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Thursday, 3 September 2009

Thinking on your feet

In Tim Noakes' magnum opus 'The Lore of Running' he espouses two theories which I wish to pick up on here. The first is learn from the greats. And while this is true and it's fantastic to read about the experts of yesteryear, there are few places that we can learn from the modern elites. I'm willing to stand corrected, but I don't think that Haile Gebrselassie, Tirunesh Dibaba or Abel Kirui are bloggers, while the frequency and regularity of Paula Radcliffe's tweets make this blog look like it's run on clockwork.

But both Nate Jenkins and Lizzy Hawker do blog on a regular basis (check out the links to the left). And if I've learned anything from reading Lizzy's blog over the years it's that running is much an art form as it is a sport. I'm one of the least 'artistic' people that I think I know, but what I do know is that you have to have your mind in the right place if you're going to 'do' art well. Which, by inference, means that your mindset is going to have to be right if you're going to run well.

This isn't a problem for me most of the time when I'm training, with the exception maybe of actually stepping over the doorstep and starting the run. When I run, I feel that my mind is freed from the cares of the day. There's almost nothing to think about during a run; everything just seems to drain away. I'm not saying that using the brain is a bad thing, otherwise I wouldn't be playing backgammon, chess and Risk online, or be doing battle with the Guardian crossword. But sometimes freeing the mind is needed.

This changes slightly though when you switch from being what I would call a 'jogger' to being a 'runner'. I'm going to define a jogger as someone who runs without purpose and a runner as someone who's set them self a goal or set of targets. There's nothing wrong with running aimlessly, but as soon as you say 'I'm going to do this race', 'I want to be able to complete this distance', 'I need to lose this much weight' you've stopped being agnostic about your running. You've set a goal that you believe you can achieve, and then you've got to keep believing that you can achieve it all the way through to the end. Experience tells me that this must be right: the first time you go to run a given distance or a new race course it is daunting, but the confidence and belief gained from completing the distance or course before reduces that feeling.

As soon as you begin racing, the difference is even more marked. I find that when I am racing I am constantly thinking, making calculations of kilometre or mile splits, thinking about my ability to move through the field from the group I'm in into the next group, how hard I can hit that hill which is coming up. Running a marathon, I found, became an exercise in tricking my mind, and not my body, into believing that I was going to finish the course.

The second of Noakes' theories I wish to mention here is the central governor theory. I mention it because, in my understanding at least, it is a formalisation of this belief in your ability to achieve your goals. It is your mind, Noakes says, that is solely governs your ability as an athlete, and not the ability of your body. The athlete needs to train their mind to be ready to make the calculations and play the games with his (or her) body just as the body needs to be trained. And the mind needs to be in the right state to race, just as an artists mind must be in the right place to produce their masterpiece. I am coming to the conclusion that racing in events that aren't your target helps this mind training as much as it does the body - if the half marathon is familiar and no problem for the mind it is only in the late miles of a full marathon that the mental battle really begins.

As Morpheus may have said: 'Believe. And free your mind."

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