Written by: Jim Vance
As physical as running is, running fast also requires a mental focus that must be honed and refined like athletes do for physical fitness. But how do we focus and learn about the mental side of running hard? How do we handle pushing the pace and maintaining the intensity? Many times we hear about an athlete’s ability to be mentally tough and tolerate pain, but how does he do it? The answer is simple: he trains for it!
Mental toughness is not really an ability to tolerate pain, but rather an ability to focus on the things that will keep you going fast when you, inevitably, fatigue.
You can train to be mentally tough by including what I call envelope runs in your regular training regimen. An envelope run starts off easy, then works to a quick pace right on the edge of comfort/discomfort. It is at this point when athletes try to push the envelope of comfort and speed – hence the name. Now instead of focusing on the pain and discomfort of the run, the athlete focuses on economy and speed, trying to maximize speed and pace for the energy he is using.
To be clear, this is not a tempo run. Tempo runs are hard efforts at or above lactate threshold, intending to raise an athlete’s lactate threshold pace. An envelope run is a sub-threshold, moderate effort designed to let athletes experiment with technique for economy – specifically the mental focus needed to go faster with ease. If a runner can learn to go faster while maintaining the same intensity, those same skills and actions can be applied at faster, harder intensities like races and tempo runs. In a race, it is very difficult to just go harder, since you’re already running near your max. This is the point in the race when you need to be able to gain speed with ease, because you can’t work any harder.
What types of technique and form items should athletes experiment with when trying to go faster without going harder? These are the key things to focus on when you reach those difficult points of a race. The main technical aspects athletes need to experiment with are:
• Forward lean – What happens to the pace when you lean forward? How does it compare to when you lean back, or stand up tall as you run?
• Cadence – What happens to the pace when you increase the cadence of your footsteps, taking shorter and quicker steps? How does it compare to when you slow down the cadence and take longer strides?
• Head position – How do small adjustments in your head position affect your pace?
• Eye position – Where do your eyes focus? What happens when you focus closer in front of you, or further away?
- Relaxation – How does releasing the tension in your shoulders, neck and arms affect your pace?
• Foot-strike – How does the position of your foot when it lands on the ground affect your pace? Change to a different foot-strike to compare with other positions. Can you hear your feet? What happens if you land them softly?
Once a runner has begun to experiment with the different technical aspects of his run form, he can begin to see what his tendencies are and how to improve on them to be faster, come the tough parts of the race. This will force runners to take inventory of their bodies and take an active role in their pace rather than a passive one. Now they are focusing on how fast they can go for how they feel.
For example, most runners are too upright when they run. As they get tired, they stand even more upright, slowing down. For this experiment, focusing on leaning forward when you tire will make you faster for the same energy output, and you will clearly see it!
Envelope runs are completed on the edge of comfort/discomfort because it forces athletes to balance the economy of their movements and see how small changes in technique affect their speed for a given effort. It also teaches them to focus while under a bit of discomfort, since they are pushing the envelope of comfort – much as will happen in a race – but without the physical stress on the body afterwards. Most runners will find these runs are on the mid to high end of their endurance pace.
However, because this run is sub-threshold, it can be performed a few times per week in your regular training routine. It fits especially well between hard workouts, when another day of rest is too much but you don’t want to kill yourself before your next key workout. It offers a great balance of endurance, speed skill and mental focus work.
Also because this run is completed on the edge of comfort/discomfort, it prevents athletes from going too hard, inadvertently turning easier days into race efforts. Though athletes may feel this run after the first couple times, the body should adapt appropriately within a few attempts.
The envelope runs are best done for a minimum of 40 minutes because it takes a while for the body to warm up and athletes should be starting these runs off easy, working into the pace. These runs can last up to two to three hours, but are not recommended beyond that.
If you use a speed-distance device and heart rate monitor, such as a GPS watch, you should record the data of the run but not pay attention to it until you’re done. Focus on the feel, taking inventory of your body and the changes in pace. You can briefly check the watch to see pace changes for feedback on technique variances, but don’t let the watch control you. Remember, this is a run for experimentation and mental focus. If you are holding yourself back with the watch, then you are not experimenting and focusing.
If you use these envelope runs once or twice per week in your regular training, you should notice a big difference in your ability to focus and handle harder, more intense runs, as well as the pace you can maintain for those efforts. Maybe even those other runners, who you thought were so tough, won’t seem as tough anymore. Best of luck!
Jim Vance is an Elite Coach for TrainingBible Coaching and a professional triathlete. Questions or comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow his writings and training advice at his coaching blog, CoachVance.blogspot.com.