I ran two races in July. One was an evil, horrible, awful 5k. The other was an amazing, wonderful, fun trail marathon relay (I ran 5.25 miles). The main difference between the two is that I won the mental battle in the relay. We all experience some form of running mind games. Some know it as “mental will” or “The Blerch”. I know it as the “Run Dumbs”.
Recognizing Run Dumbs
I’m willing to bet we all experience the mental struggle of running in a slightly different way.
In the end, it comes down to learning how to overcome the thought/feeling/urge to slow down/walk/quit.
I’m still learning how to consistently overcome what I call the run dumbs.
In order to do that I need to be able recognize it when it’s happening. Know your enemy.
So here is my best shot at describing it.
It starts with losing focus.
BEFORE the run dumbs set in, I usually lose focus. This is like my warning sign.
After the initial “YAY! I’m in a race!” phase is over, I try to stay focused on breathing, form, and maintaining the right pace. But because I’m me, my mind occasionally shifts to other things like…
“I gotta beat that tutu runner.”
“What is that niggle in my toe?”
“Where can I get waffles after this?”
This is a slippery slope. Sometimes I can reign it back in and avoid run dumbs, but eventually, this mind shift spirals out of control and I WILL end up running “dumb”. This happens in pretty much EVERY race at some point because I’m trying to run as fast as I can for that distance.
When the run dumbs have set in, I stop having clear thoughts. I’m no longer focused on my running. Often my eyes aren’t even focusing on the path in front of me. My inner dialogue stops being coherent and I’m just feeling.
Just feeling is bad for me. I become very aware of how much effort I’m putting into this run. I feel like my breathing is too heavy. I feel like my legs are too tired. I feel like I can’t keep pushing this pace. I will feel like I’m slowing down, but often I’ll look at my watch and realize I haven’t…it’s all in my head.
If I’m not careful, I can let these negative feelings defeat me. I have plenty of times. I’ve stopped to walk. I’ve slowed my pace. I’ve mentally “given up” and slogged out the rest of the run in a bad mood.
The Awful 5k
The Surf City 5k on the 4th of July is NOT a great example of losing to the run dumbs because I was set up for failure anyway. I didn’t hydrate enough and I was in the beginning stages of sickness. I was bound to lose the mental battle because I wasn’t 100% physically.
NOTE: The run dumbs isn’t the same as bonking or hitting the wall because you didn’t fuel properly. The run dumbs is purely mental, but physical reasons for a bad performance certainly don’t increase your chances of winning the mental part of running.
So yes, I went run dumb during the 5k and I wasn’t able to pull out of it. I slowed my pace, I walked a few times, I felt like crap. I’m more upset with myself for not hydrating right the morning of the race than anything else. I know better.
The Amazing Relay
The Griffith Park Trail Marathon Relay was different. All systems were go and I fueled and hydrated well. Here is our team, in running order.
It was a great day. Overcast. TRAILS! I was with awesome people. Linzie (See Sharp Run) zoomed into the exchange in his R2D2 shirt and handed me the baton and I took off on the 5.25 mile loop! Less than an hour later, I was handing off to Gillian (That’s G) and our team would end up finishing 12th in our division (out of 39) in 4 hours total.
The first two miles included a good climb and I engaged my “run X steps, walk X steps” strategy. It started as a run 10/walk 10 and I switched to a run 5/walk 10, but I kept at it and passed 5 other runners that way.
I didn’t hit the run dumbs until somewhere around mile 3. I was on fire road that was totally runnable but I recognized that familiar onset of “negative feelings”. I wasn’t able to stay focused. I wasn’t taking in the view. When I recognized what was happening, I knew I had to beat it and not let it defeat me. I had to act.
Overcoming the Run Dumbs
I had all the classic negative “feelings” and in order to overcome them, I had to remind myself what I know to be true and ignore the things that were not based in reality.
I think I read in Scott Jurek’s book, Eat & Run, that he has a kind of litmus test he uses. Something like, “Is this pain an actual injury or is it just the pain of 80 miles? If yes, consider stopping. If no, keep winning!”
I do something similar.
I go through common problem areas one by one.
I almost always start with my breathing.
“Is your breathing under control? Are you getting enough oxygen to keep going?”
“Does it sound like you are breathing harder than you should?”
“Actually, no…it doesn’t.”
“Okay, then it’s all in your head. There is no reason you can’t keep going at this pace.”
Then I’ll zero in on my legs and feet:
“How are the feet?”
“And the legs?”
“Kind of aching.”
“Are they in pain? Do you feel at risk of injury?”
“Do they feel heavy, like you didn’t fuel right?”
“Then they feel how they’re supposed to feel! Suck it up.”
“Will you keep running through this?”
“Yes! My legs are tired but they still have a lot of run left in them.”
You get the picture.
This self-administered questionnaire/pep talk pulls me out of the run dumbs and gets me back to focusing on my run. My form improves, I stop worrying about my pace, and I’m back to feeling positive about the race ahead.
A Good Race Vs a Bad Race
So I finished my leg of the relay in under an hour, which I was very happy with, but my overall pace isn’t the main reason I’m pleased with the race. For me, the difference between feeling good about a race or feeling bad about a race is more about whether or not I won the mental battle.
I’ve written about the mental side of running quite a bit. It is my biggest obstacle. So I put more emphasis on my mental training now. Other things that are easier to measure like pace and distance aren’t as important as training my brain to overcome the run dumbs. Of course I’ll run faster and farther when I beat the run dumbs!
THANKS TO: Linzie, Gillian, Matt and Mike for signing up for a relay race last minute and making it so much fun! SPECIAL THANKS TO Linzie and Matt for taking photos and letting me use them when my phone died the minute we arrived at Griffith Park. Wah Wah.
What about you?
- How would you describe your “mental battle” in running?
- What helps you overcome your “blerch” or “run dumbs” or whatever you call it?
- Have any mental training tips to share?