Train Your Brain To Conquer Pain
Racing hurts. And some races hurt more than others. Here’s why – and how to tough them out, whatever the distance
One constant spans running at every level, from Parkrunners to professional to masters: if you race hard, it’s going to hurt.
Runners relish that toughness. Often when we race, more than hitting a time or donning that shiny medal, we most want to prove that we can overcome difficulty and pain. We want to demonstrate that we have true grit – that when the going gets tough, we keep going.
The beauty of running is that the toughness derives simply from this: the runner versus the distance. Yes, there are others in the race, but beating them isn’t the hardest part – running boils down to individual runners and the six inches between their ears. Few sports leave one so exposed to the mental back-andforth that occurs during a race. It’s a constant battle between wanting to strive on, to push through the pain, and giving in, even just a little, to alleviate the symptoms of fatigue, which cause so much distress.
Most runners agree that distance races are tougher than sprints under 200m, which require power and explosiveness but don’t make you endure the accumulated fatigue and pain of a longer race. Less unanimity exists over what distance is the most difficult. Is it the searing pain of the 400m, or the full-body fatigue of the marathon? To determine what the most challenging race is, you have to first take a look at what causes the fatigue that makes each race difficult to endure. Each event presents its own physiological – and psychological – challenge.
What really decides when you’re fatigued is the brain. According to central governor theory, the brain works as a central control system, monitoring all the feedback from the body. When the situation puts you out of your comfort zone, and your brain senses your body is headed toward disaster, things begin to happen. Your body first tries to politely nudge you to slow down by increasing feelings of tiredness, then makes you slow down by recruiting fewer muscle fibres, thereby controlling how much force you can produce at the muscular level. Your body isn’t conspiring against you to keep you from achieving your next PB – the purpose of this mechanism is protection. It ensures that major damage isn’t caused and you’ll survive to fight another day.
Runners’ celebrated feeling of ‘toughness’ is really our ability to override these signals and incur risk, even some damage, in order to accomplish a goal. It makes us feel in control, not slaves to our biological systems. So the toughest race is the one when we ignore the loudest messages from our bodies telling us to stop.
THE 20ST GORILLA
Every race brings about a different type of fatigue and the pain associated with it. At the shorter end of the spectrum – the middledistance events of 800m and 1500m – a runner is faced with everincreasing lactate levels, a byproduct of anaerobic energy production, as the race goes on. Even if you’ve never been a middle-distance racer you’ve probably experienced this in interval sessions and mile repeats in your training. While lactic acid buildup has been the scapegoat of fatigue for decades, it’s not the actual cause. The acidosis that occurs at the same time is the main culprit. When the ph in muscles drops and shifts into a more acidic state, the body isn’t happy. The nervous system starts relaying messages from the muscles back to the brain that the muscles can’t function properly in this acidic environment. The rising tide of acidosis causes some chemical mishaps along the way, which eventually lead to a shutdown of the muscles powering the runner. As the acidosis rises, pain sensors are triggered to relay this situation to the brain. What you’re left with is that horrible feeling of wanting to keep pace while your legs turn to stone and it seems like a 20st gorilla has jumped on your back. This type of fatigue is common in 400m to 1500m runners. The 800m wins many runners’ awards for most difficult race.
Middle-distance runner Mark Fernando says the quandary for many 800m runners is in the intensity of the final bend and the home straight. ‘The race is almost an all-out sprint for 500m, then you have to mentally and physically dig deep down and tell yourself to kick for another 300m, when your body is running on fumes,’ he says.
The high intensity of the pain during an 800m may set it apart, but American mile record-holder Alan Webb says that, in his experience, the 1500m edges it. ‘The 1500m provides the most intense pain for the longest duration,’ he says. ‘If you are racing all out, you feel pain from the very start and then have to convince yourself to hang on for dear life for another couple of laps.’
If this acidosis-induced muscle pain is the primary obstacle to overcome in racing, then the toughest running event is simply that which causes the highest lactate levels. Sorry, 800m runners, but research agrees with Webb: it consistently shows that acidosis is at its highest level at the end of a 1500m. So the 1500m must be the toughest running event, right?
Not so fast.
The fatigue and pain of racing is more complex than can be isolated in one variable. On the other end of the Olympic-distance spectrum, the marathon is difficult for entirely different reasons. As many of us know all too well, instead of a rapid onset and quick peak of pain, the marathon is the Chinese water torture of running.
The trouble with the marathon is that, unlike in shorter races, myriad issues cause fatigue. ‘The marathon is a whole different animal,’ says Mike Sayenko, a US Olympic trials qualifier in the 10K and the marathon. ‘It’s such a long way and so many things can go wrong.’
The majority of the race is a waiting game, about riding the line between focus, boredom and an almost trance-like state, while knowing that the last stage is completely unpredictable. It’s the fatigue that builds up during that waiting game that causes the last 10K to be so hard.
During the latter stages of the marathon you begin to run low on easy-burning glycogen and start to rely on less efficient energy sources. Couple this with your rising core temperature and the micro-tearing of fatigued muscle and you’ve got compounding factors that can make the last few miles deeply unpleasant.
And those are just the physical components. Next, throw in the fact that the race has demanded a high level of concentration for several hours and then, right when your body and brain are low on fuel, you are asked to produce the most focus. It’s no wonder the marathon can be a cruel event. The suffering is long and drawn-out, and the causes of fatigue are numerous. There are more ways for you to fall victim – and more obstacles for you to overcome to prove your toughness. As in other events, the marathon is also about how hard you make it. The amount of grit required to simply endure and finish one is different to racing it – not just maintaining forward motion, but trying to keep running fast despite the screams from your body to slow down. Jacob Frey, a 2:16 marathoner, believes the difficulty of a marathon depends on how close you get to hitting the ‘wall’, the point in the race when your fatigue spikes and your pace falls off, often drastically.
‘ Falling apart in a 5K is painful, but it’s just pain,’ says Frey. ‘But falling apart in a marathon, I believe you lose a year of your life. You complete the marathon feeling utterly defeated, knowing that it got the best of you, and you go home and ask your mum if she still loves you.’
RIDING THE LINE
But the contenders for toughest race distance don’t just lie at the extremes. You also have the inbetween events, the 5K and 10K, which combine some of the fatigueinducing components from their longer and shorter race cousins. Instead of a quick rush of acidosis, the runner is beset by a gradually
‘The marathon is such a long way and so many things can go wrong’
increasing amount. Along with this acidosis common to shorter races, the 5K and 10K add the steadily increasing core temperature of longer events, as well as other chemical changes that make a runner less efficient along the way, creating race distances that are uniquely difficult.
Instead of dealing with pain for a matter of seconds, the 10K runner gunning for a PB experiences the taunting sensation of feeling close to, but not completely, over the edge for much of the race, or at minimum the entire second half. Elite middledistance runner Drevan AndersonKaapa says the 10K leaves him with too much thinking time. ‘It does not end quickly, and that pain can mess with your mind and sidetrack you if you do not fight it off and stay focused,’ he says. ‘ You start hurting halfway through and then you’ve got a whole other 5K to think about that pain.’
Unlike the marathon, which requires a steady-butmanageable pace for the majority of the race, the 5K and 10K are stuck in the in-between zone. They are long events, but they are raced at a quick enough pace to require sustained focus. ‘The 10K is about grinding it out,’ says Webb. ‘It’s fast enough that you can get in a rhythm for the first few miles, but you’re never fully relaxed, as in longer events.’
PAIN FINDS YOUR WEAKNESS
Given these variable causes of fatigue and pain, what is actually the hardest race to run? From a purely physiological perspective, Trent Stellingwerf, a former competitive middle-distance runner and now professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at the Canadian Sport Centre-pacific, says that ‘the toughest events are at the extremes of physiology, and thus, at the extremes of psychology’.
Looking at the extremes of physiology, two factors consistently arise, says Stellingwerf: running under the highest amounts of acidosis, or running with limited muscle glycogen and completely shutting down. Given this definition, the most difficult races are clearly the 1500m and the marathon (not considering ultra marathons).
But wait. Stellingwerf hedges his bets. An individual’s biggest challenge, he says, ‘is going to be where they have the biggest gap of physiology, psychology or structural-biomechanical parameters.’ To put that more simply, the toughest race is that which challenges the specific runner the most – the one that tests the components they’re sufficient at, but haven’t mastered.
It makes perfect sense that mile specialists might have the highest lactate at the end of their race, but they have trained for that and are probably physiologically gifted at dealing with high lactate levels. Therefore, the sensation of pain might not be as high as it is for someone who has trained for the 10K but has rarely raced the mile. So it matters not only what a runner is best at, but also what they’re prepared for.
There is yet another variable in this equation: desire. Tommy Schmitz, a 3:39 1500m runner, says he has to care deeply about the results. ‘ You have to care enough to want to give 100 per cent,’ he says If there is that high degree of aspiration, it’s not surprising that a person will push further into the depths of pain. Sensing the degree of importance, the brain lets loose on the reins a little, too, allowing for more fatigue before it starts shutting things down. This is why a runner mounts a finishing kick more often when racing close to a best time or victory than in a race that has less meaning, even if he or she is in a similar state of duress.
OUTSIDE THE COMFORT ZONE
In a recent informal survey of competitive runners – ranging from school teams to professionals – on what the toughest event is, the runners supported this hypothesis: they consistently chose a race that wasn’t their preferred event, but one in which they selectively competed that was on the edge of their range.
‘Pain can mess with your mind if you do not fight it off and stay focused’
Phoebe Wright, who’s an 800m specialist, says a 6K cross-country race was her hardest. ‘I alternated between “You’re fine”, to “This hurts, but is supposed to”, to “I hate my coach” to “I hate my life”,’ she says.
Marathoners and long-distance road-racing specialists lament their painful attempts at a quick mile or 5K. Distance runner Jenny Scherer says the contrast between what it was like to run the 5K, which she considers her toughest race, and what it was like to compete in longer events comes down to momentum. ‘I never found myself in a rhythm [in a 5K] and often felt like I was just hanging on to a pack or another runner to stay on pace,’ she says. ‘In the races of 10K and above that I’ve done, I’ve been able to get in a nice rhythm and crank out miles, at least until the time to kick comes along.’
Conversely, 800m and 1500m runners complain about their experiences at the 10K or longer races. Middle-distance runners are accustomed to lots of pain in a relatively short period of time. When forced to focus for 30 minutes or more, it challenges them in a way to which they aren’t accustomed.
So what is the ‘toughest’ race? Well, the answer starts with, ‘It depends’. It depends on who you are and what you’ve trained for. The toughest race isn’t a distance. This leaves no room for bragging that your event is the most difficult, or comparisons about who is the toughest runner in your club or running group. True toughness comes from overcoming personal limits. It’s fighting against the internal dialogue in your head that stems from your body wanting to slow you down. It’s overcoming the signals from your muscles that say they’re flooding with acid, or that your fuel stores are low. How each runner experiences these sensations of fatigue is individual. No one else knows exactly what you’re feeling and at what point you might give in to the pain.
Toughness is knowing when you’ve gone past previous barriers and tangled an instant longer with your brain as it tries to shut you down. Only you know how tough you are, and any distance can test you. ‘If you run all out, a race hurts,’ says Webb. ‘I don’t care if it’s a 600m sprint or a 10K. If you truly go for it, it just plain hurts.’ And whatever distance, whatever your pace, it’s when that pain hits you that you can show your true grit.
The toughest race has nothing to do with distance. It comes down to how you respond to the pain.