Secret runners’ business: The discomfort zone

Secret runners' business: The discomfort zone

Practising how to hurt is one of the key aspects of training and racing that prepares you to explore previously unattainable performance levels. It’s a bit like giving presentations: even though you might hate doing them, the more you step up to the plate, the easier it gets. In running the equivalent is training, where you gradually introduce harder and longer efforts that push your ability to sustain your pace under duress.

The trick is to add the right amount of stress so you can cope physically and mentally. You don’t want to break down with an injury and from a psychological perspective you can’t expend all your mental energy in training. Searching beyond your limits every week in training when there is a key race around the corner makes it likely your physical and mental reserves will be depleted before you hit the start line.

If you’re training using a structured multi-pace system of threshold (tempo) running, intervals (5km race pace) and faster repetitions (mile race pace or faster), the nature of the suffering you need to embrace will vary. It will also be dependent on the length of the goal race you are preparing for.

Marathon runners need to practise working through the creeping total body fatigue of long threshold and marathon pace runs. Runners working on a five-kilometre goal will need to cope with general breathing distress and muscle failure as the race progresses.  Middle distance can be particularly painful when overworked airways and oxygen debt can play havoc – so-called “Miller’s cough” can be debilitating after you’ve finished running.

It’s important to play the mental games in training of pushing through these obstacles. But this doesn’t mean hitting the red-line during every interval or for the whole interval. Most of your training should still be done without straining too much. Tempo runs can be gradually extended by distance or time so only the later part of the run is really uncomfortable. One-kilometre intervals can be done at an intensity where you have to really push through the last 200m. The closing 100m of a 400m repetition is where you need to dig deep and hang on to your form.

With this type of approach you can dip briefly over the pain boundary. My coaching partner Mark calls this “touching the wall” kind of training. Over the course of a few weeks the wall moves so you are relaxed for longer and get better at managing discomfort. Focusing on breathing through discomfort and staying as relaxed as possible is the name of the game.

For all this practise in training there is no substitute for racing. Getting race-hardened is particularly important for shorter distances where the shock of the sustained discomfort can really throw you off course. Depending on the distance you are racing, scheduling a few races or time trials in the weeks ahead of the goal race shouldn’t be overlooked.

Marathoners might do a half a few weeks out on full training before their final taper. For five or 10- kilometre racing, shorter races of 1500m, 3000m and 5000m (for 10km runners) put you right into the discomfort zone at a pace faster than your goal pace and distance. Don’t be dismayed if your first test race isn’t an overwhelming success; next time you’ll be better prepared mentally and also fitter from the big shocks racing brings to the system. Just ensure you allow breaks in training to recover from any lead-up races or time trials, to allow your body to adapt.


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