Merry Christmas: You gotta believe

It’s my turn to write a Christmas-themed blog. Already, Ryan has regaled us with his wisdom: “Don’t go haying in winter” and Kramer is back with a very thoughtful piece, perhaps not so Christmassy, but ever-relevant, about why we do what we do. I want to talk about the true meaning of Christmas: belief.

No, this is not a religious rant. But factually speaking, Christmas is what it is because of the dominance of Christianity, and its celebration of the birth of a saviour. If that’s what you believe. So, yes, it is about belief. Running, like Christmas, is also about belief. Allow me to elaborate.

There is a theory, espoused by Dr. Tim Noakes, that the main limiting factor to running performance is not VO2max, not muscle fibre recruitment, not lactate threshold, but simply the brain’s ability to control these factors, and cut off work if things get to hot. As much as this theory makes a lot of sense to me, it’s still not mainstream, and many would say it’s unproven. (Noakes points to the success of amphetamines in cycling as a performance enhancer to show how important the brain is to controlling performance.)

In any case, this is not to say that training methods that seek to improve oxygen carrying capacity or the lactate shuttle will not be effective. They will because those factors do help determine performance. But they are not the last word.

Listening to Noakes give an interview at the Canadian Athletics Coaching Centre’s website, I was struck by a point he made about the top finishers at a major marathon. Two runners were heading into the final kilometer. At that point, one of them, a Kenyan, turned it on, and easily outdistanced his rival. The second place finisher was fine, just not fast enough. Why was this so? A higher V02 max for the Kenyan runner? Better fuel use? Noakes suggests that if we took such measurements, we’d find the runners identical, and that the real difference was that the winner had managed to train his brain to “release the brake” while the other fellow had not.

Is this some kind of magic I’m spouting? Just “believe” and you’ll run as fast as you want? Of course not. You still have to do the training. All of it. Lots of it. But you can do two other things to improve the likelihood of a superior performance.

Workouts that teach your brain that it’s ok to go faster will help. Most runners already do this. There are a couple kinds of workouts Noakes recommends. For one, short, fast sprints, that keep ground contact time low, and recruit lots of muscle fibres. Another is running workouts at race pace. This is in contrast to running at physiological paces such as VAM, PAM as they are known in Quebec. Why does race pace make more sense? If you train at VAM, for example, you are working on increasing that variable. Your brain will still tell you to stop when you’ve reached a certain percentage of that variable. Training at race pace can, in theory, increase that particular percentage. Keep in mind, that’s my metaphorical treatment of the idea, not Noakes’ scientific one, but I think it stands up. Steve Magness talks about the lack of correlation between VO2max and performance, and so does Noakes.

What’s the difference between the two? Maybe not much. But it might be the difference between one workout where you purposely keep yourself in control, and another where you purposely push beyond your limits. The key is the perception of those limits. Not all workouts are designed to be hammered until you puke. But used judiciously, that can be a good tactic.

The second thing you can do to train your brain is to have a full and unbending belief in yourself and in your training. Easier said than done, of course. But you can acheive this in a number of ways. First, you plan, like Ryan does on his walks with his dad, and in sessions with his coach. If you make a plan, write it down, talk about it, verbalise it, make it real, then your brain will acknowledge the validity and viability of the plan. Once you’ve made the plan, you stick to the plan. Oh, sure, you can (must) be flexible at times, but holding to the plan will encourage your brain that you know what you are doing, and that things will work out in the end. A great amount of self-awareness is required here. Noakes mentions in his talk that some of this stuff occurs at the sub-conscious level. So when I say “you” and “your brain” understand that the two may not always be one in the same. You also test the plan. Races, workouts and other tests will reinforce that the training is working. Within this structure, you will have smaller plans, like race plans and workout plans. Write those down, too, and then execute them, and debrief them afterwards. Reflecting on successful work will signal to your brain that all is normal.

When it comes time for the big race (because for most of us, there is a big race), the training you have done will have prepared you physiologically to run within a certain range. Rarely do runners beat this range on the high end. Sometimes people have bad days and bottom out of the low end, but it is not often that we exceed our so-called physical potential. Noakes would have us belive that we can get more out of our bodies than this range would suggest. He uses the example of the finishing kick in a race. If we are so tired, where are we getting this reserve? It’s been in you all along, he says. For example, in a typical distance race, we may only recruit 50% of the muscle fibres in our legs! In the finishing kick, we access some of the rest of those untapped reserves.

If you train your brain, along with your legs, you can surpass expectations. To take it back to Christmas, how is it that a child born in a hut in the desert was so influential in the development of the Western world? If you believe, you say it’s because he was the son of God. Objectively speaking, you could say it is because so many people BELIEVED he was the son of God. Perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch, I don’t know. Think of all the things in the world that have been created, all the events that have happened, because of belief, because someone thought they could do a little bit more. Or, think of all the failures that occured, with the same science, the same resources. What was missing? Perhaps only the spark of conviction.

Merry Christmas!