Sunday, April 10, 2016

Count to 10: Race Pain Management

In a utopic world, racing would always be challenging but smooth, a semi-conscious test of fitness and daring.  But in the real world, sometimes it is just a grind.  A couple weeks ago at a run from the Oiselle store in Seattle, I was asked by a Volee member how I dealt with pushing myself while being uncomfortable.  I didn’t have a good answer.

I got the opportunity to think through mentally handling pain this past weekend when I raced the 5k at the Stanford Invitational.  I do my best to avoid 5k’s on the track, and for the most part of my running career, I have been successful.  However, this spring, my coaches and I decided it would be a good test of my strength early in the outdoor season.  I have not done a lot of work to prepare me for a fast 5k, so I took a deep breath, put on my badass race kit, decided to woman up, and competed.

I spent the first mile following fellow Minnesotan Mara Olson, as a gap formed between us and the lead pack.  I continued to follow Mara for the next three laps, but I started getting anxious because it felt like we were slowing down a lot, but I didn’t want to run entirely on my own.  At the 3k split, I came through in 9:30, and I took off by myself knowing I had fallen a few seconds off of the pace I wanted to run.  Running on my own, I was able to get back down to the pace I wanted, and I finished in 15:49 (5:00, 5:10, 5:03), a second off my PR.  While I was able to get back on pace, it was really challenging to mentally push through it.  With my running buddy’s question on my mind, I asked myself, “How did I handle the pain?  How could I have done it better?”

                                                            Pain face

I decided pain management in racing is a combination of factors leading up to the race and in the actual event.  I believe these three are most important:

1.       Getting your mind in shape before racing through mindfulness and workouts.
2.       Carefully choosing when to race and how often to give your all-out effort.
3.       Knowing where to direct your mind over the course of the race.

Today I’ll dive into knowing where to direct your mind, and I’ll tackle the other two aspects later. 

At the beginning of any race, I do my best to be present and mindful of my body and effort.  Because racing pushes your boundaries, the first stretch of the race will likely be uncomfortable, even if it isn’t painful yet.  My body is usually questioning the effort, “Are you sure I can hold this pace for 12 and a half laps?”  Or sometimes, “This seems too easy.  Are you sure I shouldn’t be going faster?”  I try to be present enough to answer and remind myself of my racing plan.  I try to have controlled, steady breathing, and I do my best to release unnecessary tension.

Once the race becomes painful enough that I cannot be fully present while maintaining the effort, I try to distract myself.  I think about how good I will feel when I’m done racing.  I look at the people ahead of me, and try to slowly reel them in.  I picture how proud I will feel if I’m able to accomplish my goals for the race.  I repeat a positive mantra.  I go through some song lyrics.  In the final stretch of the race, when just about everything besides the pain becomes too much to think about, I revert to one of the most ingrained information I contain; I count to 10, then repeat until I cross the finish line.


I know I am far from having all the answers.  In our Thursday night Oiselle run, one of the women talked about a pain management concept from a Matt Fitzgerald book she had read: deciding to change your perception of pain.  I don’t think I’m very good at that, but it seems worth trying.  Do you have any different ways of managing pain in racing?