All too often we make the mistake of only seeing distance running as a physical endeavor. The problem with that is we do not address the other aspect that comes with plodding down the trails, roads, or tracks. What do we do with our mind while we run? Do we think about our day, our life, our fears, our aches, and pains? Or do we blast the latest pop track or motivational speech on our devices?
I am writing this article to the newbies to distance running, or any steady-state long-duration exercise (biking, swimming laps, walking, etc). Experienced runners know how to deal with their minds while they run. They have enough practice and have been through the drill enough times to know what to expect. But for someone who has not yet run a 5k, 10k, or even a mile, it can be intimidating and scary to think about how hard it is going to be. We as humans tend to extrapolate things in our minds. We think “gee it was hard walking up those 10 stairs, I’m winded, imagine how hard it would be to walk up 20 stairs, it must be twice as hard.” We think “wow, I ran one lap around the track and it was awful, I can’t possibly imagine running 4 laps!” I understand that thinking, I once was that way myself. But I will show you the science to help combat that thinking and to get you on your way to covering more distance than you ever thought possible.
We as humans are VERY good at being aerobic endurance athletes. This has come about from thousands of years of evolving as hunter-gathers and a necessity to cover long distances. The original hunting strategy was to “chase” a deer over long distances until it was simply too tired to run away. The deer would bolt in a very powerful and fast way, but eventually, it has to stop and regenerate energy. Humans can just keep moving at a constant and steady pace. Eventually, the steady constant pace is enough to close the gap on the quicker deer since it needs an extended amount of time to recover. This hunting tactic is still used to this day in remote areas of Africa that are still hunter-gather societies. Below is a video that goes into detail the evolution of endurance exercise in humans, in case your curious.
The average human has a greater amount of slow-twitch (oxidative) muscle fibers than fast-twitch (anaerobic) muscle fibers. These slow-twitch fibers are much easier to train and develop compared to fast-twitch fibers as well. In addition to muscle fibers, we have a lot of machinery in our bodies to help transport oxygen, bind oxygen, and use oxygen to create ATP (energy) for our muscles to use during activity. To put it simply, we are very good at covering long distances at a steady, constant pace (sounds a lot like distance running).
My advice: Resist the idea to extrapolate how hard a long-distance run will be. So when starting on your next big distance run, instead of being nervous about how much harder it will be than your previous run, take a moment to think about this graph. What this is showing us is that the initial start to a run or any activity is the hardest. Our body ramps up oxygen consumption, and we think “wow I’m already tired, there is no way I can last the whole distance.” But in reality, once we reach our steady-state (around 2 minutes of activity) and we find our pace, we can maintain that for a very long time. As you build more experience and your conditioning levels improve, you can maintain a faster pace for steady-state. Use this science to fill your mind during those long runs and always remember, “work smarter, not harder.”