There are many runners who seem to push their limits only under competition conditions (against another person). There are some who can compete with themselves (against a past time or distance). Some runners never run as fast in a race as their conditioning and workouts would indicate (i.e. choking).
There are different elements to consider about this phenomenon. Social comparison is stonger for some people than others therefore they want to perform better when others are present. Competition itself, ego enhancement through winning (being better than another), or a need for recognition play roles in how we view our performance and therefore the effort we put into it. Fear of failure, stress, tension and being generally uptight on race day contribute to poor race day performances.
But, what about just being able to push yourself to your limits? I for one have been able to push myself against the clock anytime anywhere just as fast as any race I’ve ever run. I enjoy the sense of being able to “max out”. For me, that is a rush. I don’t need someone else there to validate what I did. My PRs for several distances have been in workouts. It is the case for my 400m, 800m & 20 mile.
The 800 is an anomoly since I never race that distance it was a time trial by myself. I just wanted to test myself. The 400 is real. I raced it all through high school but bettered it in a time trial by myself. On the other hand the day I ran that 20 miler, my goal was just to have a “good run”. I felt good mile after mile. It was like the run fed off itself. It was effortless and I felt like I was just flying. I decided to pick it up and keep it up until I got home. It was one of those days you wish that it had been race day.
Contrast that to some runners who from day one push themselves to their limits. As a coach in fact I need to regularly reign them in so they don’t do too much too soon and end up injured.
And what about the runner who doesn’t explore limits until race day? Is there a psychological barrier to discomfort. Research has now found a very strong component to the whole experience of fatigue is psychological. Each of us interprets discomfort differently. The ability to handle discomfort varies widely. Some runners at the slightest sense of discomfort will back off. Anything such as breathing hard, feeling hot, muscles aching, burning sensations in muscles, general nagging fatigue, or even just breaking a sweat for some; can make come people back off. Everyone experiences these sensations differently.
And then there are the runners who rarely if ever push themselves. I will run with many of my runners during workouts. It always surprises them when they can do more repeats for instance when I run with them than when they are on their own. Most acknowledge that it isn’t boredom but just that they can’t “push” as much when someone isn’t there (or right beside them). Similarly, there are times a runner will tell me that they can’t go any faster. If I pair them up with someone or I run with them they blast a 400m repeat like there is no tomorrow.
In each of the above scenarios I do not want to convey that it is somehow noble to push through pain, or promote a no-pain-no-gain philosophy, or even to say that pushing limits is even essential to being a runner and enjoying running. I merely want to contrast and explore the phenomenon of exploring limits and pushing oneself.
Here is one of my findings: for myself, I’ve noticed a very vivid prerequisite. I must be physically strong (in shape) and sharp for the mental aspects to take over and make me push ever harder. When I am out of shape I cannot demonstrate the same mental ability to push my limits (even if those limits are appropriate for my condition). I certainly have the ability to push my limits, race or no race – I’ve demonstrated that.
So, it generates questions for each of us. A couple that come to mind immediately are:
Does the physical precede the mental or does the mental precede the physical?
How do we tap into that ability on demand – at any time?
Tell me what your experiences are and what you think.