Exercise has a significant mental component, which is considerable for endurance training. As my Ironman (IM) race appointments approach, my mind starts to go over mistakes and lessons of the past. It is easy to forget those lessons and repeat the mistakes. During one race several years ago it was clear that my mind lost confidence.
I was riding the last 20 miles of the bike course, which in the case of the Lake Placid IM is a steady grind uphill in a beautiful valley carved by a briskly flowing stream of clear mountain water. However, with almost a hundred miles of fairly hilly riding in your legs you are starting to feel it. This was when my mind said, “Are you crazy? A full marathon now? You’re nuts.” But it was me talking to me. This conversation undermined my confidence for the run, which I then proceeded to do much too cautiously.
What does it mean to run too cautiously? It means not running as you trained, which comes with problems that you didn’t have when you trained. In my case, during this particular event, I was ready to drop out at the turnaround point (13.1 miles) due to severe left knee, ileo-tibial band pain. I realized that ‘something was up,’ as I had never suffered from this particular problem before. The right sometimes, but never the left. Then my family and friends started to run along with me, shouting encouragement for about a mile, and my mind said, “What the hell are you doing? Run like you trained.” I then remembered all of those great trail runs during the winter, and finally did a negative split, running the second half marathon about 20 minutes faster than the first. Magically, as soon as I had the courage to run with confidence, my left knee pain dissolved and it was a pleasure to be running again.
It was all in my mind. My legs complained a lot, but they were fine. That is why long distance runners have to say, “Shut up legs!” from time to time.
The real trick is to learn the difference between bad pain, which means STOP, and OK pain, which is only in the mind. Perceiving the difference during a race takes time and experience. If in doubt, my advice is to err on the side of caution and live to ‘fight another day.’