April 07, 2009

It's All In Your Head

I've often said to other runners, "We're not out here training our bodies to be stronger, we're training our minds to be stronger."

I'm sure the truth lies somewhere in between, but all you have to do is to look at how long it took competitive runners to break the four minute mile. Roger Bannister was the first to accomplish this in 1954, and yet within just six weeks of this incredible achievement, a second runner not only broke the four minute barrier, but also lowered Bannister's World Record! Here is an interesting snippet of an article:

Bannister stuns world with 4-minute mile


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 17, 1999

For years, the 4-minute mile was considered not merely unreachable but, according to physiologists of the time, dangerous to the health of any athlete who attempted to reach it.

For Roger Bannister, it was vindication.

When he crossed the finish line with a time of 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds, he broke through a psychological barrier as well.

John Landy, considered one of the great milers of that era, never had gotten closer than within 1.5 seconds of the 4-minute barrier before. Within 46 days of Bannister's breakthrough, Landy surpassed the record with a 3:57.9 in Finland. Bannister and Landy raced later in the year in the "Mile of the Century" at Vancouver, a runoff to decide who was the faster miler. Bannister won in 3:58.8 to Landy's 3:59.6, the first time two men in one race had broken 4 minutes.
By the end of 1957, 16 runners had logged sub-4-minute miles.

-This additional article found its way to me today. It's in regards to researchers finally learning exactly how caffeine can be 'performance enhancing'. I have highlighted the main text that I will take away from a write up like this. Personally I don't touch the dark stuff, kinda think it tastes disgusting to be honest!

Caffeine helps athletes to run longer or faster by releasing calcium, researchers in Hamilton have found.

Recreational runners and racers have known for years that downing a cup of java before heading out for a run can give them an extra jolt.

Most assumed that the performance-enhancing drug boosted their running the same way it helps people stay awake.

In Friday's online issue of the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism, however, Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky of McMaster University Medical Centre found caffeine tricks an athlete's brain into delaying the perception of pain and fatigue.

More importantly, it also prompts muscles into releasing more of the calcium needed to contract and relax.

"The caffeine is allowing a little bit more calcium to be released into that muscle," said Tarnopolsky. "It would make that muscle contraction a little bit stronger, so you can actually either run at the same pace with less input, or run at a faster pace for the same input."

Research from the University of Guelph showed caffeine in high concentrations can actually have the opposite effect, which is one of the reasons it is no longer banned at the Olympics.

"Understanding that very small doses of caffeine enhance performance somewhat, larger doses tend to erode performance," said Dr. Andrew Pipe of Montreal, an adviser to the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports.

-I know it says 'more importantly calcium' blah, blah, blah, but what science can't measure, what they can't put into numbers, what they can not graph, is how an individuals 'heart', how that single persons drive and ability to ignore pain can make them a better, faster, more accomplished runner than a more talented individual with greater athletic prowess who might be standing right next to them (yes I know that's one hell of a run on sentence, and I'm ok with that)...at least that's what I tell myself when I line up for my races.

I know I'm not the fastest guy in the field. I am certain during almost all of my races that there are many other runners who could beat me on shorter courses, who could outpace me on flatter courses, who could most certainly teach me a thing or two about 'proper running and technique'. But what I will never give away at any starting line is the single belief that I am as mentally tough or better than each and every person who is toeing that line with me. I know that this belief alone has allowed me to accomplish things that perhaps I should not have been able to, at least according to what a scientific test might tell me. In fact when I first started racing in 2004 my best friend and then adventure racing partner, Mark Fearman (currently residing in Australia) would test higher than me on absolutely everything that our then coach/trainer could throw at us...yet Mark did not beat me in a single event that year, or any year thereafter. Val, our coach, would tell us that it must have boiled down to mental toughness? Mark was no slouch, but I refused to believe for a second that I could not beat him, and then I proved it time and time again.

It's been interesting in the lead up to Western States...80 days from now, how much time I spend on my training runs dreaming about possible outcomes during that event. The best in the sport will be there. It will prove to be my single greatest athletic challenge as an individual to date. All I know for sure is this, I will toe that line as I have every other event in the last five years. I know I will not the be fittest (although I will have trained my butt off), I know I will not be the fastest, I most certainly know I will not be the most genetically gifted, but what I do know is that I won't give a single inch when it comes to seeing who is the toughest over the final 30 miles to that finish line. I dream about it everyday, and I can not wait for it to be here already...although maybe I will start forcing my way through a few cups of joe...just in case 'the calcium theory' is legit as well!



Matt Hart said...

great post gary. i feel the same way actually. the longer the race gets the more it's mental toughness that gets you to the finish line first.

i am clearing my schedule to be at western this year - need a pacer?

Nicola Gildersleeve said...

Agreed...100%...but in regards to coffee before races...its just makes me want to pee more! And I pee enough before races out of nervousness!!!

Heather said...

Excellent analysis. I must say, one needs mental toughness not only to RACE against you... but also to PARTY with you (based on your last post) Whew! thats endurance allright.

garobbins said...

Holy crap, that's quite the offer Hart! I already have a 'pacer' who is a close friend but we are both unsure as to how he will do at actual pacing. I just want him to be a part of it all! Are you actually able to run again yet??

Gilder, you always make me laugh! We might have to get ya on caffeine pills!

Heather, yeah that trip was EPIC...most certainly drawing on my adventure racing experience throughout the week!!

Michael Havrda said...

I don't consume caffeine (too sensitive) except for during ultras; not sure if it delays the feeling of pain but it helps me stay focused when my body gets tired. Otherwise I get "mentally sleepy" and fall off pace.

By the way, what type of dog is it that you have? Pretty awesome looking!

Scott said...

Great post Gary. Before I discovered ultra running a couple of years ago I thought I was pretty tough... then I ran a couple of ultra's and realized how much tougher I was and how incredibly tough so many of these loonies are.
Best ultra quote I've heard so far... "Ferg Hawke is tougher than a boiled owl". Still working out the visual in my head for that one.
FInal thought while I enjoy my coffee and baily's, my heart goes fast enough when I'm running, I don't need artificial stimulants to max out.

The Chaser said...

I think mental toughness applies to everything in life. We all need those "base miles" of mental toughness for when the things get really hard.

garobbins said...

Hey Michael, she's a pound puppy, mix of everything, but primarily a Husky-Sheppard-Doberman...or so I'm told!
Tougher than a boiled owl...yeah most certainly quite the visual there!
Hannah, couldn't agree more, and I know you've been testing yourself thoroughly over the last year or so!