As I’ve discussed previously, racing, or life for that matter, is a journey into uncertainty. We’re never sure exactly what’s going to happen. While we are really good at preparing for the physiologic strain of the race, as runners’ we often do a really poor job of preparing for the mental portion of the race.

No, I’m not talking about sports psychology work here, but instead about adapting our brains to the unsure demands and decisions that need to be made during a race. In my regular column for Running Times I explored this idea and gave a few examples of some of the way we have manipulated workouts to prepare for uncertainty.

We have a tendency to resist uncertainty in favor of the comfort of knowing what is coming, both in running and life. When we encounter uncertainty, we have a stress response that triggers emotions of fear, anxiety, and so forth, that bias us towards making bad decisions, or in the case of a race, giving into the pain and letting that small voice in our head win that tells us that we can’t continue at this pace. Instead of fearing uncertainty, we need to flip it on it’s head and use it as a stressor to adapt to and become resilient to it’s formerly debilitating effects.

“It is the systematic removal of uncertainty and randomness from things, trying to make matters highly predictable in their smallest details. All that for the sake of comfort, convenience, and efficiency.”  Taleb

You see while stability seems grand, but it’s only when we’re pushed outside of these bounds do we really grow and adapt. Similar to how we adapt to the stress of a physical workout by increasing the strength of our muscle fibers, building mitochondria, or producing more red blood cells, our brains adapt to the stress of uncertainty, by adjusting our stress response, establishing and reinforcing memory connections, and being better equipped to handle that formerly uncertain situation. So, to not only mimic racing conditions or deal with the stress of uncertainty, but to also ingrain decision making in the right direction, introduce some uncertainty to your workouts!


When we prepare for a workout on a track, we typically know the
details, down to how many intervals we are going to run, how fast they will be and how much recovery we will take between each one. Even with a coach, we have some say over these variables if the workout starts to go awry. Our control of the entire situation is high.

When we show up at a race, however, all that we know is how far it will be and that we have to finish. We don’t know what our competitors will do, how they will impact our pacing strategy, what the conditions will feel like or what we will do if we feel subpar. We have less control and experience a higher degree of uncertainty.

And while we are really good at preparing for the physical demands of competition–and even some of the psychological demands, such as dealing with pain or fatigue–we are often really bad at preparing for the stress of a race situation.

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    1 Comment

    1. patrick voo on February 6, 2015 at 2:56 pm

      steve, thanks for these posts and especially for introducing me to Taleb's book "Antifragile" … loving it!

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