Running through the discomfort of exhaustion is often more of a mental challenge than a physical one. Slowing down is either the result of a conscious decision to slow/stop or your body starting to shut down. Therefore, having tactics to push through the discomfort of exhaustion is a valuable skill for all runners, especially if you want to approach your physical limits.
Think of your brain as your body’s command center. Once your cardiovascular and muscular systems start approaching their limits, your brain sends signals to start shutting them down, forcing you to slow down. In most cases this “need” to slow down is only a message from your brain and you’re capable of continuing at or above that pace. It is your body’s defense mechanism, protecting you against harm that may occur. However, in many cases these signals are premature and the difference between beating your PR and not beating it lays in mentally overcoming these messages to quit.
This helps explain why you may find “extra” energy to “kick” or speed up suddenly as you see the finish line. Your brain knows the stress being placed on your body is about to stop and will adjust its regulation, allowing you to come closer to your limit. Learning little “tricks” or tactics to bypass the mental anguish or monotony of unpleasant runs/races is an essential tool for every type of runner.
Below are 3 strategies that will help you bypass signals from your brain to slow down. Just as with all other skills, you’ll need to practice these for them to work. Practice these during your day-to-day runs and workouts. If utilized regularly, they will increase your ability to push through the discomfort of exhaustion. Keep in mind that these aren’t mutually exclusive and can be used simultaneously during a single run or race.
1) Breaking It Down Into Pieces: Try breaking the run or race into smaller more manageable efforts and approach each piece with a different attitude. Then, come up with a plan about how you’ll approach each part. For example, a 10 mile race can be three 5k's back-to-back with short "I'm almost finished" sprint at the end. Next, have a game plan for each 5k.
2) Mental Bargaining: This is a personal favorite; it involves making a series of small goals or deals with yourself. The key here is to continually make these small goals one after another until the end of the run or race. For example, you may say, "I'll hang with this group till mile 7" or "I'll try and catch 4 people in the next mile." Once you reach that goal, immediately make another.
3) Latch On & Turn Off: This works well when running in a group. The idea here is to “let the others do the work.” Tuck in the middle or outer edge of the group and focus on the runner ahead of you. Only think about staying directly behind the runner ahead. Try to image that a rope connects you and the runner ahead is pulling you along. The runner in front will be blocking you from the wind, called drafting, so it will actually be easier. Drafting should ALWAYS be used when running into a headwind.
Next time you’re struggling through a run, interval workout, or race, try using these mental tactics to help you push through the pain and run faster and longer then you thought possible.