Anyone who has taken part in one of my mile rep sessions, will certainly have heard talk of ‘The Beast’, it is often mentioned when the going gets tough but the newer runners are often wondering who we are talking about! ‘The Beast’ is your inner fear that jumps onto your shoulder during hard workouts and tries to convince you to slow down or stop. That’s why some of the endurance speed sessions, are as much about mental training as physical training and they teach you how to tame the beast and allow yourself to run faster and further.
Although the beast is essentially your own anxieties and fears, the beast is actually your best friend and you should learn to love him. I will now try to explain what I mean by that!
It is expressed very well in a quote from ‘Born to Run’ by Christopher McDougall “I love the beast, I actually look forward to the beast turning up, because everytime he does, I handle him better, I get him more under control” “So once the beast arrives, you know how to control him and get down to work. Have a friendly little tussle with the beast and show it who’s boss. You can’t hate the beast and expect to beat it, the only way to truly conquer something, is to love it”
In text books, such as ‘Brain Training for Runners’ by Matt Fitzgerald, (well worth reading) the beast is given a more technical description “counterproductive fear-based reactions to the discomfort of fatigue”. I prefer ‘the beast’ !
Most people are scared of the demons arriving and this is what you have to overcome, look forward to meeting the beast, master it, you then realise that there was nothing to be scared of. It’s all in your head, look forward to these battles, it’s all to do with confidence and that’s what we work on in training. The sooner the beast arrives each session, the sooner you can get him under control and stop worrying about it, treat the beast as a friend and look forward to him coming out to play, once you are friends with the beast, you can train harder and run faster.
To be a successful runner, you can’t avoid the feeling of tiredness and fatigue during hard workouts. It’s your brain trying to keep the body in homeostasis or balance and keep you nice and safe. The brain actually starts reducing the impulses sent to muscles before they run out of energy on the anticipation that they will. This is sub-conscious and the feelings of pain and fatigue are to try to stop the conscious brain from over riding this. So to allow your conscious brain to take the breaks off that the sub-conscious brain has applied, you need to master the beast.
There are two different aspects to combat fatigue, the first aspect is developing your fitness to allow you to run further and faster before the fatigue signals are sent from the body to the brain. The second part is by learning and practicing techniques that enable you to over ride the automatic fatigue mechanisms.
So the goal of training is 1) To increase your tolerance for the pain and suffering of fatigue and 2) Reduce the amount of fatigue related suffering you experience at maximum running effort.
We need to define a couple of the terms, there is a difference between ‘pain’ and ‘suffering’. Pain is the sensation of discomfort associated with fatigue, screaming muscles etc.. Suffering is “a layer of emotional unpleasantness that emerges from the runners rejection of pain” (Brain Training). It’s a conscious rejection of pain or to look at it another way, suffering is a fear of pain.
The same amount of pain will cause different amounts of suffering in different runners, the people who suffer more, fear pain more. To train and race well, you have to accept that pain will exist, so to train well we need to accept pain and not fear it. That is why, if ‘the beast’ is the manifestation of your fear, you have to learn to love ‘the beast’.
Fatigue pain is the subconscious brain trying to get you to slow down or stop, the way that the conscious brain can reject the message to slow down, is to accept the pain and the best runners get to the stage that they can welcome and embrace the pain more than other runners. Don’t wish the pain away, welcome it as an indication that you are working as hard as you should be. The late great Steve Prefontaine would consciously anticipate it, seek it out and afterwards use it to rate his performance.
Like Steve Prefontaine, all runners can easily increase their capacity to endure the experience of fatigue and they will improve their performance as a direct result.
This may sound weird to non-competitive runners or ‘normal’ people, but one thing you should therefore build into your training, is to practice suffering. Thus you are using habituation or desensitisation where repeated exposure to something, lessons your response to it. If you have ever had to keep icing an injury, after a few days you don’t react to the cold ice hitting your skin as much as you did initially, or indeed if you were to swim in cold water repeatedly, you will get to the point that the cold shock won’t bother you as much.
In the same way, the more often you feel the beast on your shoulder, the less it will bother you and the less you will react to the feelings by slowing down. The human brain automatically focuses attention on unusual stimuli, because if it’s not known and well recognised, it may be dangerous. Habitulalisation means your brain doesn’t waste energy worrying about a sensation which even although unpleasant, isn’t going to kill you!.
But as usual with training, you shouldn’t run headfirst at top speed straight into the beast, that can not only hurt, but scares you straight back into your hiding place! Our old favourite training mantra of adaptation comes into play, start out gradually with realistic targets in your speed sessions.
The best way to do this, is in breakthrough workouts and races. Sessions like mile reps are brilliant for getting you used to fatigue and accepting it, repeating these sessions can easily desensitise you to the ‘suffering’. The other bonus in doing this, is that pushing the beast back, allows you to feel what it’s like running close to your max. This can help considerably in race performances as it allows you to pace races better without the need to look at your watch, as you will have been educated to run by feel, being aware of your body, legs, breathing etc, and you will know instinctively when you are running at your maximum sustainable pace. That might be faster or slower than you would be trying to run if going by your watch, but it is the pace that will get you the fastest time that you are capable of, on that day, in that race.
Breakthrough workouts are the hardest workouts you will ever do and therefore the best opportunity to experience the discomfort of extreme fatigue outside of racing. However, when planning these, the beast can even make an appearance before you start running, sometimes he lurks in the shadows in the hours or even days before a workout or race!
What you may identify as feelings of being scared and apprehensive before races and tough training sessions, needs to be appreciated as anticipation and excitement, an opportunity to do some quality and enjoyable work which will help you improve. These are good feelings, it is exciting looking forward to a good session and preparing to run well.
So if you are one of the many who gets nervous and uptight if you know you are aiming to do a hard session or a breakthrough workout, remember that they are not anything to be scared of, they are a fantastic opportunity to improve and get faster, look on it as anticipation of a hard workout and great performance. Try to keep these levels in check by following pre-race routines for races and hard speed sessions, particularly in your warm up, drills etc, there isn’t one ideal pre race preparation strategy, everyone might react slightly differently to different routines, so find the one that works for you and stick to it.
If you practice the same routine before every hard session, your body learns to prepare in an orderly way to work hard and if the routine becomes automatic and regular, when you follow this prior to races, it helps get you into the right frame of mind for running hard without any undue nerves or worry. You know that if you follow your usual routine, you will be on the start line, with your muscles and cardiovascular system warmed up and ready to go, and as mentally well prepared as you can be.
Listen to your mind and body before and during races and use that feedback you receive to learn what works and what doesn’t.
After planning a few breakthrough sessions into your schedule such as a few weeks worth of mile reps, you should then plan a few tune-up races to further push this training concept before then hitting your main race goal and hopefully your best performance. By this point, you should be able to race with extreme effort most of the way, but only experience real suffering towards the end of it, all because your training, goals and race execution are all well harmonised, you can feel the appropriate pace, be totally focused giving it your all, but feeling in control, confident and in the ‘zone’.
Confidence requires an evidential basis, you can only be confident if past experience gives you good reason to believe. So the best way to build confidence is to perform highly race specific workouts during peak phases of your training which push you close to your limits and can be intimidating.
The key to keeping race related fears within manageable limits, is to identify the fears and adopt a problem solving attitude towards them. There is a great advantage to naming your fears, as a fear with no name is unsolvable, but to name it and identify it, gives it boundaries, a beginning and an end and then you can make efforts to move away from or climb on top of. Which is why the beast is indeed a friend in disguise, make your introductions and look forward to his company. The more often that you meet and talk to the beast, the harder you will be able to train and the faster you will be able to race.