Boiling down the ingredients to becoming a very good runner is a perplexing task. There are so many, each with their important contribution to the process. But there is one particular variable that we must all overcome in order to maximize our potential as a runner - the variable of pain. Not physical pain such as achy knees or pulled muscles, but the pain of physical exertion.
If you've been running even for just a short while, you have likely picked up by now that pain is inevitable in running. It is a barrier which we all face, yet few are taught how to overcome it.
Imagine if you will, you are dancing freely in your room to your favorite rhythm or music. Minutes go by, you are in a nice groove, when the door opens and "Pain" walks in. You recognize the presence of Pain, but you continue, seamlessly with your steps. At some point, you recognize that you may either stop and confront pain, upset that you feel cut-off, or invite Pain to dance with you, so long as you remain in stride.
This idea is something I try to cultivate in my runners - learning to dance with discomfort. Teaching runners how to run though discomfort can be "coaching philosophy" specific, but the earlier you intervene an understanding of higher intensity work with an acceptance of temporarily dancing with discomfort, the sooner you can really tap into the potential of that runner. Intervals, Fartleks, quarter repeats, hill repeats, track work, speed work - it all hurts. But those who can work through that, physically, mentally, and emotionally, can then focus on controlling their performance without the performance controlling them.
So how does one endure the presence of pain?
Tactical approaches that I find most beneficial to the runners I work with include the use of a mantra, the use of mental imagery, and of course, combining the two.
Try this: Identify a moment during a race, a practice, or a mentally captured flash of inspiration (perhaps from a coach's speech, a peer, a stranger, a Bible verse, or other) that you felt supported and encouraged, which created a euphoric feeling of energy and endurance. If you could put that moment into words, what would you say? If you had to encompass that feeling or verbiage into a single word or feeling, what would it be? This word or feeling is your mantra.
This is where mindfulness comes into play via Visualization. Visualization is the ability to use the mind's eye to control or dictate a performance - in this case, a difficult practice or a race. Ideally, visualization happens when you have little to no distractions, so you can concentrate on the task at hand. It is conducted in a quite space with dim lighting, your eyes closed, and it's just you and your thoughts. Once you become in-tune with your breath, relax the body from your feet to your head, and imagine yourself on a field, running. When you enter this moment, begin to integrate your mantra, doing so in a rhythmic way so that the mantra itself becomes a part of your run - rhythmically.
Transferring this mantra-induced visualization session into a practice setting is the prime objective to learning how to dance with discomfort. Recalling your mantra during times of physical distress, aka practice, takes real, concentrated effort. Eventually, the effort spent on recalling your mantra at practice will transfer to the race setting, again, with a concentrated, disciplined effort.
In the book, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Zhunryu Suzuki, it states, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." Filtering out the many factors which clutter the mind, i.e. discomfort and pain, and concentrating on productive thoughts, i.e. your mantra, can take your training and performance to a new level.