Getting out of a rut

This morning, I ran an easy paced 12 Km though the woods and along the river bank.  I had initially intended to do an interval session, but abandoned this plan when I continued to wheeze 15 minutes after using my salbutamol inhaler.  Running in the late winter woodland was a visual delight: the snowdrops, which have been in bloom for many weeks were still near their peak; the bluebell shoots were looking luxuriant though it is too early to expect the flower heads; a few clumps of daffodils that have escaped from the manicured village green into the wilder woodland were in bud.  After warming up, the wheezing diminished but I was still not running fluently.  My pace was only about 6 min/Km, and it felt as if I could not increase it.  Consciously I know that I am currently capable of a pace near to 4 min per Km, at least for a distance of a few Km.  However it appears that my continuing problem with asthma has sapped my confidence.

 

It is not uncommon for a runner to get into a rut in which performance falls below expectation based on current fitness.  This might be an indication of over-training, but if the usual signs of overtraining – lethargy, low mood, heavy legs, increased resting heart rate, erratic sleeping patterns etc are absent, it is more likely that the problem is psychological.  There is no doubt that I am not at present suffering from over-training.  So the challenge was to deal with the psychological issues. 

 

It is worthwhile stepping back from the particular circumstances of my run this morning and speculating about the psychological processes that influence running.  I am inclined to think that the mental mechanisms that govern running are no harder to understand the physical mechanics of running.  Of course, even the physical mechanics is complex and at present we understand only the rudiments – hence the debates between the various schools of efficient running.  Similarly, we understand only the rudiments of the mental mechanisms, but it is potentially profitable to examine these rudiments.

 

Our mind regulates how fast we run, and this regulation is only partially under voluntary control.  Tim Noakes has proposed the concept of the central governor that steps in to stop us over-exerting ourselves.  It is probable that the decisions of the central governor are based on the non-conscious monitoring of physiological variables such as stress hormone levels, proteins released from damaged tissues, hydration status, blood glucose level, core temperature and other indicators of potentially dangerous changes in the state of our internal milieu.  We would be playing with fire to over-ride these indicators.

 

However, the commonplace observation that a marathon runner can rise to a sprint when the finish is in sight, despite being utterly unable to lift his or her pace after ‘hitting the wall’ around the 20-23 mile mark, suggests that the central governor not only reacts to the indicators of the current internal milieu but also takes account of expectations for the future.  In general it appears that the central governor can be re-set according to our level of confidence.  Once we are fully confident of reaching the finish line, the central governor relaxes its restraining grip. 

 

If self-confidence can over-ride the restraint imposed  by the governor, it is also plausible that loss of self confidence due to prior bad experiences might have the opposite effect and cause the governor to be unduly restrictive.  Under these circumstances we need to find strategies to rebuild confidence before we can perform at our full potential.

 

The rise of running as a sport in which your main opponent is yourself and the main goal is to achieve a PB, rather than to beat an opponent has created an somewhat unnatural situation that we are not well adapted to deal with.  If at some point in pre-history the main reason to run fast was either to escape from a predator or to pursue prey , it is likely that the central governor evolved in manner best suited to adjust priorities according the needs of these situations.  When escaping a predator, the need to avoid being eaten assumes a higher priority than the risk of muscle damage, dehydration, heat stroke or exhaustion of glycogen stores at some future time-point.  On the other hand when chasing prey somewhat different priorities apply.  As long as we are gaining on the prey, or at least not losing ground, it is worth running the risks associated with pushing our physiological state at least modest degree beyond the usual limits.  On the other hand, once it is clear that the prey is faster than we are, a well adapted central governor would be expected to halt the chase.

 

I believe this might account for the well know phenomenon of the snapping of the contact with the front runner in a race.  Whilst our perceptions provide continuous evidence that we are succeeding in maintaining our place on the shoulder of the runner in front, the running feels easy, even though we might be near our physiological limit. However as soon as we drop back more than a few metres, our confidence evaporates, the bond snaps and we lose pace.  Thus, perhaps the experiences of our forebears chasing prey on the African savannah prepared us well for the challenge of racing an opponent. 

 

But when we are running to achieve a PB, the circumstances are quite different.  At best we get feedback from a stop-watch every few minutes.  Our central governor does not get the benefit of a continuous update on progress, and we must rely on mental mechanisms to sustain our confidence.  If we are going through a phase in which we have been struggling to achieve our self imposed targets in recent races, we are prey to doubt and self-questioning that saps our confidence.  The central governor is more likely to step in and restrain us.

 

How can we overcome this?  There are two potentially good strategies.  The first is to stop focusing on the target finishing time, and focus instead on our current internal milieu.  If we focus on breathing and/or the rhythms of our muscles, and cease worrying about how much longer we can sustain the current pace, we usually find that we are coping adequately for the time being.  By avoiding worry about the future, we avoid the crisis of confidence.  Strategies such as counting steps or counting breaths can distract us from worrying about our ability to maintain the pace until the finish line.

 

The other strategy is to recreate a situation similar to that of our forebears in pursuit of prey on the savannah.  Concentrate on racing an opponent.  As long as we are in fact running within our physiological limit, holding pace on the shoulder of our chosen opponent feels relatively easy. On the other hand; if we have been too ambitious in our choice of opponent, the psychological string that binds us to our opponent will stretch until it snaps, but at least we will have run to the best of our current physiological limit.

 

Returning to the situation I faced this morning, after a few brief bursts in which I increased my pace a little only to drop back to a sluggish 6 min/Km pace as soon as I stopped pushing myself, I decided to adopt the strategy of focusing on my breathing and running style.  Within a few minutes I was feeling much more fluent.  I did not measure my pace, but know from a rough estimate of the total time that I had picked up pace by about half a minute per Km in the second half of the run.  So I returned home feeling mildly exhilarated, and with renewed confidence. However, I am still a bit oppressed by the fact that I have not been able to do regular interval sessions since last November.

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17 Responses to “Getting out of a rut”

  1. rick Says:


    10k world record

  2. rick Says:

    you are right at the end of the day the mind controls evry thing

  3. Ewen Says:

    Bypassing the “central governor” (if possible), seems to become increasingly difficult the more experienced we become as runners. We have a lot of data about training sessions, and race results going back many years, that it’s hard to disregard “current form”.

    Also, we know physiologically in broad brush strokes what is a possible pace for a race and what’s impossible. For example, I know my youthful 17:33 for 5k is impossible at 51, but 20:XX is possible. We also know that disregarding the “central governor” can be dangerous, as we all know of runners who’ve pushed themselves to the point of collapse (for example, on a hot day).

    I do like your strategy of racing an opponent, as sticking to an opponent takes less of a mental effort than running to a schedule of splits.

    Anyway, glad you were able to turn a plodding run into something exhilarating. I hope the asthma allows you to get back into some interval training before too long.

  4. ajh Says:

    Holy Smoly Batman, 4 min/kms would be a great effort!

  5. rick Says:

    I know several guys who should be faster than me in the marathon, nut on the day they seem to crack due to lacking self confidence.
    For some reason, no matter how nervous i feel before the start a sense of overpowering confidence seems to run through my veins once i go over the start line!
    One good marathon race strategy is to concentrate just on one mile at a time [ running 6.30 pace for 1 mile seems easy compared to 26.2 at that pace].
    Great article canute, keep them coming.

  6. rick Says:

    LOOK AT THE LEG SPEED

  7. canute1 Says:

    Rick,
    The Spira shoe is very interesting. I think the evidence for its technical superiority is good, but it raises challenging questions about what limits should be placed on artifical aids to running performance. Even if banned from competiton, would it be either beneficial or ethically cceptable to use these shoes in training? I am inclined to think the answer to both of these questison is yes.

  8. Edyth Says:

    Just dropping by.Btw, you website have great content!

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  9. rick Says:

    I saw a documentary about the guy who designed the SPIRA shoes about 5 years ago, at the time i think he was working for NIKE, the results he was getting were very impressive, greatly reduced shock and a massive return of energy over normal shoes.
    99% of shoes are still using very dated technology! FOAM THAT BREAKS DOWN AFTER ONLY A FEW HUNDRED MILES AND DOES NOTHING TO RETURN ALL THAT ENERGY, EVERY TIME YOUR FOOT HITS THE GROUND!
    I THINK I MIGHT WELL BUY A PAIR FOR MY LONDON MARATHON EXPLOIT!
    INCREASED SHOCK ABSORPTION AND RETURN OF ENERGY IS A RUNNERS DREAM AND I THINK THIS MAY WELL BE THE FIRST SHOE COMPANY TO DELIVER!

  10. rick Says:

    <embed src=”http://www.youtube.com/v/3P60OgNT-yg&hl=en&fs=1″ type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” allowscriptaccess=”always” allowfullscreen=”true” width=”425

  11. rick Says:

  12. Ewen Says:

    The IAAF have banned the Spira shoe from competition due to the possible mechanical advantage of the “springs”. If the “springs” extend your natural stride by 3cm, how much faster are you going to run? I wouldn’t use them in races, however I would consider using them in training. Anti-gravity treadmills are used in training, and a shoe which gave some sort of advantage to the stride (and recovery from training sessions) could be a useful training aid.

    400m tracks have improved, but they’re not allowed to have springs under them!

  13. rick Says:

    I’m all for technical evolution that will give runners less injury, faster recovery, and maybe even more speed, i for one embrace the spira shoe and plan to buy a pair for my london marathon in april.
    anyone can buy them, it is not cheating, its just using the best technology available, they are still a shoe! how can you ban them! nike uses springs in some shoes! the spira is just better technology, and i can’t see anyone stopping them being used in a road race.
    well done spira for showing the other shoe manufacturers to be out dated and living in the past!

  14. rick Says:

    back in my cycle racing days, we had the same problems with tri bars and the cycle federation, in the end they had to give in, you can’t stop progress!

  15. Ewen Says:

    Actually, the IAAF haven’t banned them (yet). Their rules just say something like “shoes are not to have devices which provide a mechanical advantage”. As far as I know the shoes are still under consideration.

    So they could be a little like the Speedo fast-skin swim suits IF many world records are suddenly broken by runners wearing Spira shoes.

  16. rick Says:

    I GUESS THE SPIRA WILL CAUSE MUCH HEAD SCATCHING THROUGH OUT THE ATHLETICS FEDERATIONS, AT THE SAME TIME GIVING GREAT FREE PUBLICITY TO SPIRA.
    I WILL BE ROAD TESTING THE SHOES NEXT WEEK, USING A GARMIN AND H.R.M. I HOPE TO FIND OUT IF SPIRA REALLY ARE FASTER THAN YOUR AVERAGE SHOE!

  17. How to Get Six Pack Fast Says:

    Hey, nice tips. I’ll buy a glass of beer to the man from that chat who told me to go to your site 🙂

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