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Confine Your Runner’s Mind

Peter Bromka tries to make sense of the mental struggle of workouts.

Peter Bromka

May 15th, 2022

5 min read

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I’ve considered dropping out of every one of the best workouts I’ve ever completed. With my body and mind overloaded it simply seemed like too much.

“There’s no way I can hit that split again for this next one. I must stop soon.” I decided. But then, in that moment of resignation, when I’d settled on a plan to quit, I already felt better. While still traveling at the same pace I was more at ease. With the plan to stop in place the effort felt less onerous since my mind was already relaxed. Which, irritatingly, meant I must go on.

Such moments of fear teach us that it isn’t the instant you’re in that’s too much, it’s the extrapolation of that moment multiplied many times over that breaks your brain.

So don’t.

Do not concern yourself with what’s to come.

“Confine yourself to the present.” 

Marcus Aurelius

Though I have no insight into what the Roman emperor meant, as a leader during great upheaval it’s safe to assume he faced immense uncertainty and danger. So he managed through reduction, by zooming in and confining fear. Eliminating an indulgent preoccupation with the future that he could not afford.

Neither can you.

To push your body to its peak you must confine your mind and diffuse its protective impulses. While its alerts are sent with noble intent, they’re misguided and exaggerated. Prone to hysteria. Contrary to its fearful protests, you are in fact alright. Safe, if a bit insane. Even as your senses scream otherwise, you are able.

So hang, in this moment, at this speed, under this pressure. Appreciate it for what it is: a preciously brief window of designed discomfort.

If you can, find others willing to join you to gallivant in this garden of distress. Together my teammates and I create psychological safety that normalizes the pain. We slip into a mutual delusion, a warped reality in which paces are possible that I’m never able to manage on my own.

“Focus on the gap, not the rock. If you stare at the rock you’ll steer right into it.” — a friend suggested while mountain biking.

The same could be said for the pain of endurance exertion; focusing on it only seems to steer you into more of it.

I attempt to think of my stride, my hand swing and knee drive. Since under even the greatest duress neither particularly aches or burns. They’re markers of my current performance but not centers of discomfort.

Your body doesn’t know what’s to come, so unbind it from the obligation. It only knows the power to push, float, and land, and then inflect off to rise again.

And repeat. And repeat.

Drop the shoulders. Unclench the hands. Ease the breath. Productive things you can do while shifting away from the harmful signals coming from your mind.

These moments of exertion represent a spectacularly small amount of our lives as runners. In a given month of training you may spend dozens of hours running, recovering, reading and discussing the simple sport we love to obsess. But precious few minutes are actually spent here, teetering on the almost unbearable edge of your ability.

In a world of multi-tasking, app switching and interruption, when you’re here, hurting, you’re pushing right up against the essence of your humanity. Your mind is trapped, existing solely in the meters ahead.

Yes, it’s awful, but it’s your awful. Sure you’re hurting, but in mere moments this window you’ve opened will close. The uncertainty induced by this discomfort isn’t a problem, it’s the point. Hover here. Make space for yourself.

Like the calloused edge of a runner’s foot that’s accustomed to impact, this mental rehearsal develops protection from the waves of shock you’ll encounter while racing, working, or just in daily life.

What started as the method to improve as an athlete has become the simplest way to cut through all of life’s bullshit; using a hill, a path or a track to return you to the essence of yourself.

You’re here right now, legs burning, mind screaming, tiptoeing along the cusp of failure, because inviting this suffering builds strength and embracing this vulnerability provides peace.

Welcome.

“Only the disciplined ones in life are free. If you are undisciplined, you are a slave to your moods and your passions. It’s not about the legs; it’s about the heart and the mind.”

Eliud Kipchoge

6 responses to “Confine Your Runner’s Mind”

  1. Nick says:

    I cannot say thank you enough for putting words to the thoughts and feelings as the miles pass.

  2. Justin S says:

    This is great motivation….if one’s goal is to be as fast as possible. But for the vast majority of us, running is not a livelihood or a means of survival – it is a hobby, presumably something we do for fun and enrichment. Let’s not confuse that with “pushing right up against the essence of your humanity.” There is nothing heroic about training or racing. We choose these pursuits. We learn and grow in the process, but we are also sacrificing in other ways–less time with family, obsessing over something that is ultimately indulgent and not giving anything back to community. So yes, perfect the mental art of suffering to be a faster runner, learn all of the mantras that allow you to absorb and even thrive on pain. But let’s not confuse these with some truly higher calling.

  3. CSN says:

    You’ve got it all wrong Justin S. Heroism is a strong word, but anyone who’s ever been accused of it knows it was a matter of small but consequential choices made while your body, mind, self-preservation, or social pressure screamed “no!” Firefighters were “just doing their job” and to others “it just seemed the right thing to do.” Running is “just” a hobby to all but one in a million of us, but do you really doubt that how you approach it, and what you repeatedly choose to do, shapes you? While one can certainly lose track of priorities, ideally we make those sacrifices in the short term to be the kind of person who can more than make up for them. Bromka is clear enough that “this mental rehearsal develops protection from the waves of shock you’ll encounter while racing, working, or just in daily life.” I do not see a diatinction between “enrichment” and “the essence of our humanity.”

  4. bromka says:

    Thank you Justin, and CSN.
    As I’ve already thoroughly described my perspective, all I’ll add is that I appreciate both of your thoughtful replies. If my piece serves to bring athletes together to respectfully dissect and disagree about the “essence of humanity” then it’s done its job. I agree with both of you, and the very sacrifices that Justin describes are the heart of the next piece I’m writing for UltraSignup. Look for that next month. For now, be well, and thanks again.

  5. RunBikeThrow says:

    Good discussion. I agree that you can view running only as a self-improvement hobby that gives nothing back to the community. On the other hand, doesn’t improving oneself also improve the world around us by interacting with it? Without training in the pain cave I don’t develop the discipline to start ultrarunning. Without ultrarunning I don’t start a company providing zero waste services to trail runs and other events as a deliberate way to give back to the sport I love, and improve the world around me. It’s all what you choose to make of it, IMO.

  6. […] ENTER THE RUNNER’S MIND […]

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