Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Some Thoughts on Endurance and Training

Endurance races or activities require a certain amount of crazy. Last year I read about a woman who does ultra-marathons (100k) and can complete them because there's a part of her brain, the part that's supposed to tell her body when she's feeling pain, that shuts itself off. So she can keep running past the point "normal" people would give up, because her body doesn't know any better. 

Then there's this story about a young woman recently diagnosed with MS whose legs go numb during races, so her body goes into auto-pilot mode and just keeps running, even when she can't feel her lower extremities. The problem is when it's time to stop running, at the finish line, that she collapses. Her coach and/or parents are generally there to catch her, then ice her legs down until feeling returns and she can walk on her own. Read the whole article. It's quite fascinating. 

Then there's this REALLY disturbing (my interpretation) story about endurance cyclist from Jure Robic of Slovakia. He sleeps 90 minutes or less during an endurance event lasting a week or more, and quite literally goes crazy because of the lack of sleep. When he goes insane during those times, his support crew makes all the decisions for him, an arrangement that allows Robic's body to keep going even though his mind would have told him to quit long ago

His system is straightforward. During the race, Robic's brain is allowed control over choice of music (usually a mix of traditional Slovene marches and Lenny Kravitz), food selection and bathroom breaks. The second brain [AKA his support team] dictates everything else, including rest times, meal times, food amounts and even average speed. Unless Robic asks, he is not informed of the remaining mileage or even how many days are left in the race. "It is best if he has no idea," Stanovnik says. "He rides -- that is all."
Yes, it takes a unique mind and body to be an endurance athlete. I don't possess either of those things. I think the third element that's required is the will to do so, and while I have a slight curiosity about it, i believe I sated that when I did my half-marathon last year. I remain intellectually curious about it, but not so much personally so. For me, an endurance sport is anything that requires me to complete an activity beyond what my interest level or current desire is. 

That means, just about any activity I participate in. Well, that's not exactly true. That means any activity that feels forced or that I'm doing because I feel an obligation of some sort - either to someone else, or to fulfill a goal I set for myself when I was wide awake and felt like I had energy at the time I made the goal. And don't say you don't know what I'm talking about. We've all done that. 

So how do you get better at something? Or improve in an activity at which you already possess the basic skills? Let's take running, for an example. We can do that. Everyone does, or knows how. ("Everyone" in this example assumes people with working legs.) Even if you're one of those people who mocks "real" runners and says, "I only run if a dog is chasing me," you still know how to run, and have done it on more than one occasion. 

Someone recently asked me this question in the context of training for distance running. "I'm stuck at a block where I run 1/4 mile and then just start walking, start running again, walking, etc. Need to get consistent!" I guess that's the answer - consistency. And that will vary for different people. For one it might mean setting a goal of jogging consistently for one mile before taking a walking break. For some it might mean that walking after 1/4 mile is okay, because you know you're going to be running for five or six or three - or more than you've done before. 

As cliche as it sounds, the answer is to just don't give up. At least, that's what's worked for me. When we read or hear stories about people who are running or biking or doing whatever else "better" than we currently are, just remember - they weren't born being able to do that, and they also certainly didn't start doing it one day. Just because you can't run a marathon the first time you decide to start running doesn't mean you eventually can't. Every marathoner had to learn to run a mile first.
  • Give yourself credit for the good things you ARE doing.
  • Give yourself a break if you're not hitting your goals or self-expectations as soon as you'd like.
  • Be willing to adjust those timelines as you learn about your body's limit and capacity. 
  • Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. 
  • Don't be stupid. Just because I've cited some examples of people who don't feel pain, doesn't mean you have to keep going when your body is telling you to stop. STOP. Listen to your body.
  • And if it helps motivate you (it does me!), go buy a new pair of running shoes or cycling shorts!
What's worked for you? What keeps you going when you want to stop? What gets you up in the morning?


  1. Hmmmm. I think what works for me is to Two-Brain it. Ignore the torn ligament (well... after it heals) and missing permanent teeth (they can be replaced with cubic zirconium) and push on to the black belt. It worked!

  2. Good advice. I'm still working out what works best for me. I think different things at different times. Sometimes it helps to let my mind wander and not focus on the pain, but sometimes it helps to focus in on what I'm doing and just keep telling myself I can do it.