Distance runners are fighters who face battles with every step. Every step provides an internal and external struggle. You battle the voice in your head trying to convince you to stop running. You fight a fatigued and exhausted body. You fight against the terrain. You fight other runners who are trying to break you down and beat you. These opponents will not relent until you give up. When it comes down to it, distance running is a test of willpower. You must outsmart your mind, overcome the terrain, endure the physical pain and outlast your competition if you are going to be successful. In order to win the battle, you must fight back.
You must train in order to learn how to fight. Distance running, like fighting, hurts. Without the ability to tolerate pain, you'll never be a good runner or a decent fighter. Workouts are intended to force you to deal with pain so it becomes familiar. Eventually, you expect the pain and welcome it. This becomes an invaluable skill, impossible without fortitude. Fortitude allows you to mentally prepare for discomfort and have the courage to face the reality of the pain required to run a distance race. When you are mentally tough and willing to embrace physical pain, you will be ready for a fight, or in our case, ready for a race. Racing provides the opportunity for you to figure out how tough you really are. Racing is the ultimate test of your strength, courage, and determination. Even before the gun goes off, the battle began. Your internal opponents already began their attack whispering fear and doubts into your mind, speeding up your heart rate and your breathing. These internal opponents make your stomach unsettled and your hands shake. As the nerves in your body tingle and your thoughts are scattered, you step to the line. On the starting line, you meet your external opponents. Hundreds of other fighters line up waiting for the sound of the gun. When the gun goes off, the battle begins and the warriors are released for the fight. What you do in the fight depends on how you have trained your body and your mind.
Training the mind of a distance runner is a tricky thing. As coaches, we see our athletes have breakthroughs in workouts and failures in races. The opposite happens too. We are in a constant flux between these breakdowns and breakthroughs. Setting up training plans for our teams is the easy part. Figuring out the mental side of this sport is not so clear. The goal is to have all the athletes on the same page mentally and physically when the meets matter the most. There is always an unknown variable when it comes to races and most coaches have a rough plan on how their athletes should approach races, but it is impossible to prepare for everything. Most coaches acknowledge that in order for an athlete to have a breakthrough, they must be willing to take a risk. Some athletes take risks not consistent with their ability and others are far too conservative. These usually lead to breakdowns instead of breakthroughs. We see them all as coaches and try our best to advise accordingly. Each athlete approaches races differently and it comes back to knowing the individuals we are training. As coaches, we should know when pep talks are required, when silence is necessary when specific race plans are required and when letting everything go is accepted. Each runner fights differently and coaches must utilize each runner's strengths in order to have a successful team.
Whether the battle is internal or external, every distance runner is fighting something. There is a desire to prove something to themselves or to others. No normal person would subject themselves to the physical punishment for miles and miles without something to prove. Our goal as coaches is to try and get our athletes to realize how mentally and physically tough they actually are. The workouts we structure should instill in them confidence that they can fight any battle, mental or physical. Good coaches try to get their athletes to recognize the mental toughness required to complete workouts will translate to good races. Even when an athlete dominates a hard workout, convincing them they are tough enough to race with the same toughness is still a challenge. They must believe it in their soul. Without this type of mental breakthrough - physical breakthroughs are almost impossible. Once a runner decides they will no longer allow their mind to control their body- they discover their potential. The moment they refuse to accept failure- they realize their determination. When they figure out that the pain is tolerable -- they discover their strength. When running becomes something they must do every day - they understand their passion. Each step should be filled with determination, strength, and passion or the runner will never reach their potential. Coaches should encourage their athletes to fight to find a purpose for the running they do and coaches should be involved in the journey. A lot can happen on the long journey toward reaching goals and the coach and athlete must have a good working relationship to overcome challenges associated with this sport. Breakdowns can lead to breakthroughs if the athlete is willing to fight back.
Nothing parallels life quite like distance running. Life teaches us who we are and what we can handle- running is no different. Through running we learn how to fight physical, mental, and emotional barriers in order to reach goals. This skill is extremely useful in life. Learning how to fight is essential for a meaningful life. Without something to fight, life becomes ordinary. The steps a distance runner takes should be filled with a greater purpose than merely running. Each step should reveal the fighter within each distance runner.