Five strategies for training a runner’s brain

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.

7 Responses to “Five strategies for training a runner’s brain”

  1. Andrew(AJH) Says:

    I think I’m okay at number 5, but the first 4 are a problem for me …. plenty of room for improvement eh !


    I’ve found running long hills is a great way to push back my minds resistants to effort level and pain.
    I start the hill at a steady effort then start increasing the effort half way up, then really sprint the last section right over the top!


    I also ose to do this sort of training on my bike years ago and found over a period of a couple of months my max heart rate went up from 179 to 185 .
    I think this shows I’d learned to push myself well beyond my previous minds and bodies limits!

  4. Ewen Says:

    Well, I’m glad you didn’t listen to your grandmother, or else we might be reading about strategies to win at lawn bowls or chess!

    How we learn to pace ourselves in a race is particularly interesting. I know from watching young kids racing say an 800m, they always start as fast as they can and often end up slowing to a walk. The ‘correct’ pace would seem way too slow for them.

    I like all of your 5 points. I think it’s no coincidence that I was racing weekly (usually 3 to 8k) when I ran many of my PBs. Learning how good races feel during the whole race was a valuable thing, and something that happened after doing many frequent races. I think these days though, 95% effort races are probably more suitable for training purposes bearing in mind the slower recovery of an aging athlete.

    Good point about making the most of bad days too. I recall many interval sessions being salvaged on days where I felt terrible in the warm-up, by starting at an easier pace and working into the session. Or, by changing the session midway to shorter distances.

    I need to work on ‘3’ though, esp for the Melbourne Half. I find the distance ‘to go’ always daunting in such long races.


    RYAN HALL on Mental Training;
    RH: I am still learning a lot about the mental side of training and racing. What I am focusing a lot of lately is just being in the moment. I, and I think all runners, have a tendency to think too much. Whether it is worrying about Heartbreak Hill, thinking about what a competitor is doing, or get flustered because the last mile split was too slow, we all have a tendency to have our mind cluttered with a lot of junk. I am learning to clean out the trash and just be where I am and poor myself into the step I am about to take. I find that I get more out of myself when my mind isn’t cluttered with so much garbage

  6. canute1 Says:

    Andrew, 5 is a pretty good place to start.
    Rick, that is a great quote from Ryan Hall.
    Ewen, Thanks for your comments and good luck in Melbourne; it might be a good opportunity for enjoying ‘being in the moment’.


    First a big thank you to you Canute for refreashing my mind with your ‘RUNNERS BRAIN TRAINING’ it made me think of Ryan Halls quote [above] so on yesterdays 6 mile tempo run instead of letting my mind wonder with negative thoughts I concentrated ‘on being in the moment’, on running my best just in the now, not passed or future, and it worked!
    I found myself running in ‘the zone’, a place I’d not visited for a long time, and it felt good.
    The net result was knocking 1 min 6 sec off last months tempo run on the same course!
    cheers RICK

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