In Stride

The key to getting faster is thinking less and running more.     Photo: FogStock/Vico Images/Alin Dragulin

5 Brain Tricks for a Better Race

Sometimes you have to get out of your head to get into your run.

If you think you get fast through physical training alone, you could be missing out on half the process. Pete Magill is the record holder of the fastest-ever masters 5K and 10K and co-author of Build Your Running Body. Earlier this month I asked him about how to shave a minute off your next race in as little as one workout. But Magill says that training the brain to actually allow the body to run fast is another big part, as well.

So this week, I went back to Magill for some insights on how to "Build Your Running Brain," as he puts it in his book. Here are five of his favorite training tricks (check out the book for his full list of 10) to "convince your brain to work with you, rather than against you, when you run."

Take off your watch

Some runners can't conceive of running a mile untimed, Magill writes, but there's no reason to use a watch for every single training session. "Even if you run the same route every day, your performance will always vary because of factors like heat, fatigue, and the amount of sleep you got the day before," he told me. "There's nothing valuable your watch can tell you, so my advice is to break the addiction."

Flying solo at least once a week (on easy distance runs, preferably) can help you become more aware of your body's feedback: things like tension, fatigue, breathing, and form, says Magill. In fact, he never even wears a watch to race anymore—but doesn't recommend that until you've had months of practice learning to pace by effort, rather than by time. 

Leave your fuel belt behind

"I'm always amazed when I see people running just five or six miles and are loaded up with water," says Magill. What they might not realize is that the body actually performs better under conditions of slight dehydration—up to about 2 percent, or a three-pound loss of fluids for a 150-pound man. (After that, he cautions, it can go downhill fast.)

"The brain responds to the challenge by increasing blood volume, which helps fuel muscles more efficiently," explains Magill. Drink to thirst, he advises, but not in excess. "It also helps to learn that you can survive without sipping water every 10 minutes, which can come in handy during a race."

Go without a goal

You shouldn't do it too often while training for an event, but every few weeks an unstructured run can be an invaluable tool in keeping you on track mentally and phyiscally, says Magill. "Our brains are great regulators: If we're going out for 10 miles, we get tired around eight. Sometimes it helps not to know beforehand what you'll be doing." 

Explore a new route with friends, take a meandering jog through the woods, or throw in some spur-of-the-moment intervals, stopping whenever you've had enough. "You're teaching your brain to roll with the punches, since you never know what to expect on race day."

Run for time

"We tend to think in terms of mileage, but frankly, your body doesn't know a mile from a kilometer or a kilometer from the distance to the park and back." If you're training for a 10K, a half marathon, or a marathon, it's just as important—if not more so—to do at least one practice run that lasts the full amount of time you expect to be out there on race day.

Relax your pace and don't worry about the distance; the important thing is "for your body to realize that it can keep exercising for that long," says Magill. (One caveat for non-elite marathoners: Stop at three and a half hours because anything longer might be harmful to your training.)

Stage a dress rehearsal

Our brains do their best to protect us when we're running. Racing is the one scenario where we should really be giving 100 percent effort, but the brain is likely to hold us back—especially if it's not used to the sudden surge in exertion levels. 

That's why a tune-up race can help: "You show your brain that a hard effort won't kill you, so the next time it's more likely to give you a little more leeway." (For example, Magill says: If you ran two 10Ks one week apart, your second one would likely improve by up to 5 percent.) Training for a marathon? Schedule a half marathon five to six weeks beforehand, or a 5K or 10K one or two weeks prior. "It doesn't have to be the full distance; it just needs to serve as a wake-up call to get you in all-out racing mode."

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