Long Runs: Training the Brain

Recently a fellow 40+ runner posted his experience (so far) in training for his first half and full marathon, and asked his readers for advice. For better or worse, I gave him my thoughts. He thought they were pretty good, although I understand his attorney is now trying to contact me. He must be a new runner, too.

Me at Road Ends 2013 finish line
I’m not tired! Really! It’s all in my mind!

Anyway, among his lessons learned in long run training was that it’s as tough mentally as it is physically. Yup. 530,000 marathon finishes per year sounds like a lot, but it’s far less than one percent of the American population. I believe the main reason the other 99 percent will never run one isn’t the physical challenge of running 26.2 miles. Rather, it’s developing the mental stamina needed to get your body to run that distance. I can speak from experience that the brain gets tired of running well before the body gives out.

A recent article in Runner’s World addresses how large a role our brains play in how fast, or how far, we can run. The author, already an excellent runner, attempted to improve his performance through computer-based exercises designed to create mental fatigue – so-called “brain endurance” training. You can read the grisly details here.

So let’s say you’re interested in the challenge of a half marathon, or even a full marathon someday, but you prefer to train more traditionally. How do you develop the mental stamina to get there? I don’t know what will work for you, but here’s how I managed it.

1. Just starting. The good news is that no previous experience is required. Until my mid-forties I wasn’t a runner, and couldn’t think of many things more tedious. I’m not exactly sure what ‘flipped the switch’ but I ran my first 5K race in 2008, and just five years later I’ve run seven half marathons, two full marathons, and two ultramarathons, and log at least 1,000 miles per year.

2. Allowing enough training time. “Couch to 5K” programs are popular and fine, but couch to marathon takes a little longer. When I decided to go for a half marathon, I had never run more than six miles at a time, so I gave myself six months to train. This gave me time to ‘build the base’ without pushing too hard or feeling anxious about how close the race date was.

"Just two loops" or "8 more stages" sounds much more doable than, "33 more miles".
“Just two loops” or “8 more stages” sounds more doable to me than, “33 more miles”.

3. Splitting up the distance. As I mentioned in my recent posts about my Run Woodstock ultra, running 50 miles still seems kind of unreal to me. But dividing the race into 12 stages of 4.2 miles each (the distance between aid stations) made it mentally manageable. Half and full marathons generally have water stops every two miles, which I still use to reset physically and mentally when needed.

4. Running with others. I still remember a Saturday morning 20-miler where I started out with a large group and wound up at the halfway mark in the middle of nowhere by myself. (It was a “taper week” for the other long runners.) Running the return 10 miles solo was really tough. But there was no shortcut on that route, so I had to finish.

Pacing with others is fun, too! (Kona 10K, 2013)
Pacing with others is fun, too! (Kona 10K 52:00 pace group, 2013)

By contrast, earlier this summer I ran 19 miles with two other folks the entire way, and it was far more pleasant. Conversation helps pass the miles, but just having other people there with me helped keep me moving. Research bears out that running with someone can make you run longer and harder than you would by yourself.

5. The idea of “just one more”. As my Aikido instructor has said, “No matter how many breakfalls you’ve done, you can always do one more.” When my long runs get tedious, or body is fatigued during a race, I apply this as, “I can do this for one more mile” or “Just to the next aid station”. It usually works. And of course once I hit the aid station, or finish that one mile – I can still do just one more.

So there you go. If you’re starting to get the feeling that you could do this, and you’d like that feeling to go away, this post from Jilly Bean should do it. You’re welcome.

More: Read some additional motivational tips for distance running.

2 thoughts on “Long Runs: Training the Brain

  1. Great post! I love running with other people but for the last few years I have avoided running with anyone else on long runs of 10 miles or more. In the past I looked forward to the camaraderie and conversations with other people to help me run long distances. When I started running solo, it forced me to learn how to deal with the mental side of running long distances and it worked. I still enjoy running with others but I didn’t want to depend on that, especially during a race.

    1. Hey, whatever works! I started out mostly solo but now much prefer running distances with others. Racing solo is no problem, just those long, slow training runs when there’s not much to do but put it in gear and grind it out. Long bike rides, though, are solos; the feeling is completely different. I really enjoy the freedom of setting my own speed and stopping whenever and wherever I want.

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