“Just go do something else.”
I was 1 mile into my long run last Sunday when it occurred to me I’m still having the same conversation in my head a year after running the D.C. Rock n Roll Half Marathon, my first half marathon.
It was a miserable day that day in Washington in March 2015. There was a steady downpour and the air was cold and raw. I was soaked, my phone was soaked. My gloves were soaked. Yeah I was exuberant at the finish but I couldn’t move my fingers they were so cold.
Get to 3 miles and it’ll be ok.
Just go do something else.
That’s the (running) dialogue in my head as I do an assessment of how I’m feeling at the beginning of every run – whether on the trail or on the treadmill, where it’s easy to step off and just do something else.
I know I’m not alone here.
Micki Hultquist, my new, awesome running partner, and I talk about this weekly. Micki puts in significant mileage on Saturdays and joins me for my relatively shorter runs on Sundays as her recovery runs.
Micki’s been running for years. She’s had her share of difficult injuries, so she’s in a good place to help me get through my hamstring rehab. Last Sunday I ran 2 miles on my own before we met up but my hamstrings were screaming, and I expressed concern about how far I thought I might be able to go.
It always takes me 3 miles to warm up – or for any endorphins to kick in – but I wasn’t sure whether my muscles were planning to loosen up.
Just go do something else.
As in head to the gym to do a circuit or use the elliptical or the bike for cardio. Or take a yoga class.
Or go back home and have a cup of coffee.
It was Micki’s idea to try a 5-1 run/walk strategy. The plan was to run for 5 minutes and walk for 1 until we hit my 11-mile goal. I only had 2 more weeks to get in a solid amount of mileage before this year’s D.C. Rock n Roll Half on March 12, but I wasn’t confident whatever was happening with my busted hamstring would work itself out even with the walk/run approach.
Walk/run strategies are very popular, especially among ultrarunners, with maybe the 4/2 approach being the most common. The 5/1 strategy is the one Micki prefers. If you walk longer than 1 minute, she says, it takes too much energy to ramp back up to running.
So if 1 minute of walking doesn’t provide you with a rest, or recovery, what’s the point?
While most people agree the walk/run strategy allows you to conserve energy so you can run more efficiently, and thus longer, there’s a huge mental factor to this kind of timed run.
Anyone can run for 5 minutes, right?
Toward the end of last Sunday’s run, 5 minutes was starting to feel like a whole lot longer than 5 minutes, but we hit our goal, which felt good.
Mentally and physically.
This sudden easing of discomfort accompanied by a rush of well-being is something I’ve experienced before – particularly since I started running – and although I believe in magic, I am also captivated by the science behind the connection between the mind and the body.
In her highly readable Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body, Jo Marchant, a PhD scientist, writes about, among other things, her experience in the experimental pain lab at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle.
“It’s all about attention,” the center’s researcher tells her.
“The brain has a fixed capacity for conscious attention. We can’t increase or decrease it...but we can choose what we pay attention to.”
In other words, Marchant writes, “If we focus on a painful sensation, it will increase our experience of that pain. But if we think about something else – something safe, pleasant, far away – the pain we feel is dimmed.”
It's not that the pain goes away - it's that our experience with it changes.
So interesting, right?
The context here was the case of an army lieutenant who suffered 3rd-degree burns over most of his body after his Humvee hit a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.
He lived through the explosion and made it through multiple surgeries but as his wounds began to heal, he reported that his daily physical therapy treatments turned out to be even more painful than the sessions at the hospital when nurses scraped dead tissue from his open wounds.
To ensure that the lieutenant would be able to move freely once his burns had healed, the physical therapists manipulated his arms and legs, stretching and breaking up scar tissue.
Marchant writes that pain is a particular problem for patients undergoing treatments where they need to be awake, where they need to be a participant, and also for people who suffer from chronic pain.
Of course there are great drugs out there, but the problem is we often have to take higher and higher doses in order for them to continue to work over a long period of time. And people can suffer debilitating withdrawal symptoms that can in fact leave them hypersensitive to pain down the road.
Fortunately I cannot begin to understand how people get through this kind of pain and I am in no way suggesting my hamstring injury or any injury comes anywhere close to the experience of a burn victim.
But I do think there’s an important thread running through the chapters of the book that reminds us to harness the power of the mind when we exercise or when we are otherwise physically uncomfortable.
Marchant’s research includes studies on illusion and hypnosis and the integral role stress plays in our overall health.
At the Seattle lab, Marchant participated in a study that focused on the role of visual imagery in alleviating pain. The researcher strapped a box designed to inflict pain onto Marchant’s foot. After testing out the box by increasing the temperature inside the box, the researcher then set Marchant up with virtual reality 3D goggles and blocked out all sounds but the ones Marchant would hear through an earpiece. Soon she’s in the middle of a peaceful snowy scene in the center of an ice canyon.
Before wearing the goggles, Marchant scored a 6 out of 10 for both intensity of pain and unpleasantness. Amid the snow world, her pain intensity score came down from 6 to 5, but the score for the unpleasantness from the pain fell from 6 to 2.
The idea is that visual imagery can be a powerful form of distraction and can be used on its own or in combination with drugs to alleviate severe pain.
In some of my earliest sessions with Reuel, my first trainer, we talked about that moment when you are feeling fatigue or even burn but in reality you’ve got more in you. That’s your body’s natural fight or flight response to danger caused by stress hormones released into the bloodstream and the nervous system.
“Is that all you got?” Reuel once asked me after a set of push ups.
At first I was offended by the question because it seemed judgmental. But upon reflection and because I trusted Reuel, I knew he was asking me a question I should be asking myself every time I exercise.
Marchant devotes a chapter to what is behind our conditioned responses to fight or flight. She writes about studies I’ve been reading about for a few years that look at the muscles of Olympic athletes. Even highly trained athletes will often stop exercising when they say that's it but when scientists look at their muscle fibers, they find the muscles had way more umpf left in them.
A few years ago I had written a eulogy for my father-in-law and started to panic about giving it at the funeral. I asked Mia, who had spent her childhood as a professional actor and is now working as a director, how I could possibly get through that speech without becoming crippled by emotion.
"Just visualize yourself giving the speech and making it through until the end without crying," she said.
I created the visual and began using it as soon as I woke up the morning of the funeral. I got through the eulogy with a respectable amount of composure and could hardly believe it.
There isn't any visual that can change the fact of a strained muscle or an overuse injury or lower back or foot pain. Pain is pain and as soon as you injure one part of the body you can be sure you're gonna feel another part overcompensating and getting sore.
So I'm not suggesting that we find ways to ignore pain or discomfort. If I've learned anything from working with trainers and physical therapists it's that I need to understand my body really well so that I can figure out how to make it work for me and to know the difference between pain and discomfort and to manipulate my experience with both.
One of my favorite bloggers is @mileposts who's mantra is #irunthisbody. Her point is we control our bodies and not the other way around.
During our run yesterday, Micki and I were talking about how much both of us LOVE The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. Then Micki introduced me to How to Wake Up by Toni Bernhard, who encourages us to find a way to be kind to ourselves, particularly when we're stressed or uncomfortable.
So here are the visuals that got me to mile 10 yesterday:
2. My afternoon spa pedicure appointment with the lovely Helen at Blue Zen in Bethesda
Just go do something else?
See you next time!