Thoughts on Fitzgerald’s Run; The Mind-Body Method of Running By Feel

First of all, I simply want to recommend Matt Fitzgerald’s book to any serious runner. I will not attempt an actual summary or review here, but Run; The Mind-Body Method of Running By Feel is full of insightful and inspiring ideas. The title implies a more specific theme than is actually presented in the book, implying that it’s a how-to guide for throwing away the watch and training by feel. In some ways I guess it is, but there is a lot of theory to chew on as well.

I also have to begin with a sidebar that I am very freely interpreting Fitzgerald’s ideas here. I am not so much trying to explain what he writes in his book, as I am playing out some of my own thought processes as a result of reading it.

To begin, here is a workout I completed today that was inspired by my recent line of inquiry and thinking. I have been experimenting with alternating deadlifts and sprints for a few weeks, mainly as a way to make mid-winter gym/treadmill workouts more engaging, but also following the common advice to keep weight training (for speed development) at high weight/low rep followed immediately by plyometrics and speed work.

I decided to call this workout Sufferfest, to be explained later:

3xDeadlift-high knee jumps-400m-:60 rest-400m
(400s are actually 100m @ 9:00 mile pace and 300m “sprint”)
5:00 rests between sets to allow lactic acid to process.
1. 245#x3 – 10 fast high knees – 300@5:30 mile pace/:60 rest/300@5:30
2. 235#x3 – 10 fast high knees – 300@5:15/:60 rest/300@5:15
3. 225#x4 – 10 fast high knees – 300@5:00/:60/300@5:00

The first detail of this workout to point out as a direct result of reading Fitzgerald is the back-to-back 300s on short rest. The goal of the workout was to produce a distinct level of stress on the second rep, for the specific purpose of training my brain to deal with the moments of doubt at key points in a 400 or 800 meter race. With this idea in mind, it is not so much a physical stress I am working for on that second rep, but rather the mental strain — the doubt or anxiety on the surface/conscious level.

The theory:
Fitzgerald posits that elite runners all show up to a race in excellent physical shape. They all do their workouts and develop high levels of physiological fitness. However, what determines who wins is which athlete has developed a higher tolerance for suffering. One could probably argue that very often runners at inferior fitness levels win races. We might even be able to argue that brain training trumps genetics — a genetically superior athlete might have an easier time getting to the Olympic Trials, whereas a less genetically endowed athlete learns to suffer more in order to get there. Fitzgerald provides lots of historical anecdotes of upsets and other victories that have defied logic, with logic simply being too much allegiance to genetics and physiological training.

I make sense of this idea by contemplating my experiences of race days. Unless I know I am showing up to a race unprepared, due to recent injury or illness, or whatever, I am always in great shape physically. Or perhaps I should say, in plenty enough shape to run fast for somewhere between 55 and 130 seconds, depending on the race. As I venture into the 800 I am aware there are different principles at play, but in regard to the 400, I know its more about my mindset on race day than my actual fitness level. I knew this in high school and college. After I retired from racing in the middle of my Sophomore year at La Salle University (shin splints became unbearable, and no one at the time had a clue how to rehab me), I ran a leg of the 4×400 in the Greek Olympics a year later. On next to no training at all, I ran a 53 second split. My normal 400 before quitting track was about 51. How was I able to run a 53 on little fitness? I am guessing now it was because I still had the brain fitness to handle a few seconds of intense suffering.

In regard to workouts, this shift in thinking from physiological training to brain training has a serious impact. Human perception is incredibly malleable — we can choose to alter the way we “naturally” perceive reality through all sorts of techniques, or simple decision-making. For example, all runners must know they have the ability to catch themselves thinking negative thoughts about a workout, and turn those thoughts on their head, or to cease beating themselves up about an injury and start thinking about what the injury is teaching them. By shifting your focus to brain training, the whole purpose, and then experience of a workout changes dramatically. The above workout is a good example.

If my focus is physical fitness, when I experience moments of intense suffering I tend to doubt myself, or at least have to wrestle with my self over continuing to push. However, in the same workout, if I am focused on brain training, when the same moments of suffering arrive I know that I am now achieving the goal of the workout. It is not something to push aside or tune out. Quite the opposite — it is something to absorb, process, maybe even relish. It is the purpose of the workout, to make my brain more used to the feeling so I am less likely to hesitate in a race.

Part of what is happening in the brain training context of a hard workout is the brain is accepting the idea that you are not going to die right away. Fitzgerald provides some excellent descriptions of how the human brain, through self-preservation mechanisms, begins to tell the muscles to stop working so hard well before the reality of death arrives. If it did not do this, we could exercise ourselves to death. However, the buffer zone of a normal, (mortal?) human brain is exaggerated; larger than necessary. All good competitive runners essentially have decreased the buffer zone by training and racing, but really good runners simply train their brains to push just a little closer to death before shutting down the machine. It is such a simple idea, and at first the idea of training the brain on the track may seem daunting, but it too is simple. My sense is that it really is just about shifting the focus of your running, or rather, shifting your focus on your training. You can apply this shift to an existing workout – just think about your goal differently. From there, you will very likely begin designing workouts differently.

A final thought: it is probably a good idea to only engage in serious sufferfests once a week or less. If you think about it, there are two types of burnout. Physical burnout comes from too much mileage. Mental burnout comes from over-taxing the cognitive brain. Trying to wrap your head around too many very hard, intense workouts will cause your brain to rebel. Developing brain synapses to support intense physical activity is a physiological process, but in order to do it you have to subject yourself to mental (cognitive) stress. All of us achieve physical burnout from time to time, and the symptoms are mostly getting sick and straining muscles. We recover from physical burnout (overtraining) relatively quickly. The burnout that causes a college athlete with crazy potential to quit running for 20 years is mental. It takes longer to induce, and much longer to recover. If your general motivation is waning, my bet is you are doing too many mentally challenging workouts.

If you shift your focus to brain training, you are probably much less likely to develop mental burnout, because instead of trying to tune out the suffering, you are seeking it, and therefore acutely aware when you are achieving it. By planning workouts with a purpose of brain training, you will be less likely to engage in it by mistake, or mindlessly. One very interesting effect of this on me is that I now am completely grounded in my easier days. I am now completely freed up, mentally, to run 5 miles as slow as I feel like, without thinking I am somehow not progressing or accomplishing something. Quite the opposite. With planned brain training workouts, I recognize the easier runs and workouts are essential pieces of my program.

That is a serious perception shift.


15 Degrees, Feels like 3

After a solid week of down time recovering from the flu, I made my first run to work on Tuesday, in the 1/2″ of snow that blanketed the entire region on Monday night. I didn’t even check the temperature; just thrilled to be back on foot and not feeling like I was going to die.

Today, however, I checked the temperature after what felt like the coldest run of my life! I took the old river route from 16th and Locust, but cut back east before the Art Museum because my fingers were burning in a downright scary way. A brisk 25-minute run and I barely broke a sweat. As cold as it was (15 degrees, felt like 3), I was still psyched to be back, and the overriding thought during the run, and more after, as my brain thawed, was this frigid spell makes for the perfect launch of my new run-to-work semester/phase. I had set a goal of running to work every day this semester, but only managed to do so on the first day before succumbing to the flu. But now I realize it was much too warm last week — the unseasonably warm winter weather we have had so far this winter has been great for track workouts, but this 20-degree week makes me feel a whole lot more grounded in the season.

The cold weather has presented a new logistical adjustment to my run-to-work program. All last semester I would just walk between buildings without a coat, but this semester I teach two classes at a building at the far corner of campus, about a 5-minute walk, and, as previously mentioned, it is freakin’ cold out. Now a hoodie has been added to the already cramped quarters of my tiny locker.

Now begins the work to get back to peak shape after the break. I am planning to run an 800 at the Armory on February 7, with a goal of 2:10. I originally planned to take most of last week off, so nothing like good timing, but being sick was not exactly the idea. But better to get sick during a planned rest week than a peak — way less frustrating.

The rest week two weeks before a big race is something I have sort of fallen into as a result of previous “set backs.” A few times now, when I thought I was building up and peaking for a big race, I ended up getting mildly injured. I would freak out, get depressed, accept the situation and then plot out my recovery (I believe these are the official stages of runner injury), and then, contrary to all the angst-filled thoughts, I would end up running a great race, if not a new pr. This is a great example of the trial and error process that mindful runners experience all the time. There is a great body of research, evidence and knowledge on how to train effectively, but ultimately we all need to figure it (the specific adjustments and applications) on our own. Sometimes mistakes or injuries lead to the the deepest insights. Lately I have been building a planned rest week (hopefully in lieu of an actual injury) because it is how I end up feeling fresh and in peak shape for a big race.

What’s a Second Worth?

Time gets measured in all sorts of ways. As a runner, I spend a lot of time thinking about the number of minutes and seconds it takes to run between two points, or in circles. As a master’s athlete, I rarely compare my times to those of others. I learned long ago there are always plenty of people who are much faster. Master’s athletes tend to compare themselves to themselves. The personal record is the measure of success or failure, and I spend an absurd amount of time comparing my current self to one that ran a 57-second 400 meters two years ago, or the one that ran a 19:43 5k last fall. At the age of forty-two I am quite lucky to still be chipping away at my times, but this probably has more to do with my late, and recent return to running. Then again, this is the heart of competitive running as an adult; as the aging process is painfully evident on multiple levels, intense, consistent training keeps some of the more insidious effects at bay, and as we age, we can also figure out ways to actually improve physically. Its no fountain of youth, but probably the closest thing to it.

In regard to measuring time, I have been looking at a number for the last few weeks that should be inspiring, but instead has me contemplating what it is all really about, this running. Over the last three years (three years and two months to be exact) I have dropped my 400 meter time from 58.8 to 55.7, a difference of 3.1 seconds. At 58.8 I was covering the track at 6.80 meters per second. At 57.7 that increased to 7.18 meters per second. That means I beat myself by about 22 meters. In a way, I like the sound of that, or better, the image. If the younger me was losing to the older me by that much in an actual race, I would really wish I was as fast as the older me. In fact, in the last 50 meters, I would be dying to be that guy, quite literally.

But a more sober way of looking at the numbers is that I never actually raced my slower self, literally or figuratively. I have enjoyed new prs a few times over the last two years. I believe I improved on the 58.8 by running a 58.2 a month later, then a 57.2 a few months after that in March, then a 56.8 in May, then 56.2 almost a year later, a 55.9 a few months after that, and finally a 55.7 a few weeks ago. In almost every pr race, I was beating my younger self by less than a second, or less then three strides.

This line of thinking leads me to ask myself what it is all about? What is a second worth? I have trained so hard over the last three years, and made countless sacrifices. In order to spend time on the track, other things have to go unattended. I make my wife and children my ultimate priority, so that pretty much leaves work to take the hit, or the home renovation started two years ago. I know I could accomplish much more in my work life, but I choose to run instead. If I didn’t run so much I could finish that damn bathroom tile . . .

So what is a second worth? In monetary terms, I would have to admit its worth about $10,000 dollars, as I know that is what I could fairly easily add to my annual income by working a side job or business. I gave up being a running technique instructor when I started training more seriously, and that was a fairly simple way to make that kind of cash. In time terms, a second is worth about 250 hours, as that is about what I figure I devote in a given year to running. I put a lot of focus on efficiency, so I probably spend less time training than the average athlete. If I combine those two numbers it comes out to $40 per hour, so that is probably fairly accurate.

But money and time do nothing to help me figure this out. Perhaps the value of a second is much, much more subtle. I am in better health. If I have a preexisting heart condition, or high genetic disposition for heart disease, being in better health means just about nothing, but if that is not the case, then I have significantly increased my life expectancy. With two very young children, this is huge. I would love to live long enough to see my own children grow into full-fledged adults, which, given societal evolution, means at least age 25-30, requiring me to live to 70 or so. Check.

But I could be in good health without killing myself over those seconds. Or maybe not. I simply would not currently be at my college weight if I were only running 5ks and marathons. The motivation that has come from toeing the line on a track and pushing myself to run 400 meters is what has led to really monitoring my diet. Being at the level of fitness I am enjoying right now actually makes me feel a little sad and concerned for the average citizen. Its not an ego thing, but rather a compassionate feeling for others, knowing that most people simply will not ever do what I do, and that if I didn’t go to the lengths I do to race I would be overweight and basically aging at a faster rate. This sport is not for everyone. Its a small minority of weirdos that compete in master’s track and field. Yes, there are other forms of intense physical activity, and the small minorities of people who engage in them can relate to what I am saying, and the majority of people simply will not put themselves through the type of exercise that leads to optimal fitness. I cannot even say I am optimally fit, or even close to the kind of physical condition that was enjoyed by most humans a thousand years ago. We simply have no idea just how sedentary we have become until we engage in a serious, consistent, high level training regimen, and then realize it is still just a drop in the bucket compared to early humans. If you think about it, going to the gym for an hour and a half every day is great, but what do you do during the other 22 1/2 hours? Early humans were likely moving all day long. And who actually goes to the gym every day? I don’t.

The health issue is awesome, and helps me grapple with the value of a second, but I am still not there yet.

The value of a second is a fleeting, thin, yet powerful experience of my authentic self. It is a soft glow, emitted by the slow burn of satisfaction after a good race. Running, or more specifically racing, provides the exact type of experience that Kierkegaard and Sartre describe in their existentialist philosophies. Racing provides a “pattern of directly confronting fear” that is consistent with the ideal of existentialism, which is to continually face life’s challenges in order to become the person you want to be, your authentic self (Fitzgerald, Matt, Run: The Mind-Body Method of Running By Feel). The challenge and fear of trying to run a pr is raw (not necessarily pure), and takes the athlete to rare and special realm of human experience. The pr is a reality, a concrete measurement and comparison, a clear indicator of success, and with every attempt, failure is a clear and present danger.

But its not even the pr, necessarily. Once I ran a good race, heard my time, a new pr, announced over a loud speaker, and then found out that the official time was a half second slower. Later that same day, the first time was posted as my official time. Official is official, so I ran a new pr, but the confusion completely robbed me of the experience I described above. Yesterday I ran a pr in the 800 meters (by five seconds), and I new it the moment I crossed the finish line. The resulting experience kicked in immediately and seemed to simmer longer than usual. I don’t think it was really the time, but rather the fact that it was the first 800 that I really raced. The pr was a given, waiting there, if I would just run the damn race the way its meant to be run.

The clock is just a tool that allows an easy, mindless way of competing against ourselves. If the clock says I ran a pr, I don’t need to think about what I did in the actual race. Was it a good race? Was it really what I am capable of today? Did I do something different or creative? This last question is the important one we might rob ourselves of when the clock takes away the thinking. The experience of authenticity I described above does not require a clock or a time, but it certainly must facilitate having the experience more often. It would be more challenging, and likely less frequent, if the experience always required a deep focus and mindfulness of the event. But then again, if we threw away the clocks and watches, maybe it would force us to make deeper connections to why we run. Its a fun thought, but I am not about to throw away my clock, because I really get off on prs!