QUESTION: How do I become a tougher runner?
ANSWER: Become a fitter and smarter runner.
I’ve always been considered a very “tough” runner. After all, you don’t win USA Masters Cross Country Runner of the Year five times if you’re not tough, right? You don’t set American age group records for 5K in 3 straight age groups (45-49, 50-54, and 55-59) if you’re not a mental and physical beast, right? … Wrong!
Here’s the truth: I absolutely hate pain and suffering during a race.
To limit both, I train every aspect of running and race physiology—muscles, connective tissue, energy systems, nervous system, and more—to ensure that I bring top fitness to a race. Then I execute the race in the most efficient way possible, the better to delay the onset of suffering, a process I call “shortening the race” because I minimize the time spent in pain.
Lots of runners think being “tough” means going out hard and then battling anyone who tries to pass them. But this creates a surge in both anaerobic energy use and nervous system messaging, which in turn leads to physiological and psychological fatigue.
Instead, I run the entire race at even effort (not pace), which often puts me behind in the first part of a race but also allows me to reach the mid-point without feeling almost any pain. I spend the second half of the race passing people who went out too hard—all of whom hurt more than I do.
As I tell the runners I coach, “It’s easy to be tough when you hurt less than everyone around you.”
Mind you, even effort doesn’t mean the entire race will feel exactly the same. It means you’ll drain your energy reserves and nervous system capacity at an even rate. On the track in a perfect race, that would result in a perfectly even pace. But that never happens in the real world. It doesn’t happen in races where you have uphills, downhills, uneven terrain, wind, sharp turns, other competitors to deal with, etc. In the real world, even effort requires changes in pace (e.g., slowing down up hills), but your focus should remain on a consistent expenditure of energy.
Yes, I endure pain and suffering in both training and racing. But I limit them as much as I can. And by limiting them, my brain—tasked with governing my body’s response to fatigue—allows me to run faster than if I’d flooded my body with agony. In fact, if we suffer too much too early in a race or workout, our brains have an innate, immutable response: They shut down our muscles and slow down our pace for fear that we’ll hurt or kill ourselves—and there’s nothing “tough” about that.
Pete Magill is a running coach, world-class runner, and author. As a coach, Magill has led his masters’ clubs to 19 USATF National Masters Championships in cross country and road racing and has worked with athletes of all ages and abilities. He holds multiple American and world age-group records and is a 5-time USA Masters Cross Country Runner of the Year. Magill is author of SpeedRunner, Build Your Running Body, The Born Again Runner and the upcoming Fast 5K.