A mental game

A dim light went off in my mind the other day as I read ”Iron War,” a book by Matt Fitzgerald about the 1989 Ironman World Championship and an epic duel between two phenomenally gifted and determined triathletes.

It once again was another example of a book that does a better job of explaining some of the aspects of endurance training that many of the running-related books I’ve read has failed to do. Earlier this year, I picked up a few cycling books, and while my running research has been extremely useful, sometimes reading about other endurance sports can help put training principles in a new context that makes sense.

Case in point: in “Iron War,” Fitzgerald writes about some of the endurance studies done on athletes, and one of them struck home for me.

Take the whole issue of running with headphones, for example. For a few years, I’ve been convinced that I run worse while wearing them.

When I first started out running, I couldn’t imagine not listening to my iPod. But during my first marathon, when there was a headphone ban at Grandma’s, I didn’t have a choice but to leave it behind. And I ran so much better than I expected without it – and I didn’t miss it.

Now, unless I’m really looking for the distraction, I don’t wear headphones. Usually, that happens when I expect a long run to be a death march of monotonous miles.

And during the past few years, I’ve wondered if there’s really anything to my belief that I run worse with headphones. My defense was that by listening to music, rather than just running, was that my mind shifted to whatever I was listening to rather than focusing on my breathing.

While, in “Iron War,” Fitzgerald writes about a study that looks at running efficiency, and how running comes more naturally to those who have a more economic and efficient running form. To simplify things, those athletes just go out and run – they don’t think about running (an argument against trying to alter someone’s running form). For less experienced runners, and particularly those new to the sport, one of the exhausting parts about running is the mental focus required to do something the body isn’t accustomed to doing.

In essence, it’s harder to run – both physically and mentally – because the act of distance running isn’t second nature. This probably applies a lot more to people who take the sport up later in life, or who didn’t grow up running throughout their youth.

While I’ve oversimplified it, probably much more than the author or researchers who did the study would endorse, the point makes sense to me.

Even out running with headphones, my mind is focused on something other than just running relaxed. It disrupts the physical and mental synergy that running brings – and could help explain why some of those long runs seem so brutal to me.

Some of my best ideas (at least to me) come to me while I’m running – but those ideas never come while I’m running with headphones. My mind is elsewhere, focused on the words and the music, so it takes a lot of mental energy to overcome the distraction and concentrate on something else. And when I run without headphones, that’s when ideas and thoughts just seem to pop into my mind.

Ironically, this is another way triathlon is making me a better runner. Earlier this year, I began experimenting with cycling, which I dabbled with as a complement to my running and a way to cross train while dealing with injuries. That interest in cycling sparked a renewed a 5-year-old interest in attempting a sprint triathlon this past summer, which in turn led me down the path to signing up for Ironman Wisconsin. And reading about both cycling and triathlon have helped solve some pieces of the puzzle in the journey to self-discovery and my experiment of one.

Ironically, with my dual focus on the Twin Cities Marathon and Ironman much further down the road, I’ve slowly found myself becoming more and more healthy. Within the last week, I’ve had three consecutive runs in which I felt good – something I haven’t experienced this year due to the injuries and trying to regain lost fitness. Good runs lead to better and more consistent running, which in turn lead to better health and fitness.

3 thoughts on “A mental game

  1. i am glad you have found your passion in running. I am enjoying your blog. I have tried running/jogging/walking multipile times. Can’t stand it myself. The only time I run is if a bear is chasing me, and then only if I am the slowest of the group!! (old joke). I wish running wasn’t so hard on the body, or I might do it just to stay in shape. Of the multiple friends I know who were diehard joggers/runners/ etc., all of them have had injuries due to their exercise choice, making their life prohibitive for other pursuits. Perhaps something less traumatic to the body?

    Oh well, enjoy your pursuit. Better the a couch potatoe, for sure!!

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