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.

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If You Give a Mouse a Cookie

“If you give a mouse a cookie, he will ask you for a glass of milk.” And so begins the children’s book by Laura Numeroff. Like all children’s books, this one is more about human nature, as a lesson for kids, than it is about mice or cookies. Today I was running down Fairmount Avenue shortly after leaving work, thinking about the food I eat, and a conversation I had with one of my former high school runners-turned track club teammates, John Vu. John graduated from Cherry Hill West, where I am an assistant track coach, last spring. He is now running cross country (for the first time) at Camden County College, and is also a member of Greater Philadelphia Track Club with me. He asked if we could meet last night for a run, and I convinced him to do a track workout. It turned out that was exactly what he needed, as he has been feeling burned out from the heavy, high-intensity mileage he has been doing, and wanted some guidance from me.

We talked about a lot of things while we ran 8×400 @ 1:30 with 2-3 minute 400m jog rests. We talked about what it does to you when you train full tilt every day without breaks, we talked about getting enough sleep, etc. But at some point, we ended up on the subject of food. I think he said something about how he eats a lot of fast food, but that doesn’t matter since he is running so much. I almost stopped running in the middle of the rep we were on. He said his coach has told him not to worry about what he eats, since he doesn’t have to worry about gaining weight. She has also told him to eat about 4000 calories a day. I would guess 4000 calories is about right, but it horrified me to think of eating 4000 empty, fast food calories.

I tried to explain that how we fuel our bodies is an essential part of our success, and that if he is feeling burned out he needs to first make sure he is getting eight hours of sleep each night, and second make sure he is eating nutritious high calorie foods.

As I ran through this conversation in my mind today, I thought about how I have actually gotten to a point where just about everything that passes my lips is highly nutritious. I still drink too much diet soda, and I am still working on getting the right ratios of nutrients into my system, but in general, my diet has improved immensely over the last few years. Why?

Simply by becoming a runner I think I began to make a lot of changes. Actually, it was when I was doing some heavy triathlon training that I established a common routine of cooking lean meats, whole grains, like rice and quinoa, and nutrient rich vegetables like collards, kale, spinach and broccoli rabe. But for a while I still ate crappy food out quite a bit, like cheesesteaks and pizza. Okay, I still eat a fair amount of pizza, but that is probably the worst thing I eat, and my portions have shrunk from absurd to maybe just a little more than normal.

But today a typical day’s menu looks like this:

Breakfast:
Homemade cereal:
Rolled and steel cut oats, soaked/fermented
Hemp seeds
Ground flax seed
Walnuts or almonds
Sunflower seeds
Chia seeds
Wheat bran
Yogurt
Frozen berries
Cinnamon
Skim milk
(600-700 calories)

Lunch:
Smoothie:
Skim milk
Frozen fruit
Banana
Yogurt
Kale
Nutritional yeast
Spirulina
(400-500 calories)

Dinner
Grilled, broiled or sautéed fish
Sautéed greens with garlic
Potatoes, rice, or quinoa
Spinach, mixed green or romaine salad
(600-700 calories)

Snacks
Popcorn with sea salt, 3-6-9 blend oil, nutritional yeast
Handfuls of raisins, dates, dried apricots, nuts
Fresh fruit
Carrots
Multi-grain pretzels
(300-400 calories)

If I could get John, the 18-year-old college runner to get eight hours of sleep and eat a diet like that I think he would be unstoppable. His coach recognizes his talent. As a first-year distance runner (ran 400m and under until half way though spring track of his senior year) he is running 8Ks at just over 30 minutes. Before he graduated he decided to “try” the 800 meters and ran 2:08 in his third or fourth race. This is on a typical teen-ager’s sleep regimen and fast-food diet!

I referred to the mouse and cookie, because I believe that like a lot of things, a simple turn of one’s attention, or a refocus can lead to eventual great change, but it usually happens slowly. I never decided to eat healthy. Actually, I tried that over the years and failed. Instead, what actually worked was simply turning my attention to a better way. If you give a mouse a cookie, he will ask you for a glass of milk. If you eat a healthy meal, you will want another.