Ask any runner or coach what the most critical component of a marathon training plan is, and the general consensus will be the long run. The long run is often regarded as one of the most important workouts when training for shorter races, as well. Its proven success has rightfully made it a weekly staple for any runner seeking improvement.
Why? The physiological benefits are indisputable. The heart gets stronger. Ventilatory capacity—the ability to move oxygen in and out of our lungs—increases. The musculoskeletal system adapts and grows stronger. Endurance improves because mitochondria (the energy-producing structures in cells) and capillaries (tiny blood vessels that transfer oxygen and waste products into and out of cells) become more dense. We get better at using fat, rather than glycogen, as a fuel source. The list goes on.
Without a doubt, our ‘hardware’ vastly improves with each of these physiological benefits, but the often understated, and potentially more impactful, advantages of the long run come from the ‘software’ improvements. Let’s face it, racing our best at any distance requires an immense mental effort. Going long calluses us mentally and gives us confidence in our ability to cover the miles at a grueling pace come race day.
Physical or mental?
In the athletic world, we focus so much of our training on hitting specific workouts and developing our muscles and body physically to achieve our athletic goals. After a stellar race performance, our instinct is to attribute that success to specific physical achievements from our training. Was it that one big workout we crushed and hit all our goal splits? Or maybe it was the high mileage per week we were sustaining throughout the training cycle? While the physical training is certainly necessary, we often neglect that software plays as much of a role as hardware.
Think back to a race you excelled in and what you were thinking mentally. You likely weren’t thinking about how terrible you felt and telling yourself you couldn’t do it. Instead, you remember how great you were feeling, or maybe you don’t remember much of the race at all because you were in the zone. On the other hand, the opposite is likely true of how you were feeling mentally during a poor performance. Each step was accompanied by a negative thought questioning whether you could even make it to the finish.
The interesting distinction between the great race and the poor race is that you may not have been in better shape physically for either one. In fact, you may have been in better physical shape for the poor race. The difference lies in the mental state achieved during each of those races. Why does everything click and feel easy during some races while other races are a struggle from the gun even if we are in better shape?
What truly matters? Perception of effort
Performance is highly linked to perception of effort. Even if we are running the exact same pace on multiple occasions, the perceived efforts of those runs will vary. Some days the pace feels harder than others. Thus, our goal in training should not just be to hit specific splits in workouts, but rather to focus on how we are feeling hitting those splits and feel as comfortable as possible while maintaining a maximum effort. In other words, we need to practice being comfortable mentally even when our bodies are uncomfortable physically. This concept is described perfectly and with much greater detail in Peak Performance by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness.
The best way to minimize perceived effort while maintaining maximum performance is by achieving flow. In this mental state, a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus. This is often described as being in the zone. After a race where flow was achieved, we frequently feel as though the race flew by and we ‘blacked out’ during it. We all achieve flow from time to time, but the goal is to be able to enter this state at will. By giving mental training our full attention during each workout, and especially during long runs where physical and mental fatigue are inevitable, we can learn the factors that enable (and inhibit) us to achieve flow.
Overriding our brain’s circuitry
Our ancestors were concerned with survival, not competing, which is why we are programmed to back off when we become excessively fatigued or in pain during a race. Our brain acts as a central governor with a safety circuit to protect us from any long-term harm. However, we can extend the boundary of our circuitry over time and override the switch in the short-term to achieve a breakthrough race. This notion is repeatedly illustrated by racers who are ‘completely dead’ and unable to go faster during the late stages of a race, but are still able to override their circuitry to muster a finishing kick when the finish line is in sight.
By understanding how the brain works and why we are receiving certain signals throughout a run or race, we can develop the ability to quash our instincts. Adapting to resist mental fatigue as much as physical fatigue is crucial. Nearly everyone has similar pain thresholds, but upping pain tolerance is the key to achieving the next level, as described in Endure by Alex Hutchinson. Learning to have an appetite for suffering may not sound like fun, but by simply incorporating awareness of your mental state into your existing training regimen, incremental progress will quickly ensue.
Two birds, one run
Brain training and physiological training do not need to happen in silos. Many of the software improvements come simultaneously with hardware improvements. When we are out physically training, we are concurrently increasing our pain tolerance and familiarity with fatigue and pain. As a result, we become mentally more robust as our brains become familiar with the suffering required at a given effort level. The mental toughness will come naturally on race day if we put ourselves in positions during training that are as bad or worse than how we will feel during the race.
The number of years putting in work recalibrates the brain’s horizons and incrementally enhances pain tolerance. In this sense, all training is brain training even if it doesn't specifically target the brain. Learning to cope and accept the pain and suffering as a normal feeling during a peak performance requires us to be cognizant of our mental state during each step of our training.
Get started with mental training
It is important to use each run as an opportunity to improve mentally, on top of progressing physically. This is especially true during long runs and on hard workout days where the effort is high and an optimal mental state is needed to successfully complete the prescribed paces/distance. Being intentional and planning ahead for how you will mentally approach long runs and hard days will help you get the most of training. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you commence a long run or workout:
1. Remember your purpose
During the warmup, remind yourself of the purpose of this workout and the larger picture. Is there a goal you are training for? Is there a meaningful purpose behind why you run? We are much more willing to tolerate discomfort when we know that doing so is tied to a meaningful purpose or long-term goal. Once we understand the why, it is easier to navigate the how.
2. Find a way, not an excuse
We can be really good at talking ourselves out of upcoming hard workouts before we even start them. We are too tired. We are sore. It might rain. It is too hot/cold/windy. We negotiate with ourselves to avoid the discomfort. The first step in overcoming this pitfall is to recognize when it is happening and instead of quitting, reassure yourself that you will be fine. Just focus on giving your best effort on that day and avoid putting excessive pressure on yourself about things that are out of your control.
3. Employ positive self-talk
Use the power of self-talk to engage willingness and optimism throughout the run. When the going gets tough, repeat positive statements in your mind to help you push through. “I am” and “you are” statements are both great ways to start. For example, you can use phrases like “I am capable of this effort,” “I am getting faster with each step,” and “you are killing it.” You can also repeat statements like “stay relaxed.”
4. Adapt to any conditions
Mental toughness not only arises during hard training sessions, but also by overcoming adversity thrown your way. If the weather is miserable, embrace it. Used to running at a specific time of day? Try running at a different time once in a while to practice switching your routine. Learning how your mind reacts to unpleasant experiences will help you formulate methods for tolerating and overcoming them.
5. Stick with it!
The moment your body crosses the threshold into an area of discomfort, your thoughts will seek a place of refuge. Negative thoughts will undoubtedly arise the longer and harder you run. In these moments, it is pivotal to enact self-discipline and train your mind to tolerate the experience instead of backing down and taking your foot off the gas. Developing this ability during your long runs and in practice each day will allow you to access this same skill set come race day when it matters most.