Brain Training

There are two large components to training, the physical aspect & the mental. They are obviously connected to each other, but at times they should be trained independently. At some point during most workouts, you’d rather just be done. There is a voice that most of us hear that helps us list all the reasons why it’s OK to stop early or do less. Sometimes, the voice is right; you’re injured, your gassed, or you overdid it. Often however, the voice is wrong. You’re not injured; your just in pain. You’re not gassed; you just need to relax. You’re not overdoing it; you’re just in the wrong gear. There is a fine line when it comes to your inner voice. It’s very easy to talk yourself out of a workout when you’re not in the mood, or go the other way and push forward when you really should stop. The key to decoding this voice is to understand how your body it responding as you move through your training plan, and then to make adjustments.

Here are some ways you can train your brain to stay focused on your goal and not just the workout.

1. Blocks & Rocks. Think about the entire week as a workout instead of each individual day (blocks). This will help you pace yourself and build up for the major workouts (rocks). Your ‘rock’ workouts are the things you have to do in a particular week. They are the workouts that will help move you forward in the next week. Thinking of your training in bigger blocks also gives you flexibility for ups and downs, similar to interval training. It gives your brain a lot of time to tell your body what it’s going to need to do in a particular time frame. Having the bigger picture in mind forces your brain to send that message over and over and prepares your body to do it. Consider a spur of the moment 20 miler versus having 3 days to think about it.

2. Spam Filter. Know that your brain will quit way before your body. Neurons are firing and red alert signals are going back and forth. Messages are flying in, telling you that your in pain, you’re tired, you have a cramp. You need a spam filter. When you are in tune with your body, you learn which signals are real, and which are junk. You can even go one step further and learn the causes of the real signals. Maybe you heard this voice the last time you didn’t recover or eat correctly, or maybe you really do need a rest day. Over time you will get less junk mail and the voice will quiet down or only speak when it’s important.

3. Headphones. I was anti-iPod for a long time, and still don’t always like to listen to music when I’m running. Since I never expect to use it during a race, I didn’t want to train with it and earn myself a crutch. The reality is, training is a long process, and sometimes you just want to zone out. I almost always use headphones on road runs now, and have even started bringing them on longer trail runs. The benefits have far outweighed the negatives. My favorite 1st song for a run is Sweet Emotion.

Do you Brain Train?

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Who Are You Listening To?

The web has nearly as much training advice as it does kittens.  The problem is, whatever you’re into, you can find both a loyal supporter and a staunch critic.  Whether it’s Crossfit, nutrition, training plans, or gear, the debate goes on and on.  At the top of the running field, you’ll find vegans, paleos, barefoot runners, high miles, low miles, and everything in between.  So who do you listen to?  How do you know who’s saying the right thing?  The answer is clear. All of them and none of them.  For the average runner, comparing yourself to the elites doesn’t make sense.  If you have a life and a regular job, you’re likely not able to train like an elite athlete.  You’re not eating 5,000 calories a day, taking ice baths, naps, and getting massages (if you are, please explain).  This wide range of philosophies tells us that average runners need a little bit of everything in our training plan.

Here are a couple of things to consider when putting together your plan

Diet. The average runner/athlete needs a good diet that they can sustain and be happy with.  It should be one that delivers the right mix of calories, carbs, and protein for your goals.  I’m moving in a vegetarian direction, but I still eat meat about once a week along with eggs. I’ve tried to limit prepackaged foods as much as possible, and I’ll never give up donuts.

Shoes. The average runner/athlete needs to understand how they run and what shoe(s) will work best for them.  It really doesn’t matter what kind of shoe your favorite hero wears.  I use 4 different shoes depending on terrain, mood, and planned activity (also a good excuse to buy more shoes).

Cross Training. The average runner/athlete needs cross-training to get stronger, avoid injury, and burnout.  Going to the gym saved my running “career”.  I joined because I was bored.  after a few months and low miles, I noticed I was getting much stronger and felt better than ever when I did run.  Ultimately, this led to running my 1st ultra on just 20 miles a week.

Mileage. The average runner needs to know what their body is craving.  It might be different that what your predefined training plan is calling for.  I wrote out a 40 week training plan for the LT run, and I adjusted it almost daily to satisfy different cravings. You might not have 50 mile/week knees, and the good news is you might not need them.  There is more than one way to train your running muscles.

So who do you listen to, and what are they saying?

Average to Ultra on 20 Miles a Week

What would you say if I told you you could finish in the top 20 percent of your first ultramarathon with 6 months of training on an average of 20 miles a week?  Sounds crazy right.  I proved this to be true yesterday finishing the Traprock 50K in 5:55:57, 23rd out of 88 finshers (130 starters).  Obviously I did more than run 20 miles a week, but the point is, you don’t need to destroy your legs and pound out the miles to build up the ability to run far.

My typical training week looked like this:

Monday : Off
Tuesday: 5 Miles – road run
Wednesday: Crossfit
Thursday: 5 Miles – road run
Friday: Crossfit + 50 minute soccer game
Saturday: Longer Run – Trail
Sunday: Longer Run – Trail

There was flexibility in the schedule. Sometimes I’d do an extra day at the gym or run hills instead of a Saturday long run, sometimes I took an extra day off.  Over 6 months, 8 weeks were considered heavy mileage with totals of 35, 27, 28, 44, 30, 32, 29, 46 (includes race). The other 18 weeks had totals of 25 or less, and 14 of those with mileage under 20.

Now, if you’re reading this and you’re thinking you can skip today’s run, you probably can’t.  The work I put in at the gym is the only reason I was able to do this.  Without it, I would have been bored by now.  I wouldn’t have the mental toughness, and I wouldn’t have the overall physical strength for a trail race.  Thanks again to the guys at Crossfit Relentless for your help.

Next Goal: VT Long Trail – 272 miles in 10 days.

Timer Time Out

I realize different runners have different goals, but I think there is room in every training plan for running without the looming shadow of the timer.

I don’t consider myself a fast runner, even among amateurs.  My half marathon pace was 7:37, and I haven’t broken 21:00 in a 5k.  It’s not bad, but I’m not winning my age group or anything.  When I was training for the half marathon, I set a goal, and I lived by the watch, tracking my pace and splits.  I timed all my workouts, and memorized what it felt like to run 7:37miles.  I’m happy to report that it worked.  I ran my time and finished under 1:40:00.  By association, when I learned what my “fast” felt like, I also learned slow.  I hated slow.  It became a real drag and sucked the fun out of running.  If a workout wasn’t going as planned, it was hard to find any pleasure in the run, sometimes I’d even cut it short.  Of course I put this pressure on myself, but heavy legs shook my confidence and had me second guessing.  I’m sure a lot of runners struggle with the clock, but when the race was over, I had trained myself to think there was no value in going slow.  Some might say I was right in that thought, but for me, it was all wrong.

As an aspiring ultra runner, my focus has changed from speed to distance, no matter how long it takes.  It is such a freeing feeling when you realize it’s OK to go slow.  This may sound like a convenient excuse for a slow runner, but now I find that my runs are more rewarding and have more variety.  Sometimes I go fast, sometimes I drop to 10 minute miles, and sometimes I even walk.  With this new attitude, I’m able to find pleasure in every run, including the slow ones.  Going slow has given me time to become a better runner.  I’m concentrating on my form and efficiency, differentiating good aches and pains from the bad ones, anticipating the highs and lows, and learning how to refuel on the go. I haven’t timed myself lately, but I know I’m faster and stronger than ever before.  If I topped off with a little speed work right now, I could smash PR’s.  Distance running has enough pressure as it is, give yourself a break and leave your watch at home next time.  You just might learn something new.

Your thoughts?  Do you feel naked without your watch?

I Can See Myself Doing This

Yesterday I had the privilege of hearing sports psychologist for the Boston Red Sox, Bob Tewksbury speak.  He said a couple of things that really struck me, in particular, he confirmed my thought that part of being successful is learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. You may recall I said that exact thing right here.  No matter if it’s sports or life, there will be situations and obstacles that take you out of your comfort zone.  Learning to focus only on the things you can control can help you get through these times.   The second thing that struck me was when he said, “where the mind goes, the body follows.” He expanded on this and went on to talk about the use of visualization in preparing for the task ahead.  In an interview with David Laurila of Baseball Prospectus, Tews says this about visualization.

BT: The mental skill of visualization has proven to be effective in a variety of sports. This is a skill which I used more than any other when I played, as part of my pre-game preparation. On days I would pitch, I would get my Walkman and head to the trainer’s room for a visualization session. I would lie there for 15-30 minutes, picturing in my mind what I wanted to do for the game. In my mind, I would throw all my pitches, oftentimes falling asleep during the process. The mental rehearsal helped me have positive focus prior to the game, and the nap helped ease any pre-game butterflies I may have had by helping me get them (the butterflies) to fly in order. It was a great pre-game routine for me, and many times the events of the game happened JUST like I had visualized in my mind. The bottom line with visualization is that the body doesn’t know the difference between a real or imagined action. For example, if I visualize throwing a fastball down-and-away to a hitter, the muscle fibers in my body respond just like I was really doing it–to a much lesser degree, obviously, but still nonetheless. By visualizing, you are programming your body to respond accordingly to an imagined action. If you think and picture good things, there is a good chance they will happen. The opposite side of that is also true. Ask any golfer who hits the ball in the water off the tee! I’ll bet nine times out of 10 that happened because the golfer had a quick mental picture; he visualized it happening and as much as he tried to not do it, his body (and his mind) led him there!

My Own Experience
I have definitely used this process both in sports and life.  I can think of examples where I’ve pictured something for months on end.  These particular challenges were important to me but I knew they would not come easy, and that I had to do the work to get there. The end results were just as I pictured it, and worth all the struggles.  Beware the pitfalls of ‘counting your chickens before they’re hatched’.  I’ve also done this on numerous occasions.  Typically this happens when you visualize, but forget to do the work to make it a reality.
The good news is I’ve already been picturing a few scenes from the Long Trail.  I see myself standing at the beginning, the Northern Terminus, just like current record holder Jonathan Basham.  I’m nervous as hell standing there, but I’m there.  Sometimes when my thighs are burning at the gym, I see myself moving through the woods, pushing forward from sun-up to sundown. Sometimes towards the end of a run, I see myself coming to the Southern Terminus and being joined by friends and family for the last bit.  With every passing week, my confidence in these images grows and I can fill in more details.
Side Note: I’m not sure anyone on the Red Sox saw 7-20 for September.

From Average to Ultra

2010 Hartford 1/2 Marathon 1:39:48

I am your typical, average runner: 20-25 miles a week. I can throw down a 6 minute mile, but typically I’m in the mid 7’s.  At the height of my training while preparing for the half marathon, I hit 40 miles a week. My longest run to date is about 16 miles.  For an ultrarunner, it takes 16 miles to get warm, and 40 miles is a nice Saturday.

In a few days I’ll let you know the real purpose of this blog, but I can tell you, I want to be an ultrarunner. I’m not sure why I want to skip the marathon and go right to crazy, but the mystique of ultra-distance has a hold on me. Ultrarunning calls into question your fitness, your psyche, and your guts. I’d like to say I’m strong in all three areas, but I can’t say I know my limits or that I’ve truly tested myself. I think just about anyone can follow a training plan and run 26.2 miles, but I want to see what happens after that.

How to get there?

I’m in the 2nd week of an intense training program with the goal being a 100K event and a 10 day event in the Summer of 2012. I developed my program from a variety of sources including, Matt Fitzgerald’s book, Run: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel, and some other training plans. I’ll tweak it as I go depending on how I’m performing, and I’ve spiced it up with time at the gym, stairs, and trail runs. I’m not sure this is a great plan, or even a good one, but for now I like it and I’m moving forward.

At this point, I’m wondering how I’m going to get from 17 miles a week to completing over 60 in a row. I’m focused on increasing my workload and running no matter what.  I’m convinced this challenge will be 50% physical and 100% mental. I call it getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Legs hurt? Don’t care. Tired, sore? Don’t care. Cold? Don’t care. Right now, I’m nervous that I’m not doing enough, but the road is long, and confidence in my training program will come as I improve.

What do you think? Am I nuts?