Developing Race Instinct in Runners Who Struggle with Pain Perception


Central XC SissonThat burning feeling in my throat…is it on fire? Is it bleeding? My legs feeling like they are wading through a pit of mud. My arms aren’t even carrying anything, but they feel just like they do when I am too stubborn to take two trips from the car to the kitchen when I grocery shop.
“…when is this going to be over?”
“WHAT? We still have 2k to go?
“That is less than half, that is only 1/3 of the race…I did not just focus and kill myself for 2/3 of this race to wuss out in the last 1/3”
…30 seconds later…
The discomfort has escalated and I am questioning why in the world I continue to participate in this sport, why I didn’t take up basketball or soccer where there are breaks, and why everyone is lying to me from the crowd, “You’re almost done!,” when I can’t even see the finish line yet.These are some typical thoughts than have ran through my mind while racing. When I first took up the sport, I would have serious anxiety 1-2 days prior to competition. I was in fear of the amount of oxygen I could not seem to swallow, if I could make it through the race without walking, and if I would finish in last place. My very first race ever: I felt like I couldn’t breathe the entire time, I did walk for about 20 seconds, but I successfully did not finish in last place.
While some coaches may disagree with me, due the fact that I succumbed to walking, when I say I really did put it all out there. Relative to my fitness level at the time, that 28 minutes for 3 miles was all I could muster from legs and lungs. Being 17 years old with no running experience at all, compared to my fellow trained counterparts, to simply finish and not get last was the goal. For that to happen with the amount of fitness and training I had, I had to really push myself. I believe this is when I learned the art of racing in way different from most runners because I really had no visual. I was alone for 90% of the race. I had to learn how to hurt from my own desire to respectfully finish what I started. There was no runner beside me to keep accountable to a pace, so I had to always find it within myself to let my own desire to improve guide me to PR’s.
It is probably easier to grasp the art of racing for most people when they can look in front of them and cling to someone, keep in stride with who is next to them, or not let the footsteps they can hear behind them pass. While these are still useful ways to strategic racing, I believe it does not really teach someone how to handle one aspect of racing: mid-race thoughts. If someone can learn how to flip that sense of hurt on and mentally cope with fatigue by themselves then they have a leg up on anyone who does not know this skill because they have then learned what I believe to be one key point to racing: The true opponent is not anyone else in the race, the real opponent is the body’s desire to slow down when the pace for a given distance becomes uncomfortable. If someone can understand that and move past the desire to cave in to slowing down, they will be a great racer. Obviously, this skill can attempt to be mastered in practices but the pain of racing, if sought for, is still much stronger than Workout Wednesday.
Thinking back to my experiences in my whopping 4 years of running, I think these practices and experiences have contributed my ability to race fairly well (I am not perfect, I can still improve, I will add)

  1. I am able to put myself in immense discomfort, alone. When I was a kid, I would run a mile super hard—like on the ground dying after, simply because I liked to improve my perception of given effort. I had no watch. I couldn’t tell you what time I ran. I didn’t care. My goal was just to sweat and feel like I was about to pass out…10 years later when I took up the sport: I have yet to have a workout partner as my closest female distance teammate is an 800 meter runner, so I never know if the effort I am going is really hard enough, so half the time I let myself go full throttle. I imagine myself running behind some better women in the NCAA and desperately just hanging on to them. The key is having an incentive when you push yourself alone. I believe doing solo workouts all the time is not ideal, as I am sure I would be better if I had someone to push me, but once in a while solo workouts force the runner to find their incentive, commit to self-induced fatigue, and mentally cope with self-doubt. If someone is always clinging to someone in workouts and plans for that in races, they aren’t developing their skill set to fight when things get difficult. There won’t always be someone in a race to cling to.
  2. I took up marathon running before I ever raced a mile, 5k, or 10k. The amount of discomfort I would be in miles 20-26.2 was a kind of discomfort that I really can’t put into words, so when I jumped down to collegiate distances, the pain was not less, but shorter. I am able to think of it: this is like less than 6 mins, or 20 mins, or 40 mins of your day. This is nothing! I can ask myself mid race: “is this as bad as mile 24?” I am not recommending that you tell your athletes to go run a marathon, but I do believe in long runs. I think the tail end of a long run teaches a runner to focus on each step when they get tired. If they are observant of themselves, they will self-regulate their posture and gait to ensure they are not deviating from ideal form due to fatigue. I believe this kind of strength carries over to any distance while racing.
  3. Never doubt making a move. I have never, ever doubted myself during a race. It’s like I don’t even make the decisions, I let my legs do that. I doubt myself every day in practice and sometimes on the starting line, but never midrace because I understand it does not boil down to who did the best workout last week or who may be gifted with better leg speed, but who knows when to go regardless if that means passing on the outside, taking an elbow, passing someone that may have beaten me all season, or making a big move half way through—if the thought entered my mind it is because my legs and lungs are prepared. I don’t have any science to back this up, why else would the thought of passing enter my mind if I really thought I could not do it? Worse case scenario (which has yet to happen) I will die hard, but at least I will have learned a new level of effort perception and racing strategy. I don’t think of it as having confidence in my fitness, more so having confidence in my racing intuition.
  4. I put myself in discomfort on the regular. I don’t care if it is 0 degrees or 110 degrees: most of the time, I run outside (I do admit to some indoor running, however). There’s a foot of snow and the windshield is -30? I ran outside for an hour. It is 3pm and the heat index is 108 degrees? I still went an hour. It’s a workout day and the wind is 20-25 mph and I don’t have anyone to block it? I still do the work out and try to aim for my times. Yes, some people may think that the run may have better, smarter, and safer to move the run inside or make another plan: and I agree—a run in 108 or -30 is awful. A workout in 20mph wind is slower and effort wise takes way more out of the runner…but that is not that point. Running in non-ideal conditions makes tough distance runners. When it is 90 degrees in a race, I really didn’t think it was that bad. When it was 25 degrees in an open field in Wisconsin, I was prepared.
  5. I have my go-to mantras: “Do you really want to finish this and think that you could have pushed harder?” “I did not just work my butt off for the past few months to not let it pay off because I couldn’t suck up the pain for what is a fraction of the day” These are two of my favorites, but I am sure every runner has some that will work best for them.
  6. If I am really struggling, I fake it ‘til I make it. So many runners get psyched out very easily by gaps or passes made during a race. Whatever pace a runner is going, no one else in the race knows if they are hurting as bad as they are. So, a mid-race surge may be enough to kill the opposing runner’s confidence and boost the struggling runners. Another issue, If the runner appears to be slowing down, at least make sure they look damn good doing because addressing their form may be enough to get them back up to pace. If someone is about to fall off the wagon, they can still savor a good stride.
  7. Letting them learn the pain in small inklings—I think there is latter of pain tolerance we all must climb. Reflecting personal experience I think the levels tolerated go something like this:
  • Discomfort at the end of the race
  • Discomfort in the middle and the end of the race
  • Discomfort in the middle and fatigue at the end of the race
  • Discomfort in the beginning, fatigue in the middle, and exhaustion at the end of the race
  • Discomfort (but controlled) in the beginning, exhaustion at half way or ¾ of the way, last ¼ is on auto pilot, kind of like a separation of self. I know I am doing this when I can’t hear anything, I don’t see anything but the finish, I am not thinking any thoughts (we’re waaay past the mantra point) my tongue may be sticking out, and I may lose control of my bladder.

There may be another level, but I am not there yet. It has taken me 2.5 competitive seasons to reach this level of pain tolerance. We all possess an innate ability to put ourselves in discomfort, but some people surrender to that more easily than others. Doesn’t mean the runner cannot push themselves, doesn’t have the skill set, or is lazy—they just may be learning it slowly. The first step to learning race management is to want to improve. Without drive, the runner will be stuck in their rut. This is something you can’t really coach or help them with, as I am sure you already know. Luckily though, most people that sign up for distance running really love it, so they likely have the drive.
Hopefully, this was not too long and if you stuck around for reading the whole thing, thank you.

Sarah Bradley
Expanding on her passion for distance running, Sarah Bradley, is a young lady who finds great enjoyment in interviewing people on their journey pertaining to the sport of track and field and writing about various topics within the sport. She wishes the insights, experiences, and self reflections shared may serve someone, somewhere. Beginning running recreationally at age 18, she has since found substantial improvement. She is mostly silly, but on occasion--when she drinks enough coffee--she is fully enticed in the pursuit of her very best.