletes compared with fit athletes

I do not think it is appropriate for an athlete in training to perform regular POMS self-assessments (the full version of the scale has 65 items), but I think it is important to be alert to the emergence of the sub-clinical features of depression   Of course, like all physiological markers for over-training, features of depression must be evaluated in light of other circumstances and the individual’s usual state – it is changes from usual that matter.  Furthermore, the mind is quite capable of self deception: obsessional determination to complete every planned item in the training program in the face of evidence of accumulating fatigue can be just as dangerous a marker as a lack of enthusiasm for training.

In summary, in avoiding over-training, perhaps listening to the mind is even more important than listening to the body.  However, the mind is capable of all sorts of devious tricks by which we can fool ourselves, so listening to the mind is only a reliable guide if we develop the ability to appraise our own mental state accurately.

The mind and brain of the runner

February 20, 2010

Mind and brain are two sides of one coin: the mind is the subjective experience of the activity in a complex network of brain cells that receive sensations from the external word and the internal milieu, interpret those sensations, and in turn transmit commands back to the muscles, hormone secreting glands, and viscera that carry out the functions of the body. 

If you are a runner, there are at least three things it is worth knowing about your mind and brain.

  • What you believe affects the way your body works.  A group of hotel cleaners was informed that the work they did would make them fitter. Four weeks later they had lower blood pressure, less body fat and other signs of improved fitness compared with a matched group of colleagues who had done the same work but had not been advised about the health benefits of that work.  (Crum and Langer, ‘Mind-Set Matters: Exercise and the Placebo Effect’, Psychological Science, vol 18: pp165-171; 2007)  Athletes who have faith in an inspiring coach often outperform those who do not have an inspiring coach.  What can the self-coached runner do to maximize the effectiveness of his or her training?

 

  • Non-conscious mechanisms act to limit damage to body tissues.  While the details of the role of the central governor, which Tim Noakes proposes acts to limit work output before we do serious damage to heart or muscles, remain controversial, there is little doubt that there are non-conscious mechanisms that adjust our actions to minimize harm.  Barefoot runners tend to run with a shorter stride and land on forefoot or mid-foot rather than heel (Lieberman et al, ‘Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runnersNature vol 463: pp 531-535, 2010).  These adaptations are the likely reason that they experience less torque at knee and hip joints (Kerrigan et al, ‘The Effect of Running Shoes on Lower Extremity Joint Torques’PM &R: The Journal of Injury, Function and Rehabilitation, Vol. 1, pp 1058-1063, December 2009).  The softer landing of the barefoot runner may have equipped our forebears to pursue game across the African savanna, but is not necessarily the most efficient way to run 10Km on a road.  However, an appreciation of how the human body was designed to run (by evolution or by God) is a good starting point in the quest to determine how to run fast and injury free.

 

  • The brain codes whole actions.  The gunslinger who draws his gun in a reflex response to the action of an assailant takes about 20 milliseconds less to draw  than the assailant who made a conscious decision to draw.  This is probably not a big enough difference to save the ‘good guy’ in a gun fight, but nonetheless demonstrates that complex, well rehearsed actions can be performed more rapidly under automatic non-conscious control than  under deliberate conscious control (Welchman et al. ‘The quick and the dead: when reaction beats intention.’ Proc Roy Soc B Pub on-line Feb 2010; http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2009.2123).    When running it is generally best to avoid attempting conscious micro-management of the muscles.  Changes in running style cannot be implemented efficiently by conscious change in the actions of specific muscles.  A more efficient action is likely to emerge as a consequence of drills, strengthening of the necessary muscles, and guidance by a mental image of the goal rather than the specific details of the action.

 

Faith and Pose

I have been pondering these issues in recent weeks in relation to the Pose Method of Running.   In my recent posts I have reviewed what I regard as the good features and the bad features of Pose.  My overall conclusion is that Pose technique works reasonably well, at least for amateur athletes, despite quite serious flaws in the  biomechanical theory on which is based. In part it works because it espouses several very sound principles including the recommendation that cadence should be at least 180 steps per minutes, and that time on stance should be as short as possible.  In part it works because the Pose ‘pull’ facilitates a short time on stance despite appearing remarkably like trying to get airborne by pulling on one’s own bootstraps.  Thirdly, I think Pose works because its adherents invest an almost religious faith in it.  My own belief is that it would better to put one’s faith in a method that is biomechanically sound as this might combine the benefits of faith with the benefits of sound biomechanics, but it is not easy for a skeptic to have faith.

The Psychology of Pose

Nonetheless, I do believe many aspects of the psychology of Pose are helpful.  The aspect that I think is most helpful is the subtle way in which it encourages mental images.  Here is an example posted by jonp in response to a query from Gerry G about the distinction between ‘landing on’ and ‘landing over’ the ball of the foot in the thread devoted to discussion of my blog (post 42; Canute’s Efficient Running Site):

‘I would describe it as a distinction between “landing on the ball of foot” and “keeping bodyweight over the ball of foot”.
“Landing on” may emphasise actively putting the leg/foot to the ground before your mass is ready to be supported.
“Bodyweight over” emphasises a full body lean position over your ball of foot so that when your mass arrives on support (creating bodyweight) it will also be supported by the ball of foot.
Basically we don’t want to emphasise/focus on landing.’

Much of what appears arcane and even pedantic about Pose arises from the attempt to create images of what is required.   At times the creation of the image is at the expense of a realistic description of the action that occurs.  This is most clear in the case of the concept of the pull.  The pull is a hamstring contraction that lifts the foot towards the buttocks after un-weighting at the end of stance.  Pose theory explicitly denies the role of pushing and the associated ground reaction force in getting airborne, as is illustrated in the erroneous figure 7 in the article ‘Runners do not push off the ground but fall forwards via a gravitational torque’ by Romanov and Fletcher in Sports Biomechanics, 2007.    However in practice, a good Pose runner does get off stance quite rapidly. And I believe this is because Pose encourages focusing attention during stance on a rapid pull. Up to a point, this is useful. However it might become unhelpful if it encourages the runner to spend more time on strengthening the hamstring for the concentric pull than on conditioning the quads and calf muscles for sustaining the eccentric contraction that is the cardinal requisite for capturing the elastic energy that drives the push.

Religious fervor

On the whole, I think the religious fervor of Pose disciples is less helpful.  This fervor is easily visible on the PoseTech forums (which unfortunately are pass-word protected though it is easy for an interested person to join).  As I have mentioned previously, I was amused by the posting on the PoseTech thread devoted to my blog that simply stated ‘Burn the heretic’ (post 2: Canute’s Efficient Running Site’).   There have been many subsequent reasonable and interesting postings on that thread, but also quite a lot that is less reasonable.  

Where does this religious fervor come from?  A clear illustration was provided at the Pose clinic with Dr Romanov in Loughborough in March 2008.  Much of the event appeared orchestrated to establish the Pose mystique.  The first session commenced with an admonition from Dr Romanov that we must not question his authority.  For almost all of the practical demonstrations throughout the weekend he picked on the youngest member of our group, a personable but potentially impressionable young man.  For example, to illustrate the power of the mind, he had this young man bend to touch his toes.  He encouraged him to reach lower and lower by focusing his mind, over a period of about a minute.  Not surprisingly, the young man’s fingers reached lower as the protective stretch reflex generated in the muscle spindles relaxed.  While I strongly believe in the role of the mind in governing the body, there is not need to invoke arcane mental processes to understand a mechanism that is mediated by a simple neural circuit from muscles to spinal cord and back.   The next morning, Dr Romanov instructed him to close his eyes as he took his wrist and led him up a grassy hill, running Pose style.  When the young man opened his eyes, he was incredulous how easy it had been to run uphill.  Later we were all given the opportunity to share this experience, led by one of the Pose coaches.  The trick is that the leader slows down on the ascent to maintain an approximately constant effort level. It has virtually nothing to do with running style.  By end of the two days, the effect of these tricks, together with the group bonding that occurs when a group of like-minded people meet for a weekend to focus on a shared goal, helped produce a  group of committed Pose disciples.

Followers, Leaders and Self-belief

We are faced with the challenge of remaining sufficiently skeptical to avoid being led into error, yet benefiting from the power of faith.  Fortunately, the way the human mind works suggests that there is a way of combining skepticism with faith.  Humans have evolved as social creatures and it is probably beneficial to the species as a whole that the majority are prepared to put faith in a leader.  However, it also often the case that the person most capable of moving mountains is the leader him (or her)self.  Truly exceptional performances are often based on strong self-belief.  I suspect this reflects another characteristic of the human mind.  Despite a fascination with mysticism, humans are inherently scientists insofar as we try to understand our world by making predictions about the consequences of our actions and observing the results.   When our predictions are confirmed, we invest faith in the prediction and in ourselves.  Our goal as athletes is to develop a style of running and a method of training on the basis of careful observation and then be prepared to invest faith in it. 

This does not mean investing a blind faith in one style of good running or one training method.  In fact the evidence suggests that many aspects of any running style have advantages and disadvantages.  It is also clear that approaches to training methods as different as those of Lydiard and Furman can achieve successful results.  Belief that there is only one path to success is a very brittle foundation on which to build.  My belief, based mainly on observation but partly also on faith in the rationality of the human mind, is that we should use our powers of observation and reasoning to identify the style and training plan that appears to best suit our circumstances and goals.  We need to be able to recognize the strengths and potential weaknesses of our plan and then invest faith in our own judgment.

Five strategies for training a runner’s brain

September 27, 2009

In recent weeks I have been exploring ways of training my non-conscious brain to relax its apparently over-protective control of my cardiac output.  I think I have been successful, though at the price of straining a muscle – it is very difficult to get everything right.  Nonetheless, I am sufficiently encouraged by the gains to examine the way in which similar principles might be applied to other aspects of running.  The underlying principles that I have been employing are the principles of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT).  This is a form of therapy that has been widely used in recent years for treating a range of minor mental problems; some enthusiastic advocates see it as a technique for dealing with all sorts of everyday challenges.  In reality, panaceas don’t exist, but because some of the principles mesh with the growing evidence about the role of the brain in shaping our running, it is worth a closer look

 

Cognitions, behaviour and childhood development

CBT is a form of psychological therapy that deals with practical problems in the here and now, and  is often regarded with distain by psychotherapists who believe that change in human emotions and behavior is best achieved by dealing with deep rooted maladjustments that have their origins in early childhood.  It is almost certainly true that childhood experience shapes both our minds and our bodies – more striking than the genetic endowment of elite African distance runners is the observation that many of them ran to and from school every day in early childhood.  As someone who also had the good fortune to run to and from school each day for several years, I suspect that the long-term benefits were not merely increased development of heart and leg muscles, but also arose from both conscious and non-conscious memories. 

 

There is little evidence that it is effective to try to change the consequence of childhood development by regression to childhood.  That is the tortuous path mapped out by Woody Allen in his depictions of neurotic New Yorkers dependent on weekly visits to their therapists.   In contrast, CBT is short term and problem oriented.  There is good evidence that it works for treating depression and anxiety.  Of course when testing the effectiveness of psychological treatments, it is impossible to employ a ‘gold standard’ double blind controlled trial in which neither therapist nor patient know whether the patient is getting the treatment under test, or an inert comparison (placebo).  However the evidence from fairly well controlled but non-blinded studies does show that CBT works for mood disorders, and has efficacy similar to that of antidepressant medication (see for example the review by Cuijpers and colleagues, J Clin Psychiatry. 69(11):1675-85, 2008)  

Can the same principles be used to get the best out of our non-conscious brains when we run?  The core principle of cognitive therapy is that our conscious thoughts often involve us jumping to self-defeating negative judgment about ourselves that lower our mood and paralyze our performance.  That is the C part of CBT.  Just as important in the B part.  B denotes behavior therapy.  Thirty years ago, behavior therapy alone was in vogue.  It was a way of changing behavior based on observations of the ways in which laboratory rats or dogs can be trained. 

 

Similarities and differences between humans and other animals

The studies of animals demonstrated two common types of learning: Pavlovian conditioning which entails learning to respond to a new stimulus by associating it with an established stimulus that has an automatic effect (eg the smell of food producing salivation); and Skinnerian conditioning: learning a new pattern of behavior as a result of rewards for small steps in the right direction.  Skinnerian conditioning works well for training rats, and in fact can also be used to train humans, but pure behavior therapy went out of fashion as a form of psychological therapy, except for young children, for two reasons.  It does not fit well with contemporary society’s belief about the importance of being in charge of decisions about ones own life.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it fails to utilize one the amazing things about the human mind and brain: our ability to make conscious decisions based not only on immediate rewards, but also on memories of the past and on plans for the future.

 

CBT attempts to incorporate conscious evaluation, planning and decision making with the type of automatic learning processes that work well in other animals.  In principle this makes sense: all of the basic building blocks of the human brain can be found in the brains of other animals and it is therefore likely that training strategies that work for rats in the laboratory, might also work for humans.  But despite being built of the same building blocks as the rat brain, the human brain has an immensely richer network of connections between the building blocks, and the richness of these connections endows us with what we experience as the ability to make conscious decisions.  But sometimes conscious thought can get in the way.

 

Pacing ourselves

In the domain of running, one of the unanswered mysteries is how we pace ourselves during a race.   It can scarcely be dependent entirely on conscious memory from previous races, but neither can it be a process of pushing our bodies to the limit throughout the race.   Tim Noakes and colleagues have developed the concept of the central governor which regulates effort by anticipation that is based at least in part on non-conscious processes.  The central governor hypothesis remains a hypothesis that has generated heated debate for almost 15 years.  So far, the studies designed to provide direct support of the hypothesis have not been convincing.  For example, the claim by Ross Tucker and colleagues from Noakes’ lab in Capetown that the rate of heat storage mediates an anticipatory reduction in exercise intensity during cycling (J Physiol 574: 905–915, 2006) has been criticized by Jay and Kenny on the grounds that the method of estimating the rate of heat storage was flawed (J Appl Physiol 107: 630-631, 2009). However, failure of experiments to establish the truth of the hypothesis does not prove that the hypothesis is invalid –the complexity of the human mind and body makes it difficult to obtain convincing evidence.  Nonetheless, there are many observations about the pacing of human performance that are difficult to explain by any hypothesis other than some form of anticipatory regulation, which is at least partly non-conscious. 

 

My own conclusion is that the central governor theory is a good framework for developing ideas, but the ideas must be tested out against experience.  Of course, many of the ideas that emerge from speculation based on science are things that our grandmothers might have told us – but if I had listened only to my grandmother, I would have given up running long before my mid sixties.  We now know enough about how the brain and mind works to justify trying to fit our own experience into a coherent framework, even though the immense complexity of the mind and brain means that the details are speculative and predictions need to be interpreted cautiously. 

 

So let us start by looking at the implications of principles that underpin CBT: First is the behavioral principle what is rewarded (for example, by success) will be reinforced by non-conscious mechanisms and become a part of our behavioral repertoire.  Second is the principle that cognitive responses shape human learning, but that our automatic cognitions are often self-destructive, and need to be tested against reality.  These two principles provide the basis for understanding some of the conscious and non-conscious mechanisms by which our brains set the pace when running

 

Five strategies

Here are five strategies that I have learned by testing my experiences against the general principles listed above.  All of these have no doubt been advanced previously by runners and coaches, purely on the basis of what experience has taught them, but over the years I have met coaches and runners who have expressed notions counter to these ideas – so at least for me, having a theoretical framework allows me to assemble a repertoire of training strategies that provide a coherent guide but nonetheless that I take with a pinch of salt:

 

1) Race often: racing is the best way to demonstrate to your brain just what your heart and skeletal muscles are capable of.  The excitement of the race maximizes dopamine release in the brain, and adrenaline release elsewhere in the body.  High dopamine levels (the principal  mediator of motivation) strengthen the signals the brain sends to the muscles; high adrenaline promotes strong contraction of heart muscle and efficient distribution of blood to the muscles.  So a race that is fairly hard but not totally exhausting race can be a great way to bring yourself to a peak.  However, it is essential to provide adequate time for recovery from the short term damage to muscles that racing produces.

 

2) Frequently run faster than target race pace in the sharpening- up phase, either by running shorter races, interval sessions or fartlek.  This teaches your brain that you still have plenty in reserve at race pace.  On the other hand, I do not regard ‘over-distance’ sessions as especially useful from the point of view of mental preparation.  Ever since childhood I have had a deeply embedded confidence that, barring a serious muscle injury, I can last the distance in any race; so at least for me, the more challenging issue is whether or not I can sustain the target pace.   Perhaps each individual needs to identify their own mental vulnerabilities.

 

3) Maintain conscious focus on the present:  In the mid stages of a long race, conscious focus on the distance remaining can undermine confidence of ones ability to sustain the planned pace.  Although pace judgment in a long race requires a sophisticated calculation by the brain, it is often better to leave the micromanagement of pace to the non-conscious brain.  When you focus purely on the sensations of breathing and the rhythm of running without consciously questioning how long you can sustain this, a fast pace often feels more exhilarating than daunting.  On the other hand, insidious negative thoughts can be destructive.

 

4) Make the most of bad days: When you body tells you that it cannot cope with a planned training session, it is generally better to aim to sustain the intended pace or even build up to a slightly faster pace for a shorter period; or maybe do some stride-outs at target race pace, but without forcing yourself; the aim is to demonstrate that there is a bit more in the tank than your brain believes, but not to wreck yourself.

 

5) Use you conscious brain to keep things in perspective: do not catastrophize if you have a bad session; make a mental list of the positive features of the session; be aware that the body has immense capacity to compensate for short-term minor disruptions, such as poor sleep; suboptimal food or fluid intake; minor injury – and accept that it is OK to stop if you have a definite injury – or to pause to deal with increasing local tension in a muscle.


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