In my last post I asked the question of how many times we could go to the well in training. Implied in the discussion was the idea that going to the well fatigues us in a profound way and that if we go there too often we “overtrain” or “burnout” and don’t bounce back like we normally do. There are a lot of potential physiological explanations for this happening that were discussed earlier, but what about the mental aspect?

I vaguely mentioned this in the last post, stating that Italian Coach Renato Canova has noted the different approach to hard workouts that western and African runners seem to have. Of course this has a physiological impact, perhaps they rely less on stress hormones to get them through it, but it also likely has a psychological impact. Which brings me to my point.

I stumbled across an article in the New York Times discussing the research on willpower. In the article it talked about how our willpower has not changed over the generations according to research, just the amount of stimuli that trigger our use of willpower has increased. In food terms, that might mean back in the day we didn’t have to pass an endless supply of chocolate or candy every time we checked out from the grocery store.

The over abundance of stimuli that cause us to use our willpower is the problem. What’s interesting is that recent research has found that willpower fatigues, similar to how our muscles fatigue. If we continually have to use our willpower to resist temptation, eventually we give in. In the article, the common example of having a stressful day at work and then coming home and forgoing your usual exercise, you plop down on the couch and eat some junk food.

I thought this was about Running?

Tying this back to last week’s blog on going to the well, is it possible that if we go to the well too much and too frequently that we exhaust our willpower to push that deep? It takes a lot of willpower to dig deep and push through the pain of racing or hard workouts.

A more practical message is that you should be aware of how your outside life impacts your running. If you are stressed out all day at work or school, then you’ve used a lot of your “willpower” throughout the day, and you have a hard demanding workout, chances are you aren’t going to dig as deep as you would because you’ve used up a lot of that willpower reserve and haven’t let it recover. I have no research to back this up, just anecdote, but one key to the African’s success might be there ability not to waste mental energy or willpower. According to coaches like Canova, they are incredibly relaxed about training and not stressing over every little detail or split, like many Americans do. They let the coaches worry about that stuff and they just do the training.

Maybe that’s why they seem to be able to handle more intensity within their training? They don’t have to dig as deep into their willpower reserve to get through it, or they haven’t exhausted their willpower in aspects outside of running.

Additionally, realize that taking steps to unwind or veg out as it’s called to help “recover” willpower might be beneficial. This is pure speculation, but in college our team had a kind of strange tradition of getting together and watching episodes of “the Hills” post practice. It was not because the hills was a great show or that a bunch of guys loved watching a bunch of hot girls experience pointless drama. No, the point was “to turn our brain’s off,” as we so often said. Turning our brain’s off were the only way to make it through that show without going insane, but little did we know that it probably helped us recover mentally after a hard day’s work so we could get back at it tomorrow.

New York Times article:

Get My New Guide on: The Science of Creating Workouts


    1. Jeff Satterley on October 28, 2010 at 3:03 pm

      I wonder if the metaphor between willpower and muscles could be extended in another way: if you practice willpower regularly, does it build up and get stronger? I suspect it might (although only based on anecdotal evidence and speculation). It would probably be interesting further research.

      Thanks for the NYT article, quite interesting.

    2. Anonymous on October 28, 2010 at 3:49 pm


      great blog, always informative, any chance you could post some training of your what your athlete's are doing this XC season


    3. Mark U. on October 28, 2010 at 8:18 pm

      Good post, and thanks for the NYT link too. It seems entirely logical that our will power is just as strong as it historically had been; it's simply the increased amount of temptation that we're exposed to and the greater stress that we find ourselves in that we often unthinkingly yield to. If anything this realization only further reinforces the value of running; it's a natural stress reliever and it strengthens both our bodies and the minds.

    4. Anonymous on October 28, 2010 at 10:05 pm

      great blog, great info, thanks Steve.

    5. Robin on October 29, 2010 at 10:41 am

      Great post! We Americans are addicted to stress, for sure, and we are also surrounded by temptation. I always find that the more tired or stressed I am, the more I lose my willpower and succumb to temptation.

      I have to say I busted into laughter at your line "Turning our brain’s off were the only way to make it through that show without going insane…"

    6. Dave @ tips4running on October 29, 2010 at 7:35 pm

      Running in college is extremely tough because of this "willpower" argument. I recall finishing brutal workouts only to go back to the house and just sit on the porch for hours doing absolutely nothing. I even planned out doing a lot of my harder school work and studying on days that weren't workout days.

    7. Karl Jarvis on October 29, 2010 at 9:45 pm

      Thank you Steve – this post hit on a point I hadn't quite been able to describe but had experienced. I think that a very cool study could be done to test what you describe. My personal sense is just like yours in that the less stressful training and racing seems, the better I perform (and the better I like it!). Tony Krupicka, Geoff Roes, Kyle Skaggs, and Karl Meltzer of the ultrarunning world have huge success and all are laid back guys that just love running in the mountains.

      It all comes down to how you measure stress. If it's something like how much you work or how much you obsess over details I don't think you'd find anything (think Lance Armstrong – Mr. Obsess-over-Details himself). I'm sure there would be some markers in the blood that would be associated with psychological stress, and you could also have subjects rate how busy they feel as they train and race.

    8. stevemagness on October 30, 2010 at 10:17 pm

      Thanks for the comments all. As always, much appreciated.

      Jeff- Excellent question! I'll have to dig through the research a bit, but my gut feeling is that it could be trained to a degree.

      Mark- True, running serves as a great stress reliever. I'd bet that easy running serves to help restore some of that willpower/let it recover.

      Robin- I was hesitent to include that little story about our TV watching days in college. I watched more "Hills" during my senior year in college then I care to remember…

      Dave- Right there with you. There wasn't much studying going on after hard days.

      Karl- great points. I think we all need to find what works best for us. There's definately some room for some interesting studies in this realm if any scientists want to pursue them.

    9. Fitz on October 31, 2010 at 5:18 pm

      It would be really fascinating if there was any research regarding this topic in the running community. From my college experiences, being "on" for a hard workout usually meant that no intense studying was going to happen that night. And if I had a rough day of classes, I wasn't as focused for a hard workout as I should have been. It seems for me there's a limited amount of targeted attention I can use every day. It makes me wish I could just train full time!

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