So, How Many Hats Do You Wear?

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Pensacola, Florida, United States
Husband. *Dog Dad.* Instructional Systems Specialist. Runner. (Swim-challenged) Triathlete (on hiatus). USATF LDR Surveyor. USAT (Elite Rules) CRO/2, NTO/1. RRCA Rep., FL (North). Observer Of The Human Condition.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Bad Workout? It's All In Our Mind

The latest books I've read have not been without their own degree of controversy. Much like the reading (running) public stepped to one side or the other of the line drawn in the sand over barefoot running and Christopher McDougall's "Born To Run," they seem to stand on the same kind of dividing line over Matt Fitzgerald's newest work, "Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen, and the Greatest Race Ever Run."

Sometimes you have to look at the subtitle a little more closely. While Fitzgerald writes, with the assistance of two decades worth of research materials, about Scott and Allen, it's...well, it's not all about them. Iron War also tries to explain what made them different in 1989, and what makes endurance enthusiasts different now.

Yes, there are biographical pieces on Scott and Allen (which for this writer drew a parallel to other freakishly-good athletes like Michael Phelps and Lance Armstrong), but Fitzgerald looks at the sport of triathlon and the type of person drawn into it, especially the ultra-distance multisport events which were born of a bar room argument after the Honolulu Marathon thirty-plus years ago. He asks not only what drives the elite endurance athlete, but also what keeps their foot on the accelerator when the vast majority of us are begging to mash the brake pedal?

Or, as I began to think, why is it we tend to have crappy workouts when we are rushed for time; when we shoehorn in that speed workout in between the morning budget meeting and the afternoon conference call? Samuele Marcora says it might be more in our mind than we care to admit.

Marcora believes fatigue is more a perception of our mind than a physiological state. Watch runners break into a sprint for the last 200-to-300 yards of a race when they looked like they could not run another step just a half mile before. Timothy Noakes' central governor model of exercise performance says the brain makes a conscious effort to limit energy expenditure in order to save fuel for the heart, brain and lungs. But Marcora says the anterior cingulate cortex in the brain, the area responsible for control of our heart rate, breathing, autonomic responses, and conflict resolution, is the "boxing ring" for the struggle between the part of us that wants to quit and the side that wants to keep going.

Why do we feel physically fatigued after a sustained period of sedentary office work, like reconciling a budget spreadsheet (or sitting in a foreign language class)? The anterior cingulate cortex is engaged when we engage in an activity - even mental - which involves sustained attention to detail.

That might be another reason folks hate treadmill running so much. All that data - time, pace, distance, heart rate, calories and the like - is displayed before the runner. We start to do the mental gymnastics of how much longer before the end of the treadmill program, etc., and the little voice in the head begins to remind us of all the other things we need to get done...right away.

Even those runs which get shoehorned in between the rush-hour drive time and the drive to the youth soccer match can be affected by the other "noise" in our heads. The mental to-do list makes us more tired on our run, which makes us get down more on ourself because we're not running as well as we would like.

Sometimes it just pays to know "when we're training well we're probably not training well." It's not the "mark-a-star-on-the-training-calendar" runs which do us the most's the ones where we want to beat ourselves up mentally which make us stronger.

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