Training my brain to run faster

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When facing a rough patch in a race, it's the mental preparation that will power you through, not the physical.

Training runs do many things for our bodies -- increase endurance, build strength, make energy systems more efficient and so on -- but they also train your brain. I've had coaches tell me a workout would make me mentally tougher, but sometimes it was difficult to see the payoff.

Lately, though, I've been drawing on those dividends. In the Country Music Half Marathon two weeks ago, I hit a tough patch midrace. When I finally figured out the physical problem -- humidity was making me sweat like a lying witness under oath -- and corrected it with a hearty dose of salt, I still had to wrestle with mental demons. I worried my renewed energy was only temporary and my reserves would sputter and fizzle as they so often do in the final stretch of a 13.1-mile race.

I fretted for a mile or so, then a solution struck me: I started reminding myself about workouts I'd successfully tackled in training. I'd done one the week before that was perfect: I'd trotted a l0K loop from my house with my friend Kate, who was visiting from San Francisco. A rower not a runner, Kate wasn't up for going fast or far, so we ran an easy pace. I felt good, but not great, despite having a fun friend at my side. But my plan was to run 10 miles, so after dropping Kate at our house and chugging some Nuun-laced water, I started running again -- this time at tempo pace.

It isn't something I do often. I mean, come on, it's tough to run fast-ish on tired legs. But coaches recommend doing this to simulate a race situation in which you have no choice but to try to keep running fast even when your legs don't feel fresh. I tricked myself into thinking of my four-mile tempo run as a separate run from the one with Kate. It had all the trademarks of a new run: Instead of Kate, I had a playlist to keep me company; instead of running at a long, slow distance pace, my feet were moving (relatively) light and fast. The sun had even burned off the cloud cover Kate and I had run under. The tricks worked, and I crushed the four miles, doing them close to my normal tempo pace.

At the race in Nashville, I replayed those four miles in my mind, telling myself if I could go fast at the end of that workout, I could do it again. Repeating, "I feel great! I feel great!" in my head, I surged, getting faster with each mile. I knew a climb up a bridge lurked in the final mile. I reminded myself about how disappointed I'd been when the same scenario had slowed me down in my April 3 half-marathon. So in Nashville, instead of retreating at the incline, I charged it, passing people literally left and right. A big downhill followed, and I wore a big grin the entire way. My time wasn't even close to my personal record, but the race will stand out in my mind as one of my best -- I'd beaten my own brain!

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