By Hayden Shearman // If I asked you what is the most important body part for running, what would you say?
The legs? The heart? The lungs? The gluteus? Or the lack of gluteus?!
I would argue that the brain is number one and here’s why …
While the legs, lungs and heart are great for propelling you forward once you are out there running, they are no good if there isn’t the will and determination to get your butt out the door in the first place.
I know so many runners who go in fits and spurts with their training. They sign up for Auckland Half Marathon in April and do a bit of running then. But winter comes and they hang up the trainers only to put them on again once the sun comes out in late September, five weeks out from race day. After collapsing over the finish line and waddling to work for the next two weeks they swear they’ll never run again. … In April next year they sign up to the same race again … and so Groundhog Day repeats itself.
This is not the way to enjoy your running, nor the way to improve it.
The key to improvement in running is by far and away consistency. Not new shoes, nor a gym routine, nor a GPS watch, nor a magic bullet workout, nor a coach (dear I say it!) but the stringing of weeks, months and years together of consistent training that will transform your running.
And it is mental strength more than anything else that is the bricks and mortar to this consistency.
So how do you keep the mind fit and strong?
1) Train the Brain Like a Muscle
Research tells us that the brain works much like a muscle in that it responds and adapts to training. Do an action once and the next time it will be easier to perform. Do it several times and you are creating pathways upon which your thought patterns can be steered towards regular positive beaviours.
So choose one workout a week that is mentally challenging but not beyond you. This could be a long run where you add 1k to your previous longest run or a weekly parkrun where you test yourself over 5k. Each time you do this challenge, you’ll be wiring your brain ready for more and bigger challenges. Start small and grow small—the challenges will soon grow!
2) Rest the Brain Like a Muscle
A bodybuilder doesn’t workout all of his or her muscles everyday. They have specific days for focusing on legs or arms or abs. On the off days those muscles are allowed to recover and grow stronger.
Do they same with your brain. Make most of your weekly running workouts well within your grasp mentally. If you are up to running half marathons, do a 6-8k run several times a week so your brain can have easy days. If you’re just up to running 5k as your longest run, do some walk-run days of 2-3k.
This lack of challenge creates positive associations in your mind towards running, while maintaining that consistency of training that we are after.
3) Test the Brain Like a Muscle
Every so often, have an event lined up where you really need to dig deep into your well of motivation. This could be to run a personal best time or to complete a certain distance, but the key to it is in the phrase “every so often”.
I only take on these sorts of challenges four or five times per year at the most. Otherwise they wear you down and become excuses for not getting out the door. Last year mine were: Auckland Olympic Distance National Tri Champs, Wellington Half Marathon, 21k Xterra Waharau, Queenstown Marathon and was meant to be topped off with an attempt at a parkrun course record (an achilles rupture put an end to the final two goals).
I make these big mental tests major life occasions. I have them circled on my calendar, I prepare for them, I sharpen my mind for them, I clear mental distractions from around them, I get in the zone.
In contrast, many runners enter races every weekend. While this keeps their running interesting and is fine if they can truly treat most of them as training runs and social events, these runners soon loose the ability to really switch on their game faces when they need them. They end up running a bunch of mediocre races, without really ever going to the deepest place within themselves.
If you want to truly see what you are made of, find several events or goals that you can target in the next year. This will lessen the pressure off your other events and allow you to prove how fit your brain can become. And it will become incredibly fit if you give it regular but mild challenges, plenty of easy days, and the odd major test.