If you’ve ever taken part in a running event you’ll be familiar with that buzz of excitement at the start: everyone is bunched up and raring to go. The starting gun goes off and there’s a melee as the crowd en masse jostles and hurtles off.
The cognoscenti will try find some space to settle into rhythm, whilst the masses sprint away hell-for-leather.
Soon the crowd becomes strung out and you start to pick your way further through the pack.
For those less accustomed to running, an effective pacing strategy is lacking.
Pacing is all about managing energy resources to accommodate the demands of the race, and avoid exhaustion that will prevent reaching the finish line. It’s also about being canny, and strategic in order to optmise chances of success.
We can apply this concept to daily life and the demands placed upon us that threaten to burn us out with stress.
This relates to how we process the signals that come to our attention when the going gets tough.
Discomfort is a given. To achieve anything worthwhile, to respond to the inevitable uncertainties in life, you are going to be forced to up the pace. If you don’t you are going to fall behind. Or come to a stop.
Research focuses on the strategies that elite athletes adopt to manage pace effectively and run that successful race. This has bearing on how mental resources are managed efficiently.
As the brain requires energy to activate different parts for different needs, the key lies in investing in processes that DO NOT compete with the goal being pursued. Drained resource will slow the pace.
What do you think about when the strain starts to become more pressing?
One approach may be to distract oneself from the encroaching discomfort. That sounds logical enough. Think of something other than the pain. Some might perform mental calculations for example, counting backwards, or doing sums.
Yet if we think about it (!), by shifting our mental resource from the present moment and the sensations being experienced, to doing mental ‘work’ (such as arithmetic) this can create conflict. A tug-of-war between competing regions, and divided attention.
In fact, studies of experienced athletes suggest that dissociating from the sensations of discomfort can reduce performance. A better approach is to process the sensations, to recognise them for what they are. This is a process known as interoception – the perception of bodily signals pertaining to homeostasis.
The brain uses afferent signals pertaining to physiological states in the muscles, heart and respiratory system to determine levels of energy available to meet the demands anticipated. Working with these signals to take control, anticipate what is needed to keep going and pace accordingly. This is a more effective strategy than trying to ignore them and divert attention to other brain processes which compete for that energy.
One study found that using an associative showed increased power in a cycling test relative to a dissociative strategy. That is, focusing on the technique and process of completing the task was more effective than putting the mind elsewhere.
When we feel rising discomfort and stress levels increase, focusing on breathing and heart rate can help us find that rhythm to get through the rest of the ‘race’. It might seem that the current moment is forever, but reminding ourselves of longer term goals can help the brain to take charge of the energy stores in the here and now.
Different strategies are employed in different events, so it’s not a one size fits all. You have to find which works for you.
Starting off fast and then settling into the pace might suffice if you have excess energy and need a quick burn, accelerating from the pack to find your space. If you are a steady soul, a constant pace throughout may better fit your nature. Others adopt a more variable pace that starts fast, becomes moderated then accelerates in the final phase.
Indeed, the situation one finds oneself in may invariably fluctuate in terms of intensity and demands. A hilly course will present sections in which to dig deep and downhill segments where you can coast.
Again, being mindful of the ‘course’ (as relates to life situations) can allow reflection on where best to put the foot on the gas or ease off.
I always had a tendency as an energetic child to steady my pace and find some excess at the end to finish strong. Even though I felt my reserves were running dry by pushing myself. I recall a formative time when I insisted on following my dad round a running track to complete the mile. I set off and stumbled my way through to the final section, then sprinted the last and fell into his arms exhausted.
An achievement! I was 4.
My favourite athlete as a kid was Steve Ovett. He accomplished so much in the middle distance events (such as the 1500m or dream mile), but stood out for his cheeky finishing power. Even set back in the pack on the final stretch he would smile, wave to the crowd as if to say “I’ve won!” then streak past the guys in front. Panache to the end.
By acknowledging the sensations we feel at the interface of body and outside environment, we learn to tolerate discomfort, and to work with the brain’s finite energy resources.
Reducing competition between different brain regions that do extra work.
Anticipating inevitable discomfort is a proactive step to managing the resources at your disposal and getting through the tough sections to move you closer to that finish line.
So remember to pace yourself to reach that end goal so you don’t falter or become overwhelmed in the moment. And don’t shy away from the sensations of discomfort that threaten to stop you progressing.
You might even achieve a personal best.