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: