Feeling good, being uncomfortable and suffering

To me, the three choices a runner has when running a race or a hard workout is to feel good, be uncomfortable or suffer.

You can’t suffer in every workout or you’ll either get hurt or start the process of overtraining.  But don’t deceive yourself when it comes to races – you’re going to suffer if the goal is to run to your fitness level.  You might feel good through 3k of a 5k, but the next 1k is going to be tough and that last 1k you’ll suffer…if you run to your fitness level.

Learning to run fast when you’re uncomfortable is a skill that takes time, but it’s an essential skill if you want to reach your potential as a runner.

Should you feel good on your easy days?  Definitely.  Should you feel good during a progression run?  Maybe, if you’re lucky enough to have one of those days where you can run the whole run, even the fast running at the end of the run, feeling good.  But most new runners, regardless of age, don’t know what discomfort feels like and they run most of their runs feeling good.

After you’ve raced for a number of years you’re going to have to suffer to run a new PR.  And learning how to do that takes time.

Back to being uncomfortable.  When you’re doing challenging General Strength and Mobility (GSM) you have the opportunity to practice being uncomfortable.  Core H is a great example of learning to be uncomfortable for 10 minutes.  You don’t need to do Core H every day, but you do need to do some GSM every day, plus, you need to do some GSM that is challenging two or three times a week.  If you follow the “Hard days Hard, Easy days Easy” approach to training, then that means you’ll do a workout that pushes you to the edge of suffering, you grab a quick drink of water (or a recovery drink), then you go right into GSM that requires you to focus while you’re uncomfortable.  The good news is that you leave the session knowing your hard day was hard and that tomorrow you get to run easy.

Note: If you read the comments below the Core H video you’ll see that someone said they can’t do core work daily.  I completely understand.  Being a good runner is a choice.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/matt.ball.710 Matt Ball

    >Core H is a great example of learning to be uncomfortable for 10 minutes.

    You got that right! I sent it to our 100-mile runner, and he said it was “INTENSE”. However, I do find it different than “race” discomfort.

  • http://twitter.com/s_peaky Sarah Picchi

    As someone

  • http://twitter.com/OlafssonMagnus Magnus Olafsson

    I’ve just begun to scratch the surface of improving my running, started to do core work, strength work, running with a group that pushes me — but I don’t have any background in athletics. What I find I’m learning is that you have to really have a relationship with pain, and if I’m honest with myself I shy away from that. I tend to conserve energy ( = lazy! ). But I think a lot of us kid ourselves that if we train hard enough, we’ll be fit enough that the race won’t be painful.

    That’s a bit of a set up for backing off on race day.

    I like thinking about core work as pain tolerance testing. Good stuff. Thanks for the post.

  • http://coachjayjohnson.com CoachJay

    I agree Matt, running discomfort is much different than race discomfort. But the flip side is after you’ve run a hard workout you’ve got to focus on the GSM for another 10-40 minutes and that is challenging. Not as challenging as the workout, but still a mental challenge.

  • http://coachjayjohnson.com CoachJay

    Here is a comment that was posted on facebook.

    “I think this is one of the harder concepts to teach young HS athletes. It’s natural for them to want to slow when they feel uncomfortable. It takes a mental toughness and understanding of cost/reward that coaches may not remember not having (since many were likely competitive athletes themselves).”

  • Marcie Matthews

    You have written about this topic before and I have made note of it over time. As I prepared for Boston I really tried to practice pushing through and not backing off when it got uncomfortable. It absolutely made a huge difference in the actual race. The minute that uncomfortable feeling hit, instead of panicking or backing off–I was able to acknowledge it and basically embrace it as part of what should be happening if I was going to PR. Which I did. Thank you for the solid advice Jay.

  • http://twitter.com/skoraRunning SKORA Running

    Great read! Key workouts and racing is simply the practice of suffering.

  • maryhui

    I’ve found that, during training sessions, I am a runner who finds it hard to push my heart rate levels up to high levels. 185 bpm seems to be the max I can go, whether this is a hard uphill sprint interval or at the end of a hard 3x3k interval. Some of my teammates can run to the point of being sprawled on the ground but I’ve never been able to reach that point of discomfort. This leads to me to think – am I not pushing myself hard enough? But at the same time, I don’t know how else I could have run that last interval any faster – I was giving it my all. So I wonder, is it a psychological barrier that is holding me back, or just phyiological differences?

    It’s the same with races. I race knowing that there’ll be suffering involved. But I always finish races with a bit left in the tank – or so it always seems in retrospect, though not during the race. Am I being held back by not knowing how to run fast while uncomfortable?

  • Steph

    This is perfect timing. I have a marathon Sunday and just having someone say it and get it out there, makes it less of a big deal

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  • http://www.facebook.com/peyton.hoyal Peyton Hoyal

    This is an interesting topic, that of “Am I pushing myself hard enough?”. In my experience, with both athletes I coach and former college teammates, it typically seems that those who “pass-out” after races or fall to the ground in exhaustion may also be those who most need to quantify their discomfort with an act of showanship. I don’t mean to say they are “faking” these dramatic finishes, but it could be psycho-somatic in a way. The runner thinks- “Okay, I am really hurting in the last 400m of this 8K XC race, and this guy from XXXX University has a killer kick…. if he nips me, I better look like I gave 110% or else…” sort of mentality. Then there are other runners who I have watched die a thousand very real deaths in races, stumble across the line, but then be talking to me 30sec later… Hard to say exactly, but it boils down to the personality, physical capacity, and mental needs of the athlete. You do your thing, push to your own limit, and if you don’t flake-out at the finish all the better for you!

  • maryhui

    That’s a good point – never thought about it that way. Thanks!

  • http://coachjayjohnson.com CoachJay

    Great job Marcie. It’s so hard to teach the body (and the mind) to push when you’re uncomfortable, but that’s what you have to do to race well.

    Now you can take your experience to your workouts. Some workouts should just feel comfortable, but others should feel much more difficult.

  • http://coachjayjohnson.com CoachJay

    Max heart rate is variable from person to person. Don’t use an equation to figure out what your max heart rate is. While 220 minus age is what some say (here are other equations – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heart_rate) it can vary.

    I would recommend reading RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running By Feel by Matt Fitzgerald. Talks about how going hard in workouts helps teach the brain that the body can go hard in races.

    In terms of having some left at the end of the race, perhaps some progression runs will help you learn what you can handle. Then, if you’re not racing very much, do a run where you simply run hard for 10k in the middle of 8-9 miles. That distance really teaches you how to hurt, yet it starts at the uncomfortable but doable place.

    Best of luck.

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