The Cerebral Runner
A “pure sport” is defined as a sport that has no potential for an external influence that determines the outcome ie running, swimming, golf, bowling (technically) and several others are all pure sports in that no referee/official is determining who the winner is. More appropriately, it measures who is the best. Some may confuse this “pure sport” labeling to assume that the fastest runner always wins and you would be grossly mistaken. It is often the smartest and toughest that continue to win despite not being the most qualified athlete (see Pete Rose) and their secrets to success start in the top 2 inches of their body. We are going to address a small part of sports psychology that deals with the mental toughness of solitary sports and how you can apply these to your next event. These examples will be set with respect to running but most can be applied to any situation that requires mental acuity in competition.
1: Set your eyes.
Where are you looking when running? Are you taking in the scenery, staring at your feet or gazing with philosopher like intensity towards the horizon? The next time you are running I want you to set your eyes in a very deliberate location, roughly 150 feet in front of you. When you are looking 10 feet in front of you then your mind is constantly processing new information about the running conditions around you and while your brain is racing, guess what else it is doing? Being distracted, eating up glucose (glucose that your muscles would rather use!) and straining your eyes. What about the runner that looks stoically at the finish line even when she/he is at the start line? Some would say they have their “eyes on the prize” but that is asking a lot of your temperament to ignore the details of miles 1-25 to focus on the final kick.
My recommendations? Set mini-goals for yourself during the run and then take stock of how well your body is performing at those markers. Whether it is the corner or the block, telephone pole or even scanning the TVs at the gym, your brain will benefit by setting AND achieving goals in digestible chunks. In my office we set markers called progress exams. They are used to measure improvement at specific times but are NOT performed on a daily basis. If you were on a mission to lose weight would it make sense to step on the scale every hour? Of course it wouldn’t. The same is true for running, take a step back and evaluate yourself in a consistent manner by setting your eyes on landmarks that give you time for improvement but don’t burden your mind with unnecessary appraisals.
2: Take control of your breathing
How about a quick game of Q&A?
Q: Do you need oxygen to run?
Q: Do you need oxygen right now?
A common misconception is that the air you breathe right now is the air you use right now. This misnomer is important to understand because it’s confusion has led many an athlete to panic during competition because they “couldn’t breathe”. Just like the eggs you had for breakfast don’t directly contribute to your workout an hour later, the air you breathe in now will be used to fuel your muscles several minutes from now, not immediately. The air you breathe needs to be trapped in alveoli, change binding sites with CO2, get shuttled around by red blood cells (RBC), be transported to the active muscles, unbind from the RBCs, be broken down into NADH and FADH2 and converted to energy that the muscles can use. Needless to say, this process takes time and I find this comforting because it means no matter where I am, I have enough O2 to fuel me for at least a few minutes.
First off, our lungs don’t burn due to a lack of Oxygen (O2) but rather an accumulation of Carbon Dioxide (CO2). Drs. Hering and Breuer are responsible for identifying that centers of our Pons (in the brainstem) regulate our breathing and that the function of expiration has everything to do with neurological control of our Vagus nerve (Cranial Nerve 10) and buildup of acidic bi-products of CO2. Additionally, the Vagus nerve is entirely under parasympathetic control which means it is built to keep you heart rate at a rest and digest state. This means that the nerve the controls your heart rate (linked closely to breathing rate) is pre-programmed to keep your heart rate down. In short, nowhere in that rant about old German physiologists, your nervous system or chemical concentrations did I say that you need to take a big ol breath right now or you’re in trouble.
What is the takeaway here? Your nervous system is built to lower your heart rate, slow your breathing and return you to normal as fast as possible IF YOU LET IT! In a sympathetic stimulation state (fight or flight) your brain is now fighting your body to remain calm, the result of which is disastrous for a racer’s body. I recommend that if you find yourself in a state of panic, that you follow this simple trick to reset the breathing mechanism. Take a big deep breath and holding it in for at least 4 seconds. This has been proven to reset the breathing patterns in the brainstem and from there you can take control of your lungs and breathe according to your needs.
Important Caveat! If you have been diagnosed with a lung pathology such as asthma, all bets are off. Consult with your doctor to discuss any and all precautions you should consider before engaging in vigorous physical activity.
3: Shut it down.
Picture this scenario: You are 8 miles into a 10 mile run and you look up at a series of hills that are daunting to say the least. Then, right on cue, your calves start burning a lot more than they did a minute ago. What is your play? I offer a short term solution to your problems. You ( Yes, YOU!) have something called a motor neuronal pool that recruits parts of your muscles in a specific pattern so that it does not use the entirety of the muscle for sub-maximal exercise ie running.
(Courtesy of cell.com)
Above left is a subsection picture of your spinal cord and how different aspects of your nervous system control your muscles in a controlled pattern ( below).
(Courtesy of www.studentconsult.com)
Now that you have entriely too much information to arm yourself with, you might be asking so how do I actually “ shut it down”? The technique is done by using the above explained phsyiology to your advantage by targetting lesser used muscles to propel yourself for a short period of time and then rotating them through so that you can rest the other muscles and allow them to temporarily recover.
Using the previous example of when your calves are burning, spend the next 25-30 seconds focusing all of your energy on using your quads to run. When that time is up, you will rotate to your hamstrings/ glutes, then finally, circle back to your lower leg muscles. Try to add a bounce to your step by increasing your usage of your anterior tibilais (the muscle on the front of your lower leg) to allow the gastrocnemius and soleus (which together constitue the calf muscle) additonal rest periods.
But Dr Zach, aren’t we just delaying the inevitable? You are exactly right. We are running smarter to get to the finish line any way we can and will deal with the consequences of sore muscles later. Shutting different muscles down during a race is a strategy that should only be employed by those who know their structure very well. A rookie may overdo it and end up asymmetrically fatigued and then you’re in no better shape than you were at the bottom of the hill. I recommend testing, tweaking and mastering this technique well in advance of when you will need it.
Thank you for reading and I look forward to seeing you on the track!
All the best health, Dr Zach Simkins and the Foundation Chiropractic team