There seems to be tremendous interest right now in the health effects of sugar in our diets. Many people say that it is sugar, rather than fat, that is leading people to be overweight. Documentaries like "Fed Up" talk about both the addictive nature of sugar and how the idea of "eating better and exercising more" makes little sense when the environment makes it practically impossible to eliminate sugar additives from your diet in the first place. No matter how hard you try, the deck is simply stacked against you, so the thinking goes. So 21 days ago I set ...
Whether you’ve been running a long time or are relatively new to it, there can be a sense of fatigue that sets in when running the same routes, the same miles and at the same time of day. Even those runner friends of yours might start sounding a little boring after awhile. It’s not like you want to hear another story about the difficulty of their job, is it? Some people use music to distract them from these feelings and I often hear people say they “can’t run without music.” I think they can. I think you can. It’s just a matter of spicing things up a bit. Today, I’m going to give you five ways to make your run more interesting and I’m not including changing up your playlist.
Five Ways to Make Your Run More Interesting
1. Go somewhere new and get out of your “route rut” — I have an interesting perspective on this one. I travel a lot. I mean a lot a lot. When I’m on the road, every run is more fun. I’m exploring a new city, trying not to get lost, and perhaps keeping out of danger in certain places. But it helps me see that there is a freshness that comes with running in new or different places. Now, I understand that not everyone can be on the go as much as I am, but there’s more than one place to run in your own city. I’m constantly amazed when I find myself running down some new road that’s within a mile of my home. I’ve lived in the same place now for almost 10 years and I’m still finding new neighborhoods and places to run. So if you’re feeling stuck in a “route rut” then make it a goal to run a different direction, explore a new neighborhood or just go someplace else to run. Ask your friends where they run. I’m constantly surprised by the answers I get and I’ve found some fun new roads just by asking around.
2. Run your route backwards (not literally!) — If you really do have the same route that you run all of the time, run it backwards from time to time. You will be surprised how different the hills and turns feel when you’re going in the opposite direction. And no, you silly heads, I do not mean physically running backwards. Although running backwards would also be fun, albeit slower and more dangerous!
3. Play a game — As a parent I have become somewhat of an expert in occupying a busy little mind. Yesterday I was on a plane next to a four year-old girl named Ryan who was pretty bored. I kept her busy by giving her mind something to think about. We played “I Spy” out the window of the plane for quite some time. You may need to distract your own brain at times by giving it something else to think about other than putting one foot ahead of another. Think about how much more difficult it is to run for a long time on a treadmill than outside and you’ll know what I’m talking about. 30 minutes on the treadmill can be torture. This is because there’s nothing to look and the senses just get bored. A couple of my favorite games when running — reading every road sign (you will be amazed how many there are), jumping every puddle, and seeing how many coins you can collect on a single run (the key here is to look at the place where cars make right turns at an intersection by a cross-walk and there is a little grit and gravel built up. Go figure.). There are more elaborate games you can play with people, but think about things you do with kids and it will be a good start.
4. Run somewhere. I love to make a workout into a journey. Rather than just going out and back, sometimes I like to run somewhere specific — a one way trip that is. I will often ride from Portland to the Pacific Ocean for example as a long ride. The fact that a run or ride is a one-way journey somehow feels different. Of course if you do this, you need a way to get back home. But then you can always pick somewhere that has transportation or ask for a ride. Three of my friends and I wanted to run a very long trail once. We ran all the way out and then called a cab to get us home. We smelled awful, but it was a fun run and I still remember it today.
5. Change up the routine This may be a bit of a catch-all, but runners get in such a groove sometimes that it can become a grind. Let’s just think here about changing the time of day, wearing different shoes or (my favorite) leaving the watch at home from time to time (no pun intended). Minor changes in the routine can make a big difference in how things feel and that can definitely make things more interesting.
I hate that shirt that says “Running Sucks”. Running doesn’t suck. It’s great. We just need to get out of the rut and start having fun again. That is, after all, what running is all about.
Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
Running Advice and News
I awoke early Saturday morning. There was a strange noise outside my Tuscon hotel room window. It was a sound that I had never heard before. I went over to the sliding glass door and pulled the curtain back. Standing outside was a family of Javelina — wild pigs. There were three large ones and two tiny piglets. The piglets were sitting with their backs against the glass of the door. The other three pigs wandered off out of view but the little pigs just sat there touching themselves against the glass.
I watched them for a moment and started to go get my camera. Then one of the large pigs came back. Mom I’m guessing. She scratched her feet in the dirt and nudged at the piglets but they didn’t move. She made some angry noises, but they still stayed put. Then one of the piglets turned her heard and looked in through the glass. It was almost as if she was looking right at me. She held her gaze through the glass for a moment and then both piglets got up and went off into the underbrush alone. Mother pig went off in the other direction after the other pigs.
I’ve spent much of this year writing on my blog here about our mental game. It’s such an important topic to understand both how we control our thinking and how we react to external events. I noted earlier this year that I had gone into one race “angry”, taking out my aggression in a fiery tirade against the field that left them in my dust. I was untouchable that day. I’ve also had days this year when I felt complacent for one reason or another and in those times it has been hard to step on the gas when needed. As I often say, our thoughts frame our feelings. When we receive bad news we may feel angry. When we are given compliments we may feel happier about our selves. This often happens unconsciously, but the trained mind can be channeled to react and feel very specifically.
Think about this in the context of our racing for a moment. Before races I often tell my participants to “turn their anxiety into excitement,” which is another way of saying that they need to take a negative emotion and turn it into a positive one. I spent a lot of time thinking about all of this going into Duathlon Nationals in Tucscon this past weekend. I knew that I had the potential to win a national title, but honestly, I was not emotionally ready to race. I was tired from the long long season. I wanted to be done and on to recovery. But it had also been on my mind that I would have really liked to have captured that “anger” that I felt earlier in the season. How could I turn my mind back into that animal state that would let me crush this one?
This had been on my mind for a couple of weeks and then tragedy hit us here in Portland. My friend Coach Jane Samuels was hit by the horrible, heartbreaking, painful loss of her fiance’s daughter and step sister. The two little girls were killed by a car while playing outside (Read many stories about the accident on Oregon Live). The collective hearts of Portland’s triathlon community literally sunk through the floor. For my own part, I was brought to tears repeatedly throughout the week. Even now, I tear up thinking about it. As a father of a six year-old, I sympathize in the most encompassing form of that word. I cannot imagine the pain that this family is enduring right now.
Coach Dean Hebert and I have both been writing over the past week about the discomfort of pushing hard and pushing through new boundaries. I wrote last week about the difficulty of pushing hard when we are already in a weakened state. I want to build on that today to talk about another aspect of this discussion: finding focus within or over the edge of your limits.
As I wrote last week, there may be times when you are in a weakened state and can’t get yourself to push hard in workouts. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t types of workouts or situations that will bring you to a point of focus and allow you to move beyond the pain. What I mean here is that some people may find that situations like races or group workouts will focus them so much that they are able to intently concentrate and this allows them to go hard without that pain.
In my personal situation I noted that track workouts have been the bane of my existence over the past two years. I go to the track. I do short speed workouts, but anything beyond about 1,000 meters kind of makes my heart sink. This is, as Coach Dean points out, likely a fear response — a fear of failure or a fear of feeling even more pain than I already have going on in my world. But during this time I have felt completely at home during races. The particular focus that it brings to me allows me to shut out the fears and pain and push hard like I normally would on the track. What I’ve done is to race more during this time and use these races as intense speed workouts. For me this has been an answer to help me get in my workouts in a time when I might not have been able to mentally stomach the tough workouts on the track.
How this may apply to you is to think about the types of workouts that are blocking you, whether they are long speed workouts, tempo runs, sprint workouts or perhaps strength workouts. Think about them and then think of things that might sound a little more palatable to you. If running on the track doesn’t sound good, how about playing a speed game on a wooded trail. If you hills sound terrible, how about running up and down the stadium bleachers like “Rocky.” If tempo runs sound terrible, how about having a faster runner join you for 15 minutes and tying to keep up with them. There are many ways to skin these cats, you just need to find the types of workouts that will produce the results you are looking for but in ways that feel “doable” to you.
There have been a number of runners over the course of my career that I have wanted to call cowards. I’ve only actually done it once and it didn’t have the result that I’d hoped. It ended up with the runner crying hysterical tears and that isn’t a good thing. But there are times that I hear runners saying, “I can’t do that coach” or “I don’t know if I can” that I want to get in their faces and tell them that they are just being a wus. “Get in the game or go the fuck home,” as my dad used to tell me.
Why do we want to push people? Because in training, as in life, you will only get to new places by taking risks. There is an expression that I hate, which I know that you’ve heard: “no pain, no gain.” There is a bit of truth in that phrase. Trying new things is indeed painful. But the important phrase to unpack here is “no risk, no reward.”
Typically when I have a runner that is getting close to the coward zone, they are thinking about something that a) I know they can do and 2) they think that they can’t. It’s in those moments that we want to explain that unless we take chances, we don’t know how far we can go. We will never know the future. We don’t know what things are going to feel like until we do them. But unless we try, then we will never know. We are, in fact, safe when we don’t take risks. Because we can hide behind the safety of our self-imposed walls. Nothing can hurt you when you hunker down behind those walls. But you won’t get anywhere either.
The ugly side of risk is two-fold. First, there is the fear of the future that is inherent in risk. We don’t KNOW what is going to happen. The fear is that we anticipate the negative, the bad, or the harm that may come to us. What will it feel like when you fail? It will feel icky. But what if you succeed? The risk is in taking the chance that we will succeed or fail. We can’t know which one will happen ahead of time, so that’s where the fear comes in. As someone very important to me once wrote on a piece of paper that is now stuck to my computer, we can write F.E.A.R as an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real.
I was talking with a friend that other day that had made a big life decision. It was early on and she had no new information yet with which to judge whether she’d made the right choice. I had given her some advice that she needed to slow down and trust her decisions. I told her to trust the process and let things play out. With time she would know if she made the right decision.
I was racing this weekend and I was thinking about how the many smaller decisions we make can add up to a particular result and how we need to both acknowledge those decisions and embrace them when we stick to them. Even if it means a result that we hadn’t predicted. Here’s what I mean. In the race this weekend, I came in second overall by about 30 seconds. It was a small margin to come up without the win. In my head, of course, I immediately went into the cycle of “I could have won this IF ONLY. . .” but then I needed to review the decisions that I made before the race.
Decision one — “this was intended to be a training race for me.” I am currently training for Duathlon Worlds. This particular race was a triathlon. To underscore this point, I haven’t swam in six weeks since my last Ironman race. The choices in my training are to focus on Duathlon right now. This shouldn’t have been a race I was trying to win. Hindsight aside, this decision still makes sense.
Decision two — “I want to work on my bike segment time.” I went into the race with the desire to hammer the bike, at the expense of anything else. I did that. In fact, I was more than two minutes faster than the overall winner. Success, right? Well, of course it is easy to think “if I hadn’t gone so hard on the bike, I would have had more for the run.” But the point was to kill the bike (I did), even if it killed me (it did). Good training workout. Good decision.
The middle miles are always the toughest. You’ll be working through a race or workout and get to the half-way point and feel a real sense of relief. And then a few minutes later you start to have this sinking feeling of despair, “I’m only half-way done!” I’ve personally always hated this feeling and I know that whether you’re an Ironman, marathon runner or even training for shorter races, it has happened to you too. Don’t worry, I can help you fix this one.
The Middle Miles syndrome crops up primarily for the the same reasons that we’ve been talking all year here on the blog. Our thoughts shape our feelings. Our reactions to the physical stimuli around us are shaped by those feelings. So whether you are normally a “glass-is-half-full” type or a not, if you’re feeling dread around those middle miles you’ve moved your thoughts into the “glass-is-half-empty” zone. Once we begin to think about how far we have left to go, then everything we experience, from a little pain or a rain-shower, starts to make us feel bad.
Remember that we always craft our experience and our journey through our thought processes, so when you thought-space moves to “I have so far to go” then the natural reaction to difficulties is “I can’t go on” or “this is hard.” We need to move our thoughts back into a positive space and think “these miles are no longer than the ones I have done,” or “it’s just a little rain,” or “I’ll work through this pain in legs and feel better in a while.” We control our thoughts and thus we control the feelings that we experience.
But there are two other ways that can impact the way the Middle Miles feel in addition to moving our thoughts into a more positive space. The other two are 1) pacing and 2) nutrition. If you take all three of these items together, they form a three sided solution to that sinking feeling in that tough middle portion of the race.
I’ve told the story countless times about how I ended up a runner. My mom had put me in sport after sport, so the story goes, and my soccer coach pulled her aside. “Ms. English,” he said, “your son is a terrible soccer player, but outruns everyone on the field. Perhaps he is a runner.”I always tell this story to get the chuckle that invariably comes when the coach says that I was a terrible player. This is likely true. I’m one of the least coordinated people that I know. In fact, I often refer to myself as a “big dumb engine” — turn me on and I just go. But there is another side to that story that I’ve never really talked about. Another response my mom could have had was, “well, is he having fun?”
It occurs to me that we are often so focused on being “good” at things like sports that we forget that we can do them just for the sake of having fun. At the young age of six years old, should it have mattered that I was terrible at playing soccer? Should it have mattered that I might excel at running? What if I loved the game of soccer and hated running? Should we always be in search of the things in which we are most competitive?
I’ve noticed a bit of language that I key in to related to this these days. When I’m talking to runners and triathletes, they often use the word “should” — as in “should I run another marathon?”, “should I try to qualify for Boston?” “should I do another Ironman?” What underlies these questions is a sort of obligation. ‘Should’ implies there is a some reason or duty there. ‘Should’ could be interchanged with “must” pretty easily.
Tell almost anyone that you’re doing an Ironman Triathlon and watch the expression on their face. They almost can’t believe it. Actually they just can’t understand it. “How far is the bike?” they ask and even when you tell them they have no comprehension how far 180KM (112 miles) really is. Sometimes I tell them by relating it to a distance they would understand — “It’s from here out to the beach and back.” They still don’t get it. The physical task is, simply put, impossible for them to understand.But then you go out and do your Ironman or your marathon and you’re somehow feeling. . . “average.” You look around at 2,000 people crashing into the water, pedaling along the highway and running through the night and you start to think maybe this ain’t such a big deal. It’s not like you won or even came close. In fact, the winners were finishing the race before you probably got off the bike. You hear others talking about the race: this is my 50th, they say, or their fastest or their third this year. They are 65 years old and just finished their first one. It’s not only very possible, but almost common place.
Last weekend at Ironman Australia I had this very feeling. Although I was doing what most consider impossible, I was feeling quite average. How can this be?
I talked with my favorite psychologist this weekend and she helped me understand this a bit. First, both our own comprehension of what we do and that of the people viewing it is shaped by our own experience. What this means is that the person hearing about your tale of physical world domination can’t comprehend the task, because they have no experience with which to understand it. And our experience leads us to form an opinion based on all that we’ve done. In other words, we have a basis to compare against while others don’t.
Second, we’re competitive creatures. That’s why we participate in these crazy marathons and Ironman triathlons to begin with. Our competitive drive shape our impression of how we feel about our endeavors. The self-talk of the athlete quickly goes from “I am just trying to finish” to “I could have gone faster if only I had. . .” This inner self-talk, which ultimately is a source of our desire to improve, takes us from thinking that we’re doing the impossible to thinking that we could do it better the next time.
In a post a couple of weeks back I was considering whether drivers on the roads mean us runners and cyclists harm or whether we just cook that up in our minds through our own feelings. Do you remember the article? I asked if they “really mean us harm?” After considering this a bit more, perhaps they really do hate us after all. But so what.
In the earlier article I explained that our feelings and thoughts are related. When a driver cuts us off, we get angry. The anger comes from a thought that the driver “did that on purpose” or “was trying to scare me” — or something similar. If we really think about it, the feelings are totally different if we process this as “they didn’t see me” or “that was my fault”. Then we have other feelings, such as relief from not being hit. So I was proposing that we try to maintain our composure, making sure that our feelings stay positive and don’t impute negativity on other people that may not mean us any harm.
Before I go further, I had a very interesting experience that I wanted to share. I was sitting at a stop light on my bike waiting to make a right turn. The road that I was on was a one-way street and I was sitting in the far right lane. As I was looking up the street at the traffic coming from my left, I noticed that a car had it’s turn signal on — to take a right turn — the wrong way up the one-way street. The driver made her turn and in my head all I could think was “oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.” She made it about half a block before figuring it out and thankfully no one crashed into her. It was the other drivers that I noticed next — I saw people yelling things like “fuck you” and “you crazy bitch” at this driver. All I felt was relief that she hadn’t caused a huge accident. The anger that was pouring out of these other drivers was exactly what we were considering. No one would knowingly drive the wrong way up a one-way street unless they were in a Bruce Willis action movie. If any of those other drivers had been analyzing the situation at all, they would have realized that, but they went straight to the anger response.
I was kind of happy that I felt calm and more concerned about the driver than anything else. So I set off to test this in a couple of situations. On one of my rides a few days later, I was steaming along at a nice clip in a VERY wide bike lane. I was way over at the right side of the road, a good ten feet from the traffic. It was a clear day, a flat road with only light traffic. The picture that I’m painting for you here is that there is no way that I could have been blocking or impeding the traffic in any way. So along comes this truck and lays on his horn as he goes by me. This, of course, startled me but I typically accept this type of behavior from drivers so I didn’t really react. It happened though that I caught up with the truck at a light about 1/4 mile up the road. So I made the universal sign for “roll down your window” and I asked the driver the following: “Did you need to get my attention or were you just letting me know that you were there?”
I’ve been spending a lot of time considering how we control our thoughts and focus lately. If you’ve been following along, recently I was talking about how we respond to others and how we feel during races and how we control our own overall training picture in our heads. Something in this triggered me to start thinking about our old friend, whom we call pre-race anxiety, and how that problematic emotion relates to these topics. So I ask you today, “what’s in your thought space before a big race?”
Let’s start with a concept of the thought space itself. This is the active part of your thinking. It’s what you’re thinking about, pondering, considering, mulling over, and performing strateg-ery on. It’s the stuff that keeps you up at night because you are expending mental energy pouring over it. We’ll distinguish this from things that are going on in your subconscious mind, of which you may not even be aware. I bring up this distinction, because my first instruction is always to tell people to deal with pre-race anxiety by bringing the “fear” that they are feeling into their conscious minds and converting it into thoughts of excitement and energy. This forces them to move these thoughts and feelings into the foreground and actually think about them.
People process information and think about things in vastly different ways from one another. Not everyone has what we would consider the same level of “presence of mind” of what’s going on in their world. To give you an example of this, I was speaking with a runner recently who told me that he was wearing “whatever they gave me in the running store” on his feet. Contrast this with many other people that would be able to articulate to me which of their four pairs of running shoes that they have to choose from for a particular workout and why they would choose this pair over that one. This is due to the level of conscious thought that each of these people are devoting to their shoe selection. This is not to say that one is better than the other — or even that one is a faster runner than the other — but they are simply processing the situation in different ways.
So let’s think about how, when and why our race preparation for a major race should enter our thought space. If you follow along with this thinking you may find that you’ll have less stress as you come up to the race and less (or more controlled) pre-race anxiety.