A few years back I entered and trained for my first international marathon, the Munich marathon. On the whole my training went according to plan and I arrived in Munich feeling very strong and confident that I could run a PB. I was aiming for a 2h48. Unfortunately, my final build-up to the race, once landing in Munich, was not well thought out and after five days of walking the streets of Munich and doing the tourist thing, I lined up at the start with extremely fatigued calves. Of course, that was not going to put me off and with my stubborn as a mule mind-set I was out of the blocks at my initially planned race pace. Everything felt surprisingly good…. until the 8km mark that is. The fatigued caused from an exercise I was not used, walking, resulted in me tearing my soleus muscle.
At first I thought that it was just a spasm, but after two stops to try and massage the spasm out and an almost unbearable pain I realised this was a little more than a spasm and with more than half the race still be to run I began to wonder I would get back to the start without any cash on me and surrounded by people who predominantly spoke only German. At that point I remember conversing with myself and decided that I had not done all the training and flown halfway across the world to feel pain. I pushed the pain out of my mind and continued running. I eventually managed to cross the finish line in a time of 2h57. The instant I realised it was over my body and mind where flooded with an incredible pain leaving it near impossible for me to walk.
It’s all in the mind
I learnt an invaluable lesson during that marathon about running and pain. We can endure and tolerate far more pain then we think. Of course I’m not talking about running through injuries and doing stupid things like pushing through a marathon with a torn soleus. I’m talking about the pain we are all very familiar with, the pain brought about in those races where we are pushing our own personal boundaries and driving hard to come under that PB, even if it’s by just a few seconds. The person who wants that PB badly enough and is willing to push him or herself through the pain of lactic acid and other metabolic waste build-up, is the one who will ultimately achieve that PB.
Tim Noakes refers to this as the “Central Governor Theory.” The “Central Governor” keeps an eye on all the systems and functions of the body and protects us from physically harming ourselves. This governor however has a built-in early warning system to stop us long before our breaking point. Signals of pain are sent to our brains to slow us down or to stop us so that our bodies can return to a “happy” state or what I prefer to call our comfort zone, scientifically speaking the mind wants to keep the cells of the body in a state of homeostasis.
Unfortunately, there are no PB’s or achieving of full potential in the comfort zone.
Venturing beyond the comfort zone
In order to achieve our best we have go beyond the comfort zone and this is where training comes in. The human body has an amazing capacity to adapt to various stresses it is placed under. Progressive and planned training enables us to place the body under gradual increases in physiological stresses teaching both the mind and the body to deal with and to handle pain.
One of the best ways to deal with pain is to start with the mind. I’m amazed at how I can give a client 10 x 400m repeats to complete, which is usually completed without so much as batting an eyelid, but when I change the session around and give the same client 20 x 200m repeats, which both total 4000m, I start getting panic filled emails questioning whether I gave the correct training to the correct client. Of course once the session has been completed the client realises that they are more than capable of handling the session and the next time round it’s no issue at all.
Of course there are many other ways to teach your body to deal with pain. For example, someone who is planning a desert run will do well to do plenty of training runs in the heat of day and in lots of sand. Stronger and more experienced runners might for example try doing a 20 x 400m repeat session.
I do not however believe that teaching your body and mind to deal with pain requires only hard, muscle-breaking workouts. The workouts which have had the biggest impact in my own training when it comes to running through pain are the ones I’ve stuck to as planned and completed. Getting through a planned 6 x 800m session or a 4 x 1200m session after a long hard day on a hot summer’s afternoon when I’ve wanted nothing other than to collapse on the couch in front of the TV has gone a long way to help me push through moments of doubt and hurt when that PB is slipping from my grasp.