Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Speed Work, Mental Toughness, & Tim Noakes

On Tuesday, I was finally (FINALLY!) able to do a track workout with longer intervals at the prescribed pace. I've attempted 1200m repeats a couple of times in the last few weeks, but I've always had to scale it back to 400s or 640s either because of hip soreness or my posterior muscles just not being up to the distance yet at a fast pace. But today I was ready to try again. SUCCESS!!

Also, for the first time in a long time, I was able to lock in to 5K(ish) pace without constantly checking my Garmin. A neat party trick I have always been kind of pointlessly proud of is my ability to tick off interval after interval in almost exactly the same time, and after pretty much sucking at that for the last month or so, I think I can safely say I've got my mojo back:

#stupidhumantricks. But still kind of cool. :)

Lest you think this workout consisted entirely of ice cream and unicorns, let me assure you that in terms of difficulty, it still sucked big hairy ass. Which makes sense, given that it's been a long, LONG time since I was doing hard track workouts on a regular basis. But the experience reminded me of some things about running--particularly about running hard, and running fast--that I haven't had much occasion to think about recently.

People often talk about how the point of hard workouts like speed training & tempo runs is only half physical, and the other part is mental. Lung-busting intervals are important because they put you through the experience of having to push through extreme physical discomfort, something we don't encounter on easier runs. They force you to develop mental coping skills for forcing your body to continue doing something it really, REALLY doesn't want to do.

I also think there's an element of acclimatization to the discomfort that happens. In The Lore of Running, Tim Noakes talks about something called the Central Governor, whose purpose is to prevent us from unsafely exerting ourselves by making us feel like we're working absolutely as hard as we possibly can already. Basically, the brain will override your physical ability to run faster and harder before you’re able to do serious or permanent damage to yourself.

(Plug: Tim Noakes is basically a god. A brilliant, brilliant god. I think every runner should own this book for reference)

The CG theory explains why in certain circumstances people are capable of super-human feats, ie, a mom lifting a car up to save her child. When you feel like you are at the absolute edge of your physical capabilities, goes the theory, you are actually more like 60% of the way there. Your CG saves the rest for emergencies, like outrunning saber-toothed tigers & lifting woolly mammoths off of your children--ie, situations where risking severe, long-term injury (or even death) might be worth it from an evolutionary standpoint. (You can read more about the Central Governor theory here, here, or in Noakes's book.)

I don't think the existence of the CG has been empirically proven, but I've found it to be a very useful framework for thinking about tough workouts. When I first get back to hard speed sessions after a break, they feel incredibly difficult--halfway through just about every interval, I feel certain I won't make it without slowing down. As the weeks go by, though, they start to feel not quite as terrible, even as the workouts get harder. Obviously a lot of this is due to getting fitter, but I also suspect that it's a matter of the Central Governor starting to trust the conscious brain a little. It's learned that while, yes, I will push my body fairly hard through each interval, I'm actually not going to give myself a coronary. So the CG kind of says, "Yeah, yeah; we've seen this before. Not too worried about it." And each week it moves the fail-safe back juuuuust a hair.

It also explains why my last interval is always the easiest, and also often the fastest. For x minus one number of laps, the CG has been doing nothing but fretting and wringing its metaphorical hands over the possibility of my conscious mind pushing my body too far and responding accordingly by making me feel like I want to puke. But, halfway through the last interval, I can believe it stops worrying as much and lets me run that last little bit as fast as I want with a lot less discomfort than before. (This is also how Noakes explains how at mile 8 of a half-marathon you can feel like maintaining goal pace is actually going to kill you, then run the last half-mile at a pace that's a full minute faster than you've been averaging.)

Who wants to get me this shirt? I'll write a blog post about how I'm your ambassador....

So while it's not pleasant, I know that this is what I need right now -- I am way, WAY out of practice when it comes to embracing the suck and pushing through that really terrible last 20% of a race. Hopefully I'll have, y'know, *some* semblance of it by the time Let's Go 510 rolls around. (I am informed by RunCoach that that's in a little more than 31 days....)


  1. Did you hear The Runner Academy podcast with Noakes?
    great stuff!

    1. I did not! I'll have to check it out -- thanks!