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

Runner's World (UK) - - FRONT PAGE -

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.


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.’


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.’


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.


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.

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