If you can’t go hard, go harder, says Sam
am nearing the end of a progression run in which I’ve upped my pace every minute for 12 minutes. The comfort zone in which I began this session is a distant memory and I’m grabbing quick sips of air between wheezy blows, my arms and legs moving at a cartoonish clip to keep me from flying off the back of the treadmill.
The plan, once I reached this final stage, was to maintain my pace for two minutes before going back down the gears. But my mind informs me that I can’t possibly keep up this speed for a further minute. So I don’t. Instead, completely on a whim, I actually speed up a notch. I not only nail the session but finish it feeling invincible.
The notion of attempting to run away from my fatigue sounds counterintuitive – crazy, even – but it was a strategy that worked for Emil Zátopek, the ‘Czech locomotive’ who won three gold medals at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952. ‘If you can’t keep going, go faster,’ was reportedly one of his favourite maxims. I’d always thought this was just the legendarily playful runner’s way of expressing his ceaseless work ethic, but according to Richard Askwith, author of Zátopek biography Todaywe Diealittle (Yellow Jersey), it explains how he secured one of his three Olympic golds. ‘[Zátopek’s] whole strategy was based on the assumption that he could burn off his rivals with one devastating final 400m sprint,’ writes Askwith about the 5000m final. ‘ He kicks, but within 100m has slipped from first to fourth. You can see his world falling apart. Yet instead of succumbing to despair, he rallies. Soon he’s clawing back the metres that separate him from [Chris] Chataway, German Herbert Schade and Frenchman Alain Mimoun. On the final bend, all four are level. Then Zátopek summons what another writer called ‘the strength of angels’. In a frenzy of self-belief and determination, he powers away to a dramatic win.’
On one level, this story merely illustrates the fact that we can search inside ourselves and, almost always, find more to give. Factors such as how much we want it (whether ‘it’ is an Olympic gold, a PB or a final mile), how willing we are to suffer to get it and our capacity to withstand pain come into play here. But what fascinates me about the Zátopek ploy is that it isn’t just about keeping going or not slowing down, it’s about stepping up your effort when your resources are almost depleted. How so?
The essence of its success, I think, is the change in stimulus. When my mind told me ‘I can’t continue with this,’ my body replied, ‘OK, try THIS’ And my mind was grateful for the end of what it perceived to be an intolerable effort despite it being replaced by a greater challenge.
I’ve since found that many a runner has, whether wittingly or not, employed the ‘when you can’t keep going, go faster’ strategy. It helped former Olympian Adam Goucher win the US NCAA Cross-country title in 1998 and ultra runner Rob Jebb used it when he ran the second-fastest ever Bob Graham Round last year.
It’s not front-page news that the brain has a tremendous capacity to influence the body – indeed, the notion lies at the heart of the latest theories about what underlies fatigue. ‘ Runners always reach the limit of their tolerance for suffering before they reach the limit of their physical capacity, hence the phenomenon of the “end spurt”,’ says William A Peters, author of
The Resilient Runner (Createspace). But could it be that tweaking the source of that suffering – be it speed, surface or gradient – could dupe the brain into withstanding just a little more? If so, it gives the old adage ‘a change is as good as a rest’ a whole new meaning.