Something we all struggle with as runners, and something I’m not shy to admit I’m bad at, is, going easy. There is something in our minds that tells us it’s not ok to go easy, and it’s a sign of weakness. But this isn’t and shouldn’t be the case. If anything, it’s a sign of strength. Possessing the ability to listen to your body and take it easy when your legs are struggling is an incredible trait to possess. One I only wish I was rational enough to possess without being told.
Being long-distance runners, our ‘season’ is never ending. Our winter starts as early as October with cross-country and finishes in as late as March. We are then straight onto the road before heading into track season. Road running continues throughout the year and leads us straight back to cross country. As a result, this means there is no natural break in the year. We continue training and racing year after year but have to avoid burning out. So, how do we do this?
It is important to recognise when we need to go easy. There is nothing to be ashamed about by having an easy week. We all need one every now and then to avoid burning out, but to also avoid injury. Whilst some of us do have a few weeks off at the end of the summer, this isn’t always guaranteed depending on race plans.
Since my return to training and racing in October last year, it has been non-stop hard training to try and get myself back to where I was. Whilst I am running better than I was before my injury, I have had to cautious. Last week I hit a wall. My legs struggled in every session I did, and my legs felt heavy even in my easy runs. I knew I would have a few easy days towards the end of the week as I had the Vitality 10k coming up and hoped that would refresh my legs. Unfortunately, it didn’t.
In addition to going off too fast, my legs had zero energy in them during the race. It was a battle from start to finish, but one I was not going to give in to. Once I had finished the race, I knew I needed to get my legs back. Whilst I knew what I needed to do, I always struggle to admit it and decide to have a few days easy myself. I have however learnt how to deal with this, and it is honesty. If I tell my coach exactly how I am feeling, she will tell me what I should do. That way I will listen, and I will do as I’m told, as I wasn’t the one making the decision. Sounds silly, but it’s what coaches are here for. To keep us in line. I have also been suffering from a few niggles in the past few weeks, which has meant training hasn’t been as I would’ve liked it.
My coach immediately told me exactly what I knew. She told me to have a few days easy and wait until the weekend to do a quality session. Whilst I hate having to take a step back from intense training, I know I need to. My sessions during the week wouldn’t have been as I would’ve hoped as my body would still be tired. Nothing is going to be lost from a few easy days, but it may be if I keep ploughing on and don’t listen to my body. The niggles I have been feeling are quite literally my body’s way of telling me to take it easy for a little while.
Whilst it may be difficult to do, there is no shame in going easy for a few days or a week. The most important thing is managing your body and doing your upmost to prevent burning out or getting injured.
I sometimes ask myself, what goes through my head whilst I’m racing? How is it I stay in the zone from start to finish? Do I think about how my body feels? What did the course look like? Well, quite frankly, I don’t know.
When racing my mindset seems to go through stages. This varies from race to race, and from kilometre to kilometre. On a good day, nothing goes through my head other than the race ahead. From the get go, it is me, my body, and the race ahead. My thoughts are so fixated on pushing and giving it my all that I don’t need to have any other thoughts in my head. I find this happens most frequently when I go into a race feeling as relaxed as possible.
Other times it isn’t quite this simple. It takes a lot more than thinking about ‘nothing’ to get you through the race. It’s a game of self-motivation from start to finish. As cheesy as it sounds, you spend the whole race telling yourself ‘you can do it’, ‘you are strong enough’, and ‘you have done all the hard training’. This is ok though, and completely natural. It happens to all of us. Some of the time you need to motivate yourself to get through the race. It doesn’t always go as planned, and you don’t always feel perfect, but it is important to think whatever you need to in order to race your best. Sometimes I even have to write short messages on my hand to remind myself I can do it. Occasionally, I won’t even look at the writing, but other times I do, and it reassures me of all the hard work I have put in.
During other races my thoughts are much more sporadic, with extremely random thoughts going through my head. I may temporarily become fixated on the colour of the trainers the person in front of me is wearing. Then my mind briefly wonders, thinking about where they came from or whether they are comfortable or not. This doesn’t last long. The random thoughts aren’t long enough to distract me. My attention is soon brought back to the race and the importance of pushing myself as much as possible. However, sometimes it’s not long before another random thought fills my head. This is also ok. You don’t have to be completely fixated on the race and nothing else. If your mind is wondering, don’t worry about it, go with it. Just don’t forget where you are and keep pushing yourself.
Do I take in the surroundings? Most of the time the answer is, not at all. I tend to get to the end of a race and my mum says, ‘What a pretty course, what did it look like out there?’. My answer is always, I don’t know. I never take in the surroundings when I’m running, let alone racing. Sometimes it seems like a shame, when we visit so many places doing different races and never take in what is around us. However, we don’t have time to. If I did take in the surroundings, I would probably not have been giving it my all. If I am pushing my body to the limit, the view around me is the last of my concerns.
One thing that is key, that I am so thankful to have gotten out of, is the negative mindset I found myself adopting during races. This helps no one, especially not you. Nothing positive ever came out of being negative. I would become bogged down in the mindset that I wasn’t strong enough and I couldn’t finish the race, despite all the hard training and dedication I had put in. Negative thoughts can be extremely destructive especially when racing. Admittedly, I was in a poor place mentally and physically at this time, which is why my thoughts were negative. If you are finding this, don’t be afraid to take some time out from racing. Your mental health is so much more important. Allow yourself time to recuperate and relax before racing again.
As I get to the end of the race, my thoughts are at the finish line. When you are giving it all you have, the finish line only seems to get further and further away. The only thing going through my head at this point is ‘get me to the end’. I am giving it all I have, there is no space for any other thoughts. Racing can take a lot of concentration and can be mentally tiring as you are working your entire body. The best races are the ones when you have given it your all, no matter what this may be time or place wise.
Remember there is no set mindset when racing. Just because I tend to think about nothing or tell myself motivational quotes, doesn’t mean this is how everyone should think. Do whatever works for you!
As a runner there are a lot of false preconceptions surrounding the sport. A lot of people think to be a good runner all you have to do is run. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It also isn’t always great. We don’t go into every run excited just because we love to run. As much as we do love it, it is hard at times, and you have to have a lot of positivity and strength to keep going when it gets tough.
MYTH: All you have to do is run.
REALITY: This is what a lot of people quite frequently say. ‘I could be a good runner, all you have to do is run, it’s simple’. If only it was that simple. Running is the easy part, but there is a lot more that goes with it. Being a runner involves a lot more than just running. There are hours spent in the gym, recovering properly, fueling right, stretching and rolling, getting a sufficient amount of sleep, and most importantly, having the right mindset and mental strength to push yourself to your full potential. It is these elements that make up all the extra 1%’s, that will one day add up to a lot! It also takes a lot of dedication and will power. It is important to stay focused on your goals and not let anybody else make you question them, because if you have enough self-belief, you never know what you may be able to achieve.
MYTH: Every run is great.
REALITY: It would be nice if this was the case, but it just isn’t possible. I can definitely vouch for this, even now. I had a solo session on the weekend which I went into feeling tired, as I’d had our university sports ball the night before. I knew I wasn’t going to achieve the times I wanted to, but I was so harsh on myself afterwards for not having smashed the session. My boyfriend said to me, ‘Not every session can be a good one, otherwise they’d all just be average. You have to have the tougher sessions in order to appreciate the great ones.’ Once he’d said that, I realised he was right (I don’t often say that!), it’s the tough ones that make the good ones even better. No one always has amazing sessions. It is however, important to see every run in a constructive way. Whether it has gone well or badly, there is always a lesson to learn. I can be very harsh on myself, focusing on what went wrong, rather than the positives I can take away from it. It is tough, but try and see the positives, as there are always some!
MYTH: Running is easy on the brain.
REALITY: This is another huge misconception. In my eyes, running is 90% mental and 10% physical. Doing the right amount of training, the correct sessions, and just getting out there, is the easy bit. The tough bit is the mental side of it. Running requires you to push your body beyond its limits, and to believe in yourself. If you ever doubt yourself, or aren’t confident in your own ability, your performance will suffer. In a recent race of mine, I felt exactly this. Whilst I do feel I have a lot of mental strength as a result of a tough few years and I am able to get through the hard times, I felt my brain telling me I was more tired than I was. I was convinced I didn’t have more in me. However, when I got to the last 800m, I realised I had a lot more left than I should’ve done. The hard part is having the strength to tell yourself you can do it, you can run faster than you think, and you need to trust this. In the end it all comes down to experience. You have to test your limits and either push too hard too soon, or not give it enough. We have to make these mistakes in order to find out where our limits lie.
It’s been a while since I last did a blog updating you on how things are going. It is never a straight forward journey being a runner. Training doesn’t always go quite as you want it to, nor does racing, but sometimes, just sometimes, you are pleased with how you’ve done. As all other athletes will know, this never lasts long.
A few weeks ago, was Brighton Marathon 10k. I was excited to get back on the road and see how I would fair over the 10k distance. I hadn’t raced on the road since Telford in December, where I was very disappointed in my performance, even though I had only been back training for 2 months! I was much more confident going into Brighton, I knew I had a good solid block of training behind me, and I was feeling strong. I didn’t have any set expectations but, in my head, I knew I wanted to go under 35 minutes and the next goal was to run 34:45. I didn’t tell anyone the second goal, as I felt it was important not to put any pressure on myself and just enjoy the race regardless of time. The race got off to an adventurous start with a big pile up, but it wasn’t long before I got into my pace and was sat in with a good group.
I never once looked at my watch as I ran, as this is something that never helps me. I just gave it my all, despite being surprised by a sneaky hill at the 4K mark and crossed the line in 34:38. This was a massive 27 second PB for me, so I couldn’t have asked for more. The hard work is slowly paying off, and I’m enjoying working for it.
Another thing that added to the race was, never once throughout the race did I doubt myself, and I think that is something that is so important to conquer, as it can make or break your race. A race done with a destructive mindset will never do yourself justice.
Next up was BUCS Outdoors 5,000m. My mindset going into this was a lot less relaxed than Brighton. The main reason for this being, despite training on the track weekly, I hadn’t raced on it in just under 2 years! I was nervous to say the least. I knew when submitting my time, I would be placed in the B race as my parkrun time meant I would be seeded last, and my previous PB was 17:24, placing me in the time frame of the B race. I didn’t expect to achieve the time I set out for, so instead I changed my goal to come in the top 3. The wind was strong coming up the back straight and I had decided to front run the race. At the 1.5k mark I decided it may be more beneficial to tuck in behind the girl next to me, but the pace immediately slowed so I told myself to take it on. I front ran the entire race, and I was not willing to lose it at the end. One of the main things I took from that race was my head was telling me I was more tired than I was. When I got to 600m to go I thought I would pick it up a bit, and despite believing my legs were tired I had a lot more in them than I thought. When I heat 150m to go, I knew I had to do myself justice and give it that extra push. I was surprised at the distance I was able to gain over the last push. I finished the race in 16:55, not what I was aiming for, but a PB in a race I knew time wasn’t going to be the main concern. I am now excited to see what I can do in a race with a big group of girls dragging me along.
Whilst it may feel like things are going well, the journey to racing is never that simple. I struggled with some knee pain in the weeks building up to BUCS so spent some more time on the cross trainer than running. Whilst this wasn’t the ideal build up, it is much more important to listen to your body.
It seems to be such a massive part of ‘diet culture’ that it is healthy to deny yourself certain foods. It is NOT! Firstly, denying yourself certain foods is not a healthy mindset to have, but it is also not healthy for your body. There are diets which deny you of fats (these are healthy too!), those which deny you sugar (this is near impossible!), but the most prevalent diet is that which denies you carbs! How can this be a) sustainable, but b) healthy? I'm on the don't deny diet, I don't deny myself anything I like!
Carbs are so important to us all, but even more so to us athletes; they act as our main source of energy. Carbohydrates improve athletic performance by delaying fatigue and allowing us to train harder for longer, they also aid brain function, and running requires more of this than you think! Without carbs, we just wouldn’t have the energy we need to be able to train hard for long periods of time, or simply complete easy runs. I just don’t understand why you would deny yourself of this wonderful food group, especially if you are expending as much energy as we do through training.
There are lots of reasons why denying yourself certain foods isn’t healthy. If you purposefully deny yourself certain foods, this will result in cravings. Cravings then only lead to one thing, bingeing. Without realising what you are doing you will find yourself demolishing two packets of biscuits because you denied yourself a biscuit every time you fancied one with your cup of coffee. Eating everything in moderation avoids this massive craving for something. I was a massive culprit in the past for denying myself any foods I deemed ‘bad’. These foods don’t exist, they are simply an idea we have constructed in our minds. I would deny myself yogurt, convinced because it was dairy it was bad for me. This is not true!! We need dairy in our diet, it is vital to our bone development and maintenance. I love yogurt now!! If I find myself purposely denying myself certain foods I genuinely do want, I tell myself to snap out of it immediately, and I eat that food. It is so important not to listen to the irrational thoughts you may find your head telling you. If you want it, eat it! Don’t deny yourself of it, as eventually you will break!
Cravings aren’t however just a weakness in our will power. Cravings are genuinely our body’s way of telling us they need something. By denying yourself certain foods, you are denying yourself vital nutrients. If you find yourself craving certain foods, it can be because your body needs a specific nutrient. I was guilty of denying myself any sort of food that contained too much sugar, or sugar that wasn’t naturally occurring in food, for example fruit. If I felt as though I had low sugar levels, I would eat an apple. Whilst this is ok for those of you who have a massive sweet tooth and are trying to reduce the amount of high-sugar convenience foods you eat, for someone who ate none, this was not the best option. Those headrushes and blackouts when standing up, were my body’s way of telling me I needed something with a solid amount of sugar. The more I ignored it, the more detrimental it became to my health. Denial isn’t healthy!
It is imperative to remember that ‘everything in moderation’ really is the right approach to have. We were never meant to deny ourselves of certain foods, both for our physical and mental wellbeing. Carbs aren’t going to hurt you if you eat them at every meal (I always do!) and chocolate isn’t going to kill you. Eat everything, but in moderation. Give your body everything it needs, and you won’t be damaging it. I always make sure I eat everything in moderation and give my body all the nutrients it needs.
I love to run and I love to write, so I write about running!