VRP Blog 6

Training the Brain

Hello running athletes! 

This week I have decided to talk about the power of our brain and how it relates to the way we train and perform. It is such a huge subject that we can only begin to touch on a few things, but we think you’ll find it useful…

Some of you may know this, and also know him personally, but I am coached by Mark Whitby, known to me simply as ‘Coach’. On this occasion we have decided to write a joint blog to give you some insight into the psychological aspects of running, which we have researched and experienced. 

Firstly, some background. Our athlete/coach relationship began back in October 2012, when I got chatting to Mark at Worthing Athletics Track. Through a random conversation I learnt that he competed for GB over the 400m hurdles and other short, fast, crazy events on the track, back in his hay day. At this time in my running journey, I had just discovered the track and needed to improve my speed in order to gain what I really wanted to achieve over the marathon and other distances. The track was pretty alien to me at the time, seeing as I loved cross country, hills, marathons and adventure races. Why would anyone want to run around in circles, on dead flat ground, not to mention complete a 5k or 10k race over 24 laps!

Image result for running track

Anyway, I learnt to realise just how beneficial and measurable track training and racing was combined with endurance runs. That said, I wanted to spice things up a little so, in my complete naivety, if I was going to play on the track I decided I was going to take up the Steeplechase! (If you have not seen a Steeplechase race, google it now). It is the nearest thing to cross country on the track, in my view, with multiple horse like jumps and the famous water jump.

Image result for emma macready steeplechase

Steeplchase is run over 3000m. Apart from having one big screw loose, you need to try and master 5k and perhaps 10k race fitness, combined with the ability to surge and pull back on and off the jumps, power to push off and onto the jumps, judgement and some pretty good self talk skills when the going gets tough in the last lap and you still have to make that last water jump! Anyway, my point being…. I jumped at meeting someone who could hurdle (Mark) and before I could control the words coming out of my mouth I had asked if he would coach me and teach me the hurdles? His response was quite mumbled, stuttered and cautious seeing as he had only just met me. We agreed to meet at the track the following week, which probably gave him a bit of time to look up what kind of runner I was and also do some security checks as to whether I was some kind of weirdo 😳 We had a brief chat about my running and how serious I was about the event (he didn’t know me at this point and the fact that if I’m going to put my mind and time to something, I’m pretty serious about that effort not going to waste and achieving the best that I can) and then we hit the track to do some hurdle drills. I will always remember his response to watching me go over a set of hurdles for the first time which, may I add, involved quite a bit of co-ordination, fine motor skill and concentration, and took me back to learning how to ski or serve in tennis for the first time. Mark’s response was; “well, do you want the good news or the bad news? The good news is that you can’t really hurdle that well, and the bad news is that you can’t really hurdle that well” Initially, I was a little disgruntled, but quickly realised that what he meant was, the good news is that with your current 3000m flat running speed, combined with adding the jumps in and the improvement we can make through training and practicing hurdling, we could achieve some results that could be up there nationally.

So our journey began as Athlete & Coach, both committing to the process of goal setting and what it takes to climb that ladder. 

Going back to the title of training the brain, Mark not only researches the hell out of the best training he feels would benefit me at different stages of the race season, based on how I am responding, and sets the training for me on a weekly basis, which he has done this for 8 yrs now – but he is also VERY good at the psychology side. This involves everything that goes with hard training sessions, understanding realistic results, rationalising performances and all manor of other aspects. He has become not just an Athletics Coach but Life Coach and also friend.

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So, I asked Mark for an initial contribution to the VRP Blog, concerning the way in which the brain affects running and training. Enjoy…

Much has been written about sports psychology and running psychology in particular. The difficulty with psychological theories and practice, is that their effectiveness is very difficult to prove or disprove, unlike most physiological approaches.  The upshot of all this, is that psychological support for sports people is typically regarded as highly individual and is ordinarily judged on ‘what works for you’. That said, there are particular approaches and techniques that are understood to be more effective than others and I will explore some of these below and in future posts.

My professional background is in education and, specifically, working with children and young adults with social, emotional and mental health concerns. This led to an interest in how people manage and change their behaviours and postgraduate studies in coaching psychology, which serves my current work as an education consultant and coach in leadership and athletics.

Before I begin, I want to point out that I consider sports psychology to operate not only within the cognitive range, but also at a neurological, subconscious, level.  In other words, there is the ‘thinking’ side of sports psychology, e.g. negative and positive thoughts, but there is also the way in which the brain functions to (subconsciously) regulate pace and fatigue, and it is this aspect I want to explore in this particular post.

 I might add at this point, that these are not my original theories, but those I have discovered through studies and, significantly, empirical research led by scientists rather than the hunches of coaches. As an aside, therefore, I would strongly recommend any serious runner to get their hands on a book called Running Science by Dr Owen Anderson. It is a compendium of research into running, mainly physiological, but also some psychological elements.  It is this book, and the research papers it points to, that form the foundation of the following...

I am going to say something quite controversial here, which is that the long understood belief that lactic acid inside muscle cells is the dominant cause of fatigue, is untrue. There has been much research done to explore this relationship and the theory that fatigue during running is caused solely by biomechanical intramuscular factors, and lactic acid in particular, has been found to be inadequate.  It is actually the case that hydrogen ions increase during intense exercise, amidst a range of other factors, and these have a direct impact on the central nervous system. As such, there is an emerging range of evidence to suggest that it is, in fact, the brain that regulates fatigue and pace, but just like physiological aspects, the nervous system can be trained.

I know from my own experiences as a runner and coach that, leave an endurance athlete to their own devises, they will tend to run long and steady or, put it another way, the body will find its own comfortable, steady state, ‘safe’ pace.  There is almost a meditative state that runners can get to when they find this perfect pace and rhythm, which often evokes a feeling of being able to run forever, albeit for a fit, healthy and moderately trained individual.  If you’ve managed to reach this state at any time, good for you, and I want you to remember all the variables that came together to achieve this and then, in your training, do everything you can to avoid them!

Research determines that there is a particular way the brain limits our performance, and this is referred to as ‘anticipatory regulation’.  In simple terms, it is the way in which the brain takes in all the information available to it and regulates or inhibits our efforts according to how ‘unsafe’ it feels.  An obvious example of this, apart from our tendency to revert to ‘steady state’ running, is when poorly adapted athletes do intervals, e.g. 8 x 1000m, whereby the first repetition sets a ‘pain and pace’ expectation, reps 2 to 7 then typically fall off due to perceived onset of ‘fatigue’, but repetition 8 then reverts to or exceeds the pace of the first.  Other examples can be seen on very hot days, whereby an athlete’s pace will immediately fall away, in anticipation of the consequences of heat, well in advance of any notable physiological changes, if they occur at all.  These are just a couple of prime examples and studies show a host of similar and more nuanced instances.

The upshot of all this is that, when training, we need to do everything we can to challenge anticipatory regulation and maximise the ability of the nervous system to stimulate muscle.  This is not to say that other physiological factors do not play a critical part, such as oxygen consumption, body temperature and muscle metabolites accumulation (e.g those hydrogen ions), but the governance of the nervous system is equally, if not more critical.  From a training perspective, therefore, this means the athlete needs to extend the range of operation that the brain considers safe, the ‘pain gain’ if you like, in addition to participating in activities that stimulate muscle at the required ‘racing’ rate.  Ultimately, I believe this means experiencing and understanding ‘pain’ in training in a highly managed and rational way, as well as practicing the speeds and conditions that will be faced in racing.  This is not just about, say, running 4 minutes per km pace in training, if a 20 minute park run is the goal, but reducing this down, for example, to practicing the type of foot strike that is required, or leg extension etc.

As for the scary environment of ‘pain training’ this, in my view, is where we begin to merge with more conventional sports psychology, by utilising the rational approach to training mentioned earlier.  When working with Emma, for example, we will always endeavour to have a strong understanding of what the goal, targets and parameters of a training session are, and try to perform to these so far as is possible.  This means taking into account a range of other factors such as, phase of training, the weather, terrain, and so on.  When we face 8 x 1000m, therefore, we know what the target times are and we do everything to stick to these.  Moreover, if there is any adjustment needed, i.e. we think she can go faster, then this adjustment is made in reps 1 & 2 and is fixed, with any detriment then typically happening on reps 7 or 8, where she might ‘blow up’.  This is fine, however, as for these workouts in particular we don’t want to leave anything in the tank and nothing should be in reserve for the last run!  Now, we don’t always get this right but, I have to say, Emma is a rare commodity in that her success, I believe, is as much to do with her body having a very high pain threshold as it is to do with natural athleticism.  Or, put it another way, Emma’s nervous system has been trained to accept a higher level of perceived risk which, from the outside, can seem daunting and make her look ‘machine’ like.  That said, like a lot of elite athletes, she still has to wrestle with self-talk, doubt and irrational feelings, which brings us to the type of psychology that is considered within an athlete’s control, even if it does always feel like it.  We will look at this next time…

Thanks for reading – Mark

In summary, I’m not sure about the machine comment, but Mark mentions the importance of training involving workouts that push ourselves to the point of discomfort, then recover and push again, which will train the brain to recognise the stressful situation and promote survival. We have all felt like that on some Saturday morning sessions on Goring gap! We must practice in training what we feel in racing, which is harder said than done. 

Many of you will realise that this very topic is what Mart has been talking about in some of his posts and including in your training plans, typically known at tempo runs and to a higher intensity your shorter 1k or 1mile reps all designed to help train both your body and your brain to cope with hard work.

We will go on next week to talk about the self talk and other psychological factors that can inhibit us to be able to train in this way and what methods we can use to combat self doubt and negative thoughts. 

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