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Runner taking a breather

‘Failure’ isn’t failure, but instead, it’s one of the few times we can truly train our mental endurance

Down on last year’s race time, being beaten by that runner you always beat, legs and lungs just not working like you know they can do… That’s right, it’s just not your day, you’ve blown and now you’re suffering…

You’re now just past half way into the race, the course has luckily looped so you’re not far from the race start, it’d just be a short trip back to call it a day. An acceptable effort was given, but you’re ‘not feeling it’, ‘not enjoying yourself’, ‘suffering’ and it’d just be better to call it quits and live to fight another day… an acceptable notion right? Better to not prolong your misery, pick yourself up for next time and you’ll be on for a top performance next time. Or so you convince yourself.

Now, DNF’ing due to injury, decline in physical health or if you’re in the serious risk of putting yourself in danger is not what this blog is about. Having the experience and knowledge to know when to pull out of a race is an essential quality of a racer, and in certain circumstances must certainly be applied. Instead, this is about the moment of the race when it all comes crashing down, you’ve blown and you’ve a hell of a long way left to go…

The moment you quit begins the new groove in the ‘giving in’ habit formation

We all have an inner monologue, most of the day it’s in the background whilst you’re driving, working or in general menial tasks. Once we begin our run, it’s just us alone with our thoughts for the next hour or so. The dialect ruminating around in our head is loud in this hour, constantly asking how we’re doing, how fast we’re going, can we keep it up, do we need to cut this hill short, should we stop to take a breather – endless questions asking if we’re capable of what we’re doing.

Overtime we begin to tune this voice out, we know what we can handle, in fact we’re becoming pretty handy at it, we’re now just going through the motions. 

Yes, we push ourselves at times, in our interval sessions, tempo runs and longer miles. Even so, we can never truly put ourselves into the dark places we find ourselves every now and then when we’ve bitten off more than we can chew, or suffering more than we normally would be in a race.

In the toughest of racing moments, you’ll learn more about yourself in those painfully dark times than you ever will in training 

So, that voice in your head is screaming to stop during your race, what do you do? If you please it immediately, guess what, it’ll be back in your next round of hill reps, your next race, the next time you’re tired and now you’ve given into it once, you’re finding it more and more acceptable to give into it again. Expect to drop out of more races. As success breeds success, negativity breeds negativity – and as endurance runners, allowing negative thoughts to have control over us makes it much easier to give in again and again, any time our inner monologue begins to plead with us.

The problem is, by not pushing yourself to these limits, when you’ve been drained of all will to carry on, you’re missing out on the point of the race where we find out what we’re truly made of. You acquire the ability to endure and the more you find yourself in these moments, the more you refuse to quit, the less noise your inner monologue will make. Once the voice is tuned out, we can learn how to appreciate but disassociate with this state, the pain, the feelings – learn how to ‘dig in deep’.

Therefore, when we are truly tested and exhausted beyond the point of fatigue is when we discover what we’re made of and can learn the most about ourselves and how we cope and adapt to the situation. Learn to love this state, don’t escape it as it will become your strongest characteristic as an endurance racer. Learn that there is a difference between ‘persistence‘ and ‘endurance‘.

We can persistently fail, quit, drop out and come back to fight another day, potentially never learning from our faults – or we can endure in these moments, learn how to withstand the painful onslaught and achieve the endurance runners ‘zen’ – except this one isn’t heavenly but more hellish.

So how do we keep going in these moments?

Retrain how we think about the pressures of racing

Firstly, why is it we ‘give in’ in these moments? Usually it comes in two forms. Not being fully prepared, or telling ourselves before the race at which mile or at which section we’re going to decline. If you can fully visualise yourself getting around that course, the end will drag you to it. If you’ve already accepted your end point and tell yourself you’re not going to make it, then as such, you likely won’t make it.

Running is as much about training and recovering our minds as it is our fitness and running technique. Knowing that we can’t always be at our best, that we sometimes will have a rotten run and that there will be a better day is something that comes from experience, but also something that must be trained into our psyche.

 Sometime, the fear of failure means we won’t even reach the start line itself

We’re always told about certain runners’ ‘defining moments’. How it’s just one great performance they’re known for. The pressure to have our own ‘defining moment’ often takes us out of the moment itself. You can never truly appreciate the experience of a race if you’re so under pressure to have a defining moment you can savour for the rest of your running career. Only very few runners ever achieve the ultimate pinnacle of racing achievements, but should you ever do so wouldn’t you lose that hunger, that desire to carry on if you’ve reached the top anyway?

Instead of thinking about the need to have a ‘defining moment’, think of your spell as a runner as a string of moments with no need for any particular moment that ‘defines’ us once we’re done. After all, it’s about the journey and not the destination right? Don’t worry about what may or may not be, as the worry itself will stop you from ever getting to be in the moment in the first place. Having the ability to put yourself out there without fear will allow the pleasurable moments to occur more frequently and your mind a happier place for it.

Set yourself 3 race goals

If the fear of failure is the thing that holds us back, set yourself three goals in any race you do. All achievable, but the level of attainability increases between each one.

For example, in an ultra race your first goal could be to just complete the course. Your second could be to get under a certain time, whilst your third could be to get under a certain position.

The first goal is something you should know you’ll always tick off; a minimum requirement goal. It’s a big accomplishment itself, but it’s a safety net should you not reach your top or second goal. Setting this means you come out of each race knowing you’ve accomplished one thing you set out to achieve. If you meet any of your other goals too? Then they’re an added bonus.

Focus on your goals, tick them off, replace and add tougher goals each time and the minimum ask of yourself will be a higher standard. Now you’ve trained yourself to meet goals each and every time you race, your mind will fight as much as it can to carry on and stay on track, rather than asking for the easy way out as it previously never had anything to fight for.

So, why exactly isn’t ‘winning them all’ a good thing? 

Knowing you can’t win them all means you don’t always have to seek out the win in a race, whatever your ‘win’ might be. Instead, we can learn to appreciate the sense of enjoyment in seeking the thrill of pushing ourselves to our limits. 

Once we know that we can’t always be in top form, we won’t always feel at our best and we might be struggling more than usual, then our expectation levels can drop enough to allow us to more easily stride by any issues that arise. Beaten by the runner you usually always beat? Struggling on a hill you’d normally best? It doesn’t matter, the voice in your head will tell you to carry on until the end because you know it’s not a failure, just merely one of those days.

Today’s battle is not with our usual expectations, but getting through the struggle and coming out better for it on the other side.
If your only concept of failure is the moment you give in, then what you previously identified as failure can become just another piece of information in the pursuit of self improvement as an endurance runner. 

About the author

Endurance State Coach, specialising in long distance and trail running disciplines. As an all round runner with a successful background in a variety of running disciplines, from 5k to Ultramarathons. Chris has competed internationally for Great Britain and England in various mountain running disciplines.

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