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  • Writer's pictureMichael Van Elsberg

Perceived Effort and Psychology

Updated: Aug 25, 2021

Your future self awaits you . . . my previous three posts have been largely about how to move beyond your current circumstances, training and, especially, mental hurdles. Essentially, how to keep moving forward. I had been at a point in my training where I knew that I needed to dial up my training routine--but I was struggling to move the needle at all. In fact, I was struggling just to get out there.

I knew that I needed to change my mindset, even my self-identity. I have never considered myself a runner and, even if I could run for several hours, I did not feel like one because I am relatively slow. I can run far but not fast. So, I came up with a mantra: I will run faster; I will run farther; I will keep moving forward; I am a runner. I now use this as a way of motivating myself for each individual effort.

Basically, I am always doing one of those three things every time I get out there: I know when I start that I will either run faster than the previous run, farther than the previous run, or, at minimum, simply keep moving forward. And doing anyone or all of these things, I have decided, makes me a runner. And the most amazing thing happened: shortly after I added this to my routine, I was also able to make other, subtle changes that help eliminate distractions, and friction (anything that makes it harder to do something), that had previously hampered me. These two changes (the mantra and the reduction of distractions/friction) made all the difference.

There is a basic principle that you can almost always do more than you think you can. You may perceive, for example, that you are not capable of running another 100 yards at a certain pace, or you cannot possibly do another mile, push-up, pull-up or repetition of a specific exercise. But you can. In fact, most of the time you can do a lot more. If you doubt this, I challenge you to a little exercise. Do not do this if you have not been cleared for this kind of exercise from your doctor and only if you are reasonably fit to begin with.

Pick whatever exercise that you regularly have been doing and do what you think is the most you can on day one. Say, run two miles (or five or ten). Pay attention to how you feel at the end. On the following day, double it; and double it again on the third. I think you will be surprised that you can do it. And you will probably also discover that you could have done more on the first day to begin with and that it was mostly your mind that was preventing it.

One day I was out for a run, despite having turned my right ankle in kung-fu training a day earlier. Moving up even the slightest uphill grade it hurt to walk. And my ankle hurt a lot at the beginning (friction), but I knew it would go away because, after four years of training, one of the things I am now able to do well is know my body. My ankle stopped bothering me (now just a minor distraction--more on distractions later in a future post) after less than a mile.

At four miles I knew I was going to go farther and even started running a little faster (suddenly knowing I had more gas in my tank) because I wanted to. Same thing again at six. At the end I ran 12 at a faster pace than I had run the previous six-mile run. I had set out to only do six when I left my house that morning. And I did one of the fastest miles I have ever done on the last mile at mile 12. My last two runs, in fact, were at a faster pace than usual.

A few weeks later I developed anterior tibialis tendonitis in my other (now left) ankle with visible bruising at the top of my foot and the front of the ankle. Ordinarily this type of injury can take weeks to heal and put a serious dent in your progress. Instead I did the following with positive results: I began with rest, ice, elevation and Tylenol, but only on the first day; a one-mile run and one-mile walk on day two; two-mile run and two-mile walk on day three; followed by a 20-mile run on the treadmill on day four (remember, Chris and I are training for the Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge, at 298-Kilometers, with 14,500 meters of elevation gain and loss, and which is less now than six-months away).

I am not David Goggins and I am not advocating pushing through pain and grinding it out now matter what, despite pain and injury. Although determination, and some suffering, are necessary for success, you also need to be practical and use common sense. There is a delicate balance of doing enough but not too much and Chris and I both stress incrementalism in our training philosophy. And, of course, it does also take a lot of commitment to succeed. And don't forget that we've been training for the Four Trails for a little over four years now and have gradually built a strong foundation to begin with.

My ankle rehabilitation also included making sure that I had enough good quality sleep each night (also more about that coming up in a future post devoted to just the importance of sleep). During those four days I ate right and hydrated properly and did physical therapy. And I chose the treadmill for the last day to reduce some of the impact on my feet and ankles and I am gradually getting used to using the treadmill because I am planning on a 100-kilometer and 100-mile treadmill run in the next few weeks.

Just like the shorter run a few weeks before both ankles hurt a little at the beginning. First my right ankle, but just at the start and it was pretty mild, the kind of thing, again, that usually works it's way out fairly quickly. And it did. At mile three my left ankle began to hurt and it went through my mind that I might only be able to do five or six. This time I had set out to do 20 miles. But I pushed through and it felt good enough at six that I figured I could do at least 10. When I got to 10 I knew I could do 20 without causing further damage to my ankle, in fact, I had reasoned that the three days prior, and this run, were part of the process of healing it using blood-flow and movement. I also followed it up with a pretty intense professional foot massage the following day and, of course, a day of rest.

It was a fairly fast run, considering, and I still finished the last mile at the fastest pace for that run, just like the other one. And, like that previous run, I could have easily quit early and rationalized doing so because I did not want to make either injury worse. Don't get me wrong, if the pain persisted or got worse I would have stopped because it certainly could have made it worse. It is partly about knowing the difference. How well do you know your body? How well have you prepared to begin with? How smart have you done all the other elements?

In the end, it is about knowing your body can almost always do more than you think it can. And If you know, as I now know, that every time you get out there you are getting closer to the future self that you want to be, you can look forward to every effort--even when there are potential obstacles in your way. My new mantra now includes: "It's a delicate balance and it requires a lot of commitment." Along with my new mindset and attitude--and the newfound techniques for avoiding/reducing distractions and friction--I know that I have turned a corner. I know that I will keep moving forward. I am still committed.

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