What do you think about when you are running?
I know a lot of people run with music. Others seek out a running group and, I suppose, think about hanging with the group. I have always been one to value my running time as my own private “fortress of solitude” (that’s Superman’s big ice palace for the uninitiated!). But this weekend I’ve noticed that the quality of my thoughts have a LOT to do with the quality of my run. Let me explain…
On Saturday I had a 12 mile base-building run. This was low HR effort and is about laying down that base for my upcoming marathon and half marathon. I took advantage of the time to run with my boys. My younger son Malcolm did the first 8 with me, and his brother Hunter did the last 6. All of us were together for 2 of the miles. The three different experiences were reflected quite clearly in my effort and effectiveness through the run!
Malcolm is a Cross Country star. Despite being a Freshman, he is one of the top athletes on his team and does a sub-18:00 5k. I knew the run was impossibly easy for him, but greatly appreciated his efforts. I felt obligated to carry on a dialogue with him, just to help him pass the time and deal with the presumed boredom of going at “dad pace”. We talked easily about a variety of topics. It was light, easy, and enjoyable. I averaged about the pace I would have expected (maybe a bit high) and about the heart rate I expected (again maybe a bit high).
When his brother joined us, the conversation ceased. It would have been rude to speak with Malcolm while Hunter was behind and couldn’t hear well, so we didn’t talk too much. My focus was 100% on my running. My HR and pace both decreased a bit but remained in approximately the same ratio effort/effect.
When Malcolm left, Hunter and I spoke about Bridge. Playing Bridge (the card game!) is one of our hobbies together. During our miles, we had a spirited discussion on the costs and merits of certain bidding approaches, etc. I noticed that as the discussion became more animated, my HR went up, regardless of pace. Furthermore, when the discussion was calmer, I found myself lapsing into lower HRs – sometimes even below the target effort level.
Maybe Hunter was less inclined to “push” me. Maybe I was more inclined to “show off” for Malcolm. But the really interesting thing was the impact of my mental state on my heart rate, even holding pace constant. I wonder how much “mental effort” contributes to “total effort” and thus increases heart rate?
Today’s run was a 15k race in Cornelius, NC. During the course of the run, I wore a HR strap and lacking anyone for conversation, my mind was free to wander. I have had some mental “stresses” lately related to work and other areas, and whenever I thought about those, sure enough my HR would increase (without giving me the speed “payout” I wanted). But when I spent time appreciating the beauty of the day and my health, family and other positives I had more normal results. All in all it worked out OK as I did the 15k at a 7:58 pace – right about where I’ve been for most of the year. And I still have plenty of time to improve that before my fall races.
I’m not 100% sure what to make of this. I obviously can’t fully eliminate big stresses from my life. But I can probably control how much they enter my mind when I’m exercising. People often talk about the BENEFIT of playing sports when you’re angry or stressed – like “taking it out on a tennis ball” or pushing extra-hard to get over the stress. But I don’t think this applies very well to endurance sports – at least it doesn’t for me. So my plan is simply to be aware of this relationship (Physical Effort + Mental Effort = Total Effort) and do everything I can to minimize the mental effort and save those heartbeats for the extra-hard physical efforts!
Oh – and having people there cheering for you helps a lot too!