Saturday, February 28, 2015

Brain Training

In my last post, I discussed how endurance is a three legged stool: Brain, Body, Metabolism. I have blogged quite extensively about my thoughts on metabolism and body (training) in the past. But the topic of training the brain has come up more and more recently, and I have learned through personal experience that it may be the single biggest thing holding me back from achieving my 100 mile race goals.

The first time I heard about this topic was reading Matt Fitzgerald's book some years ago. However, I have seen the topic come up in recent podcasts and some of the books that I have been reading on endurance recently. Brain training starts with a relatively simple concept -- the brain is the central governor of your entire body, it defines when you feel fatigue and pain. This is pretty profound in that it removes, or changes the way we view, some of the other limitations runners typically embrace: lactic acid build up, muscle damage, glycogen depletion, etc... All of those factors are real, and all of them contribute to your body sending signals of distress to your mind. But, it is ultimately the brain that decides when we slow down and when we feel pain.

A simple example is glycogen depletion. When people first run a marathon they are more likely to crash than future races. Between their first and their tenth marathon they don't suddenly triple their glycogen stores. Instead, their brain becomes adapted to going into a state of glycogen depletion without freaking out (technical term). A newbie marathoner may only be able to use 60% of available glycogen where a seasoned marathoner more like 80 or 85% before the brains sends fatigue distress signals to the body.

Here are some ways in which training the brain can help with ultramarathon racing.


Specificity is a topic just about every runner is familiar with. Seasoned runners quite often do tune-up races or quality workout sessions that mimic the intensity and the duration of their goal event. Ultrarunners frequently train on terrain and environmental elements similar to what they'll race in.  However, training specifically for a 100-miler is a whole new animal. How does one properly do that? I mean, a race that takes 24+ hours has so many different angles to specificity -- length, weather, time of day, terrain, nutrition, etc.... It is quite overwhelming and may not be feasible to hit them all in training, at least not with regularity. Experience may be the best way to truly get better at 100s. But this blog post wouldn't be all that useful if that is all I had to say...

Training volume is a consideration, but I am not a "volume guy". I do think running 55-75 miles per week (8-12 hours) on a regular basis is a great idea. And I do think more volume would help if the runner can handle it and has a life that accommodates the added stress. But, for the mid-pack, family-centered athlete, there is diminishing returns to volume that will lead to fatigue, burnout, maybe even injury. (As a side note, I am starting to think of volume more in terms of time than miles because that is really the defining factor.)

Another consideration I see in my own training is training too fast. Specificity is about mimicking race conditions. Running too fast in a tune-up race or specific workout sabotages your ability to find the flow and to teach your mind what a sustainable effort feels like. A practical suggestion here is just to take breaks to eat, drink, walk. These breaks slow you down and allow you to recover, a great tip for race day as well. I often get hurried into the race mindset and that causes anxiety unnecessarily, particularly in aid stations. Slow down, eat, drink, say hello to friends, crew and volunteers.

Perhaps the biggest opportunity for specificity training that I see in my own training for a 100-miler is learning to run ALL DAY LONG. My hundreds have not been marked with a lack of fitness or preparation, but rather fatigue and exhaustion that results from missing out sleep/rest and normal meals. Most runners, myself included, have a typical window of time where we train. Our bodies become used to that. Then we show up for a 100 and may have to see two sunrises on the trail, a recipe for a body freak out. One of my pacers at Bear 100  brought up night running in conversation and later that night my body totally seized. With the help of Robbie's comment, I finally came to the conclusion that I must embrace this and train more running at night. I tried my first night run of this cycle a week ago and it was tough! My heart rate was sky high and I felt fatigue normally saved for the late stages of a race. I was cooked! (See note about adversity training below as well.)

I think that perhaps taking the concepts of B2B and night running and blending them into a B2B2B might be a great way to mimic the kind of fatigue felt from running all day. Instead of running 40 miles in two runs over two days (like 20 Sat and 20 Sun), a routine of morning-night-morning might do wonders for pushing through this wall. For example,  Saturday morning,  Saturday night and one last block Sunday morning might be an incredible way to train. Of course there are tons of variations: changing the length of each run, using time instead of miles, fasting in between the last two runs, minimizing sleep in between the last two runs, etc... A pretty extreme but quite useful example might look like this:

  • 2.5 - 3 hours Saturday morning
  • 2 - 2.5 hours late Saturday night (with a headlamp on trail would be preferred)
  • 2.5 - 3 hours Sunday morning with only 4-6 hours sleep in between and fasted.

Forced Adversity

I borrowed this term from a friend. I think the concept is pretty self-evident, don't go out of your way to make training easy. When opportunities exist, make it tough on yourself. Embrace changes in weather and life circumstance. Some of this is related to specificity training -- heat, climbing, technical trail -- things that not every runner enjoys everyday. But much of is it just a mindset. If it snows, get outside and run. A little bit of rain? A new opportunity! If you have a morning meeting, run at lunch. The concept here is to put yourself in -- or maybe just don't avoid -- uncomfortable circumstances and learn to perform well in them.

Before someone takes this too far, I am not suggesting every run be miserable. Running is supposed to be fun, even training. I just mean takes what each day gives you and don't be afraid to have tough days in training too.


I know for me that Bear 100 was ruined by fear, among other factors. After running my first 100-miler, all I could remember was the pain and fatigue I felt that day. And it consumed me heading into Bear. Worse, it caused me to make silly decisions during the race. Fear is zapper of mental energy and a cause of fatigue. Not everyone has this issue, but for those of us that get anxiety about performing and about pushing through the pain and fatigue, we must learn to deal with that. We must learn to manage that fear. Fitzgerald's book has some practical tips on this.

Ken Clouber's famous quote "the toughest distance to manage is the 5 inches between your ears" applies here. Or, maybe you prefer: "make friends with pain and you'll never be alone". Bottom line, it is going to hurt... a lot. Be ready for it, but don't be scared of it. Challenge yourself to accept the pain and keep moving forward. Practice this with all the other techniques mentioned here, namely specificity and forced adversity.

Keep it Simple

Our minds will fatigue quickly when given too many tasks to manage. I know I tend to over-complicate my 100-milers -- pacing plans, pacers, gear, food selections, etc... Keeping it simple allows us to focus on the simple task at hand, getting from point A to point B on foot. Running is an amazingly simple task unless we make it hard on ourselves. Practice what you want to do in training, then just do it on race day. Do it, but remain flexible. Stay in the moment and keep moving forward.


Another good tip that I have used and read about is positive messaging. Don't get down on yourself. Listen to uplifting music. Write positive thoughts and comments on your clothes, water bottles, wrist-bands, etc... Say positive things to your pacers, crew, and aid station volunteers. I know I am guilty of occasionally circling the drain when things aren't going well. The great news about an ultramarathon is that you have lots of time to improve your race!

Be Fully Invested in the Outcome

This may be the toughest one of all. Many of us tend to race often and have many more "B" races than "A" races. That is normal, but set yourself up to give it your all on that "A" race. Trust me, you cannot force this. It has to be a goal that speaks to you at the core of who you are. It has to be something you are willing to work tirelessly for months on end. You can't just "kind of want it". If you aren't all in, the hundred will eat you alive and spit you out. I often try, but words simply cannot describe last 30 miles of a hundred mile race.


  1. AJ, that is such a great post. I really gained a lot from reading it even though I have many 100 milers under the belt (so to speak). Your last paragraph especially resonated with me as I am trying to adopt more of the full investment mindset vs. the just-enough-to-get-it-done that I have been relying on for the past 2-3 years. I am loving the new outlook and focus.

    I have not tried anything like the B2B2B like you described, but think you will definitely be well served with the night training like you did a while back. I have had very good luck with B2B, but slightly modified from the Sat morning/Sun morning approach most people take. I run home from work 21 miles (last week it was on a Thurs) getting home around 7:30, then back in again starting at 4:30 the next morning. I was back at my desk and ready to go at 8:15. It's a great way to get a HUGE chunk of training done with minimal impact to the family schedule - as well as having the many of the benefits you are describing with the 100 mile specificity.

    Training too fast is something I have been thinking a lot about as I approach my 100 in a few weeks. I started looking at my training log going back through November and noticed that all of my 20+ milers seem to land right around 8:30 pace. All the time, no matter if it's a B2B, or the 5th one in 8 days. It just seems like a natural groove that I fall into. I definitely won't be running that fast in the 100, so I am feeling the need to break that up a little and try to emulate the all-day pace a little better.

    Good stuff, man. Keep it rolling.

    1. Thanks Chris, I appreciate that! I am happy with how this post turned out. Thanks for your ideas too. No matter what happens in a few weeks, you won't be lacking from putting in the time :)