13 September 2012

Running uphill: 3 mental strategies

‘Proper’ runners might laugh at this post, but for the majority of us, who find running uphill hard or even desperate, we have to find some mental strategies to make it easier. The post came from a discussion with a (non climbing) friend who had just started doing a little running and felt it was very hard to actually keep running and that hills were a ‘stopper’. He was under the impression that it would be different for me because I was a keen sportsperson, albeit in a different sport. I don’t think I convinced him that I had exactly the same feelings, every time, and that I found short easy runs harder mentally than big long hill runs.

Probably the main thing that keeps me running uphill is that I tend to do it in beautiful mountain scenery, often exploring new places I’ve never been before. Treadmill running in a gym is, for me, the ultimate motivational nemesis. I find it almost impossible to sustain it for any length of time unless I have a serious word with myself and feel it’s really worth it for my training. Even when I’m in a hotel in a flat place with no opportunity to do any other exercise, I can only clock-watch my way to about 30 minutes and then it all seems totally pointless. I think if you really have this feeling, it’s best not to fight it too much. Stick it out while you can for the sake of the fitness maintenance/energy expenditure or whatever your training requires and then go and do something more fun. 

However, most of the time we are somewhere in the middle of the motivational continuum. We don’t hate it enough that it’s just not worth the gains, but we don’t love it enough that it’s no mental effort to keep going. What to do?

I have three strategies for keeping running uphill when I’m tired, unfit or just not really enjoying it. I just naturally adopted them without reading from anyone else so I’m sure these have been well described before elsewhere. Which one to choose simply depends on what kind of mood you’re in. It is also possible to use them all at once!

1. Gun to your head. You are running uphill and although you’re not collapsing with extreme fatigue and lactic acid agony, you are simply finding that the desire to stop and walk is getting much stronger than the desire to keep going and get a good workout. Imagine that someone is holding a gun to your head and will kill you if you can’t run another ten steps. Count them inwardly as you do them. Now if they repeat the threat for the next ten, could you keep going to save your life? Of course you could. And so on… Once you get over the ridiculousness of the idea, it helps you get perspective that the desire to stop isn’t nearly as strong as you thought and that you’re perfectly capable of overcoming it, if you really want to.

2. Absolutely no stopping. This one is not so grim as No. 1. One of the problems with keeping going on a hard run is that the decision to stop or keep going keeps presenting itself over and over. If you decide to keep going, the voice in your head asks “Will I just stop?” all over again in another few minutes or even seconds. So over the course of the run you have to summon the willpower to make the right decision many many times. This gets tiring, and leaves you open to make the wrong decision sooner or later. A compounding factor is the norms you set up for yourself. If you normally stop and walk by this point, you feel like you’ve ‘done enough’ as you have in the past and the temptation to give in gets even stronger. Making one irreversible decision at the outset is one way to cut away all of this decision making hell. Decide at the start where you are going to run to and that you absolutely will not stop to walk under any voluntary circumstances, at all. Then, simply adjust the pace to however slow it takes to uphold the decision. It might be dead slow. But it doesn’t matter, it’s still better than stopping. Quite apart from the physical training, it’s excellent mental training in self-discipline. In the event, the knowledge that there’s no way out of the task except getting to the end usually provides motivational stimulus to keep going as fast as fitness allows. The positive vibe of setting yourself up with such an iron cast decision and being able to fulfill it, no matter how slowly, also makes you feel good and tends to make you go as fast as you can. You have to really mean it though. If you allow yourself to negotiate with your own resolve and find reasons to overrule it halfway through, you might as well have stayed at home. That said, don’t feel too bad if you do fail to uphold the strategy. Just set a more modest goal next time and make a more steady progression.

3. Be somewhere else. ‘Detachment’ is a well known and effective strategy for dealing with fatigue and desire to slow down or stop in endurance sport. Think of those moments when you’re driving and suddenly realise that you can’t remember driving the past three miles. That’s detachment. It’s quite amazing how you can assess the road and traffic and respond accordingly while seemingly giving your complete mental focus to your daydream. Basically you wan’t to recreate the same effect while running to make the time pass quicker and the pain and fatigue seem much less noticeable. There are loads of ways to enter this state, and you should experiment to get better at it. For instance, one way is to think of a part of your body that feels good. Maybe your fingertips feel good after a rest day from climbing. Focus your mind’s eye on them and drift off into a word of daydreams about past and future climbing sessions. Another way is to focus on something mindlessly hypnotic, such as the trees going past, or the blocks of pavement, or the sound of your feet splashing on wet ground. Whatever seems nice. Good music in your ears is one of the easiest methods to detach and keep going. This is probably Apple’s greatest contribution to society! By contrast, attempting to enter into an analytical thought pattern about some question that needs serious brain power is a risky strategy and often pulls you right out of the ‘bubble’ and your fatigue hits you hard. If you’re used to it, fine, but for most people, a ‘go with the flow’ daydreamy type of thought pattern works best, even if your body is working at high intensity.

All of these are skills in themselves that take practice, just like it takes a lot of training sessions in a row to start feeling fit. So don’t kick yourself if it doesn’t work first time or even close to it. And finally, two things to remember: 

1. Most folk find it this hard, it’s not just you.

2. Running back down the hill always feels great!


Irn Monkey said...

"It never gets easier, you just go faster" - Greg Lemond

Andrew Benham said...

Good post.
I like to combine 1 & 3 by thinking in detail about a route I have in mind, how it will feel to be up there and how, in order to get through the crux I just have to keep going. Sometimes I find there is almost a little burst of adrenaline as I get right into the feeling of making the moves. Only down side to this is topping out in my head before I get to the top of the hill and suddenly popping out of the day dream. I guess I need to visualise longer routes!

Vasily Kuznetsov said...

Well, I guess I owe you a thank you. I was sitting on the terrace relaxing, getting to the 3rd beer of the evening after some nice finger strength training when I read this post. I didn't manage to resist the urge to go for a run, so before I could undertand what was going on, I saw myself dressed in running attire walking out of the door. I ran an easier version of my normal run around the hilly neighborhood, and it felt quite good. I only had about 100m elevation change in this route, so it's not anything very hard. I used your second strategy, which was very easy, because I was only doing a shorter version of my normal run (obviously, in this case it works especially well since it's very easy to convince oneself to do this "very easy" run). I also used my old method of running motivation, which is kind of silly, and perhaps only works for DJs or techno musicians. It's mostly a variation of your third method: I was playing rhythmic patterns with my breath and it's fun enough thing to do that it can keep me entertained for quite a while or at least to get through some tough section.