What hurts more short races or marathons?

A colleague and good friend of mine, Joe English, recently blogged about the discomfort of the marathon and how do you mentally get through it. It reminded me of an oft asked question to me.

“What hurts more short races (usually naming 800 meters, mile or 5k) or a marathon?”

The answer is an unqualified “yes.”

I’ve raced everything from 400 meters (ok, ok, 440 yards back then) and 800s and miles and 5000s and marathons and a single 50k.

The discomfort felt is simply not the same. The shorter distances yield what I would describe as an intense, sharp, exquisite pain. If you have run the 800 – think abou the last 150. In the 400 think about the last 100. In the mile think about that last 200-300. It’s often as if your lungs are being scraped with a scrub brush with your muscles burning!  The longer runs are a gnawing, deep-seated aching type pain. It’s grinding. Certainly marathons are a test of a different kind of fortitude. The races in between are not exempt from pain. What sensations do you experience in 5Ks or 10Ks that cause you to slow down? Remember, I’m not talking about the soreness or recovery time after these various races. I’m referring to the discomfort you experience that causes you to back off or even stop!

I would recommend experiencing it all (long, short and in between). You might learn something about yourself. Not everyone is made to endure pain. It’s not being a “wimp”. It’s a more complex construct. Some of us prefer one type of pain over the other. You will never convince a track runner that the pain of a marathon is worth it. Likewise, you’ll hear every complaint under the Sun from distance folks when they have to do a vVO2max time trial (1600-2000 meters).

Here are a couple pain tidbits. Pain is good – it is one way our body gives us warning signals. Some recent research is indicating that fatigue is more of a mental/psychological construct than a physiological (actual biological or biochemical) process. This makes logical sense to me. Ever run repeats on the track and drift from your target pace because you were “tired” only to come back and run the last couple faster than ever? Ever unleash a furious kick after having to back off the pace just miles before? If you were truly physiologically fatigued (muslces and enzymes totally sapped) your body simply couldn’t go faster. 

Four things to help you reduce pain or the perception of pain:

1. Proper training and conditioning helps, but if you are going to push your limits (faster, longer or both) then you will ultimately experience discomfort. 

2. Learn what your psychological predisposition is. We’re all different.

3. Learn sport psychology techniques for coping with discomfort such as visualization, reframing.

4. Learn “good” pain (pushing limits) from “bad” pain (injury or impending injury).

Ah yes, learn to be at one with your pain.


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - trailrunningclub.com. I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for Running-Advice.com. I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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One Response to What hurts more short races or marathons?

  1. david says:

    I have found that for whatever reason, I am most uncomfortable running a 10K. After three years of running races, I have become comfortable and know how to push myself in 5Ks… in my longer races (a 10 miler and two half marathons) I have learned to pace myself well … but 10Ks? I’ve only done three, but each one brings a challenge I can’t figure out. Soreness though – it doesn’t matter the distance. If I push myself right, I know what I should feel no matter what.

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