So, there’s this thing called the Central Governor Model of Fatigue, and it basically argues that our physical limits are controlled by our mind and our minds perception of how close we are to damaging ourselves. So, for example, when it comes to fuel storage, you will never, ever, completely run out of fuel. It simply won’t happen because you would die if you did that and your brain is very against you dying. So, instead, to use runners parlance, you “bonk.” And by bonk, I mean that your brain is like “No way Jose, we don’t have that much left in the tank and we need that fuel to keep your heart beating and your lungs moving oxygen and your brain working. So, you’re gonna slow down.”
I like to think about it like you’re a character on Mortal Combat and you have a health bar up at the top of the screen. Now, the size of that that bar and the rate it decreases are mediated by many variables, like your fitness level, your rate of perceived exertion, the amount of food you ate before and during your run, the physical conditions of your environment like temperature and altitude, even extrinsic factors like the knowledge of how much longer you have to go or if there’s a crowd cheering. Basically, everything impacts the size of that health bar and/or how quickly it drains. So, as you’re exercising, your brain is monitoring that bar and when that health bar goes from a full green strip to tiny flashing red dot, your brain goes into survival mode and shuts you down so that you don’t dip into the fuel reserves, or over heat, or completely exhaust yourself, or just generally do anything to interfere with you continuing to live. We have many words for this phenomenon like, bonking, heat stroke, cramping, hitting the wall, etc. But, according to this model of exercise and fatigue, these things occur when we take our bodies too far away from equilibrium and into the danger zone.
Now, this isn’t an essay about science because A) I don’t fully understand the science. B) There are lots of other people who do understand the science and write about the science way better than I just did (see Endure by Alex Hutchinson, it’s amazing. Or, Faster, Higher, Stronger by Mark McClusky) C) You didn’t come to this site to read about science. You came to this site to read about the human experience of running, and I promise that’s where this is heading. But, I had to tell you about some science today because, in order to get on board with what I really want to write about, you have to understand that your brain is a liar. It has good intentions (keeping you alive), and its motivation (not letting you perish) is pure, but your brain is lying to you. Don’t take it personally, everyone’s brain is constantly lying to its person.
The reason I say that your brain is lying to you, is because when you run, particularly when you run hard, your brain sets limits for your performance, but those limits are not your real limits. Your real limits lie somewhere beyond the picture your brain paints for you. And one of the ways that your brain keeps you on the safe side of those limits is by creating expectations about how it thinks you’re supposed to be feeling. And those expectations don’t usually match the reality of what is going on in your body. When you’re running hard, your brain sends you these expectations of discomfort that make you hurt more than the reality of how your legs actually feel. Your brain wants you to think that your limits are in one place when your limits are really somewhere beyond that mental fence that your brain has put up.
So, to switch gears again, in the past I’ve written about dealing with some anxiety issues in college, and I am gonna do it again now. During college, I dealt with some anxiety issues, and one of the strategies I was taught to combat the anxious feelings I was experiencing is a technique called grounding. Grounding is basically, when you start to feel like you’re getting overwhelmed by anxious thoughts and feelings you take a deep breath and just try to focus all of your attention on some physical sensation, like your feet pressing into the ground, or your butt pressing into a chair, or your side pressing into the bed depending on the position that your body is in when the anxious feelings come.
So, back to the running stuff that you came here to read about, there was this one workout where we were running a long tempo, across Leif Erikson Dr. in Forest Park in Portland, and I was beginning to suffer on the uphills and, also I felt the anxiousness coming into my chest and stomach. So, I slid to the back of the group and just tried to focus on the feeling of my feet hitting the muddy dirt road and popping back off. I did this for 400 meters or so and when I shifted my focus back up to the group and the workout, I realized that I wasn’t hurting as badly as I was before. So, I turned my focus back to the feelings in my legs and just kinda floated to the front of the group, and then off the front of the group, and away from my teammates, and up the last few hills of the road alone without as much suffering as I was feeling when I was content to just hang in the back of the group. It was the fastest I ever ran for one of those long tempo workouts in college.
I don’t know or understand the exact mechanism of why checking in with your legs makes them hurt less. But, my guess is that it’s because when you take a second to feel your legs, and I mean really feel them with all your attention, you shrink the gap between the expectations that your brain sets and the reality of what’s actually going on in your body. That could be dead wrong. Like I said earlier, I am not a science nerd (I am not using nerd as a pejorative. I love nerds and all the nerdy things they do and discover and make and write about. Nerds are good, you guys). All I know for sure is that when I am hurting, and I take a second to feel the sensations, the sensations diminish from a dull roar imploring me to stop, to a murmur about how it would be cool if we could rest soon. But only, to a point. At some point, if I keep pushing my body away from equilibrium, I can’t make my legs feel better by taking a second to check in with them. But, when I reach that point, I can only go deeper into the well if I let in the feelings. If I dissociate, and go somewhere else with my mind, I’m blocked. If I want to go harder, I’ve found that I can’t block out the pain, I can only make the decision to feel more pain.
Those moments, when you feel the aching and burning sensations of maximal effort are extreme examples, extreme in terms of the strength of the sensations, that is. But, I think, that they’re great examples of one of the many intersections between mindfulness and running. And, I think that tapping into those sensations is a good example of when running inhabits its purest form. Running should be an exercise in experiencing the moment, an opportunity to associate with the air that you are moving past, the surface that you’re transporting yourself across, and the sensations that you’re feeling. It’s an opportunity to forget everything else, because when we bring our full attention to the act of putting one foot in front of the other and the sensations that accompany that, nothing else has to matter. There’s no pressure, no expectations, no success, no failure. It’s just you and the sensations. Your whole world can just be that moment.
Running isn’t meant to be done on a treadmill, with headphones, watching Judge Judy. That is to say, it isn’t meant to be tolerated. It’s meant to be experienced and those moments of maximal effort are chances to meaningfully experience the moment you are in. When you’re out there, Getting It with a capital G and another capital I in a workout or a race, you shouldn’t be trying to replace one sensation with another. In those moments, we aren’t running to replace pain with equilibrium, we’re running to push ourselves farther and farther away from the comfortable place we usually inhabit. We’re running to get to the fence that represents those brain-imposed limits, and then we’re trying to go straight through it. And the only way, that I’ve found at least, to take yourself beyond those limits is to feel the sensations.