How To Trick Your Brain Into Running Longer
S1: So do you guys have, like runner’s high experiences regularly?
S2: Yes, all the time. It puts me in a totally different mood. I’ll often just do like a 20 minute run, like, it’ll totally turn my day around. I feel so much better. And then the other one is like what I call exercise goggles, which is when I look in the mirror at myself after I’ve done a good run, like I just like like the way I look much better and I can’t explain it.
S1: Welcome to How to. I’m science writer David Epstein and I’m also a runner. That’s been harder to be this past year. When the pandemic hit the phrase stay home, it practically became a social mantra. Sitting on your couch and watching Netflix was literally everyone’s duty to humanity. Physical activity changed, and for a lot of people, exercise routines were totally disrupted. But now as we reemerge, we’re all trying to get back in the swing of things and push ourselves toward new challenges.
S2: My name is Shannon Palus. I’m a senior editor at Slate. I’ve run three marathons and I’m training for my fourth.
S1: And how much are you running right now?
S2: Like 10 miles a week. I really I’m just about to start ramping up for training, but I get really lazy about it when I don’t have that week one on my schedule,
S1: Shannons anything but lazy. When the New York City Marathon was canceled because of the pandemic, she still ran the race. It just didn’t look how she thought it would.
S2: I signed up for the virtual New York City Marathon, which is a lot fancier sounding than it is, involves me running by myself for twenty six point two miles or actually like twenty six point five miles, because I really wanted to make sure, like, my GPS wasn’t messing up and going to screw me out of getting my little spot on the leaderboard.
S1: But for Shannon, it wasn’t tracking the miles. That was her biggest challenge. It was motivating herself to run when she was all alone.
S2: I had done a piece earlier in the summer for Slate about people who ran virtual races. And I went into reporting that with the attitude of like, why are you paying sixty dollars, one hundred dollars to run around your own neighborhood? But when it came time to really think about the training for the race, I paid New York Roadrunners sixty dollars so that they would send me a medal in the mail afterwards. If I finished, I’d really needed that motivation.
S1: The ways we can use our brains to trick our bodies into extraordinary feats of physical endurance are totally wild and totally amazing. That’s particularly true when it comes to distance running, which humans are specially evolved to do, and today show how to run farther than you think you can. Whether you’re a washed up college track star like yours truly or want to be a beginner, we’ve got the running tips to take you to the next level. Think of this not as running one on one, but two to one. And if the thought of running makes you want to turn off this podcast right now, trust us when we say that some of these hacks, they’ll motivate you in whatever it is that you’re doing. Shannon will be joined by Alex Hutchinson, who wrote a best selling book on the neuroscience of endurance. He also happens to have a physics PhD and ran at the Olympic trials.
S3: When you’re in the middle of a race and you’re trying to go as fast as you can, the automatic assumption is why am I not going faster? It’s like, well, there must be you know, I’m reaching the limits of what my heart can do or what my muscles can do. That feeling that you can’t go any faster in the middle of the race, that is a feeling that is created in the brain. And so it turns out if if you can change your internal monologue, you’re able to to sort of tweak the settings in your brain of what it thinks is a reasonable pace for you to be going halfway through a marathon.
S1: We’ll tell you how to tweak those settings and much more right after this break. Shannon Palus first started running in middle school not because she particularly liked it, but because she was required to play a sport and she really wanted to avoid soccer.
S2: So my dad said, you know, let’s go for a run together and maybe that can be your thing. I went for maybe a quarter of a mile. It was really hard. I hated it. It still seems less bad than the soccer stuff.
S1: So I really don’t like soccer, huh?
S2: I just don’t have the like but spatial ability to, you know, kick a ball. So running, in contrast, seems like the quote unquote, easy way out.
S1: Shannon ran cross-country and track all through high school, but then she stopped running entirely until she picked it up again about five years ago in her mid 20s.
S2: I signed up for my first half marathon and really loved the structure of training for a race. I’m not a super competitive runner. I have a tendency to be type. And so running is one area of my life where I really try to just not bring stats into it, not care about times. And when I’m having a hard time on the run, I’ll usually just remind myself, like, this is like your chillout time. This is your time to like, listen to Taylor Swift and, you know, watch the ducks in the park are running.
S1: Expert Alex Hutchinson, on the other hand, has long been focused on the competitive side of the sport.
S3: My earliest running memories, I think, go back to kindergarten. I remember winning a race across the gym and beating the big kid, Steven Mills, which was a huge sport, Stephen, but it was a huge, huge deal.
S1: Alex is now 45 and the author of Endure Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. He’s a columnist at Outside magazine and he’s run a long way since beating Stephen Mills in kindergarten.
S3: When I was a teenager, about 15, I started training, quote unquote, seriously, and I ran through college and post collegially for about, say, a decade. I was trying to make the Olympics, which we all are in some ways in our dreams.
S1: Alex was a two time finalist in the fifteen hundred meters of the Canadian Olympic trials. At the peak of his career, he was a four minute miler and then at performing at a high level for so long, he decided to give himself a break.
S3: After the thousand four Olympic trials, I stopped running for about a year just trying to see what it would be like without running. And pretty soon I found myself just almost without even thinking about heading out for a run a couple of times a week. And then it was three or four times a week. And then it was daily. And I realized that I didn’t just love running to compete. I really just enjoyed it as part of my my routine that made me feel good, both physically and mentally.
S1: That transformation from running to compete to just running for yourself. That’s something I can totally relate to. I started running track late in high school. I was an eight hundred meter runner and I walked onto my college team. Then I got a lot better in college and I ended up as a university record holder. But after that kind of peak and the come down, I thought I’d basically like never want to run again because I would always feel like I was in bad shape. So I stopped cold turkey, no running. But then eventually, like Alex, I realized I missed it. I realized I actually loved running for running and it’s a great way to get outside. It lifts my mood, fills my head with creative thoughts. And I love the running community. It’s really welcoming and I love watching other people’s races. Honestly, I actually bought my current house because it’s near the entrance to running trails. I like running has a really different place in my life now than when I was competing. But it’s still a really big and important place in my life. And this might be our first rule to figure out what motivates you to run, reflect on why you started running in the first place, and then think about how you’ve changed and about what you need from running.
S2: Now, you know, the virtual marathon that I did, I was very much alone, except for the other folks I passed in the park who were like wearing their little printed out. Right. Like, I need a thing. I need a carrot. I’m very classic millennial, like once her gold star kind of thing. And so and I think it’s just that little piece of my psychology that I think is actually like hackable with the like. OK, well, you can have this metal. If you do that, then my something in my brain Sheff’s where I’m like, sure that sounds great.
S3: Yeah. So I mean, there is no doubt that competition is a rocket fuel for performance and also for motivation. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be in the form of I’m trying to beat that person that I’m racing against. There are some great studies that people have done showing that even if you’re so, you go into the lab, you do a race, and then they computerize your performance. You come back to the lab and they say, OK, you’re going to be racing against yourself. Can you beat what you did last week? In virtually all cases, yes. People can beat what they did last week because they know they’re capable of it. They’ve done it before and they know they just have to go a little bit faster. And then when researchers secretly speed up the avatar that you’re racing against, so you think you’re racing against your own previous performance, but in fact, it’s going one percent or two percent faster. Sure enough, you’ll go one percent faster or two percent faster if you crank the dial. Too much if. Try and go five percent faster, then it backfires, so then people fade and they lose the motivation. But this taps into some some sort of deep seated desire to compete. So, David, you and I both experienced that running in college, and we sort of made the mistake of thinking that that was the only reason we ran. Yeah. And it’s kind of like that. I think the games we play with ourselves to get out the door, Shannon knows that the metal from the virtual New York Marathon is not going to change your life. But she also knows that she needs to set that goal to give structure and shape and impetus to her training.
S1: And I have to say, I’ve sort of been afraid of racing. I kind of felt like after racing it kind of a national level, I’m almost like afraid to race in, like, road races because I’m like going to feel bad about myself in comparison to where I used to race. Do you have that problem at all?
S3: Yeah, race 100 percent. But I’ve raced one track race since the Olympic trials in 2004 and that there’s no good reason for that other than ego. The one race that I’ve done pretty much every year is a race near me in Toronto called the spring runoff. And it’s an eight race in a very hilly park. So the times are meaningless. So that’s even another way of just like taking away the focus. Now, it’s still fun. I’m trying to find different yardsticks so that I’m not quite as directly always comparing myself to what I did in the past.
S2: That’s definitely how I thought about running a marathon during a pandemic. Often in races, I’ll be staring at those like big signs that they have with the time on them. Every time you pass a mile and calculatingly speed in my head, I knew for running alone in a pandemic I wasn’t going to be in danger of just looking at my garment every two seconds and getting obsessive over that. So I actually like made a deal with myself that I wasn’t going to look at my time. And every time my Garmin buzzed, I had this stack of like twenty six note cards in one of my pockets on my little hydration pack. And they had like all the cheesy sayings that you see on t shirts and every time I got in there would pull it out and just kind of like meditate on it for a while. So kind of changing the stakes of it, saying this isn’t going to be about time at all. You’re in danger of, like, making this all about time because you’re alone. You’re not going to be very fast because you’re alone. So this is going to be about like kind of reveling in a little bit of that marathon spirit the best way that I could.
S1: That’s really cool. Using your Garmin buzz as a Q, can you share, like, a quote or two that you remember that you liked?
S2: I had. You’re Faster Than You Think, which is a Nike slogan. We adopted it on my cross-country team in high school. And like I also had some promise of like think of five places you want to travel and this is over, that kind of thing.
S1: So here’s our next tip for running farther or faster than you think. You can create your own metrics for evaluating and rewarding yourself. Formal competition is friggin great, but as times change and you change, it may no longer be the best way to motivate yourself, making up your own goals and your own rewards. It’ll still push you to be better. And it’s a more sustainable way of approaching running and well, the long run. When we come back, Alex will dive into the science behind how our brains trick our bodies into doing more than we think is possible. We’re not at the finish line quite yet. Stay with us. When Alex Hutchinson was a junior in college, he kept running the same times for the 15 hundred meters for four years actually he’d been stuck running the same times and he’d become obsessed with his pacing, knowing he needed to run each 200 meters segment in exactly thirty two seconds to reach his goal. But then during one race, something weird happened.
S3: The actual race where I had my breakthrough, the timekeeper basically missed the start, I didn’t realize it at the time that he was calling out splits that were three seconds off. He basically fooled me into thinking I was having this amazing run. I was going through the first lap in twenty seven seconds, but feeling pretty good. After about three laps, I was like, I don’t know what’s happening. I just have super powers today. So I’m just, you know, I’m going to go for it. I’m going to, you know. Twenty seven seconds
S1: for the 200 to be like weigh under four minute mile pace. It would be world record pace.
S3: So I knew I knew something was funny. But in the race, your brain doesn’t always work. Oh, I knew that I was running fast and I was feeling good and I ended up running a nine second personal best after running within sort of a second or two over and over again for four years. It was a real sort of revelation to me that sometimes more information wasn’t helping me. More information was holding me back and getting me stuck in this template of running the same times over and over again.
S1: Alex says, aha moment that how he was thinking about his race actually impacted his final performance became a key to the way he considers the science behind running.
S3: Shannon has already sort of intuitively picked up subtle factors like whether you refer to yourself in first person or second person or even third person. And one of the things that switching from I can do this to you can do this does is it creates a sort of sense of distancing. You’re watching this struggle play out as opposed to being stuck in, you know, in the arena, feeling all these emotions running over you. And so there was a study at the University of Being or in Wales. They had a bunch of people replace I with you. And they went, I can’t remember it was two or three percent faster in a time trial. Those who’d been trained to switch the pronoun,
S1: this is perhaps our favorite recurring rule here on how to treat yourself to some positive third person or distanced self talk Alex you mentioned people think of it, you know what’s going on in your heart and your and your lungs and your legs basically when they’re running. But in fact, the brain is this kind of master integrator, what it is collecting that data, but also data from the environment, how hot it is outside, how bright the sun is, how much you care about what you’re doing, and sort of forms that into a composite that basically decides how bad you’re going to feel and that all these things like your motivational quotes and your reason for being in the race actually all factor into that, along with things like, you know, how much haemoglobin you have in your in your bloodstream and stuff like that.
S3: Yeah, that’s that’s a great way of putting it, because one of the sort of classic errors or misdirections when we talk about body versus brain is to think it’s all one or all the other. When you say, well, it’s all in your head, then it’s like, oh, I can just decide. But what’s going on in your head depends on what’s going on in your body. It’s integrating all these signals, as you said, from your legs, from your heart. So one of the examples that I really like is a study. It was done at the University of Kent in Britain, where they actually just flashed smiling faces or frowning faces, pictures of smiling faces or frowning faces on the wall in front of cyclists, 16 milliseconds at a time. So so less than a blink. They were unaware that there were any faces. And but when when they were smiling, faces flashed on the long term. They lasted 12 percent longer in an endurance test than when they were frowning faces. Seeing smiling faces puts you in a slightly more positive mood, and these subtle factors can accumulate into a measurable difference in your performance.
S1: Shannon also mentioned not being addicted to the Garmin and checking your your pace all the time. Jane, can you just talk again a little bit about why do you try to not be too addicted, get too obsessed?
S2: I feel like my brain is very adept at weaponization data against me. I think Alex has a similar thing to and I feel like I need a bit of data that I start collecting on myself. If I’m not really, really careful about it. I can start saying, you know, you ran ten miles today. Like, that’s not as good as a couple of years ago or like that so slow like you used to think that would be so slow, that kind of negative self talk. It’s just a breeding ground for negative self talk.
S3: For me, it’s like just like Shannon today where I can’t check my phone, I’m not sure I want it to become more rigid. I don’t want to be checking a screen. I don’t want something beeping at me to tell me I’ve fallen off my my goals.
S1: Here’s another rule. Less information can actually be better, at least some of the time. Limit the information you give yourself. Even a lot of pro runners will ditch the GPS watch at times and instead just take days where they run according to how their body feels rather than a specific pace.
S3: And ultimately, I think if you want to run your best race, you need to learn what it feels like to be at the right pace, not by looking at a watch, but by noticing your breathing or just feeling what your legs feel like. And I can remember twenty years ago, I was training with a group in Washington, D.C., coached by Matt Sensorites, who’s a former American record holder, and he’s very much an advocate of intuitive running, learning to feel when the moment is to push. And I’m very much an advocate of give me all the information I can get. You know, we’d be training around a 400 meter track. And if it was my turn to lead an interval, I would check my watch at the 100 meter mark, at the 200 meter mark, at the 300 meter mark and at the 400 meter mark to make sure I wasn’t going to screw up the first lap for the rest of the group. And every once in a while, Central would would catch me peeking at my watch every hundred meters and he’d just yell at me, you know, take off your goddamn watch and throw it in the infield. And so I’d be in the middle of running a mile. I’d have to peel off my watch and I would watch the watch that recorded all my workouts for me, for my training log, and I’d have to just throw it in the infield and hope that no one would step on it. But he was you know, he was making a really important point, which is that if I couldn’t feel the right pace in this controlled conditions of a workout, how was I going to go to a race and feel it
S1: and learning how to run according to how your body feels, knowing when to push and when to back off. That’s particularly important when it comes to preventing injury.
S2: So my main injury came when I was training for what I wanted to be my first marathon and I had done several half. Marathons before that and kind of as soon as my mileage builds up past that, like half marathon mileage, I started getting pain in like my knee and my ankle and motion sort of all at once. And I ignored it for like half a week. And and then it was so great that I was having trouble walking and went to, you know, like a meter like doctor or whatever, and was like, please do an X-ray. Like something horrible has to be happening in my body. And you kind of a jerk. Actually, he was like, yeah, you runners push yourselves too much. And then I ended up sitting on my couch for like a week straight and training just enough to, like, make it through the half marathon on race day, like, very slowly. And it was wildly disappointing. And the fact on my training since has been that I’m super conservative with my mileage now and I’m training for the marathon.
S3: I think it’s fair to say that most researchers would agree that the vast majority of running injuries are a function of doing too much too soon. The problem is you only really know how much too much is or how soon too soon is after. You’re like, Ah, I can’t move, you know. So I think being conservative is generally the right approach. But of course, being conservative doesn’t it doesn’t necessarily maximize your performance. So you end up having to sort of become a connoisseur of of aches and pains and twitches and like, is this a change that I can run through or is this, you know, a harbinger of doom? And we don’t always get it right.
S1: Here’s our next rule. We can give you all the tips and tricks about running shoes. Spoiler alert doesn’t matter as much as you think. And music choice. There’s actually research that shows up tempo music will increase your stride rate. But none of that advice is going to work if you don’t learn how to listen to your body and figure out what’s right for you. This might sound hippy dippy, as Alex put it, but diving into a challenge like running, it’s all about learning to push our bodies in the right way for us.
S3: I think anyone who was trained in being part of the university track team has seen some of the this is a complicated topic, but there is a longstanding cultural problem in the way issues of like weight control are approached. And it’s one thing, you know, you can make this general statement that if you’re carrying extra weight, you’re going to run more slowly. But unfortunately, that may be true in physics, but it doesn’t actually hold up when you’re talking about human beings. You know, the minimum body fat for a healthy male athlete might be something like five percent. The minimum for a woman is probably something more like 12 percent. And so if you if you just treat men and women the same, you end up with women who have serious and potentially long term health problems. And this is something that has happened a lot over the last, let’s say, 50 years.
S2: I feel like in general, there is this perception that runners are kind of these skinny greyhounds that, you know, are really fat and look a certain way and have abs and you know, where for women, like wear size two dresses or whatever. I think that that’s just not true. I think that a lot of skinnier people that are, quote unquote fit this conception of health are the folks who are encouraged to run and are the folks who, you know, maybe are out there racking up the world records in the Olympics and whatnot. And I think that’s really unfortunate, because if you try to alter your weight because you think it’s going to make you a better runner, like often, especially for women, that’s just a recipe for a psychological disaster. And, you know, you can’t run a good marathon if you’re starving yourself. You can’t run a good marathon if you’re being awful to yourself because you think your ass is too fat. One of the people that comes to mind for me in discussions like this is a woman named Myrna Valerio. She is a very proudly plus sized runner. She lives in Vermont and she runs ultramarathons and she runs them very slowly. And she doesn’t look like the quote unquote, typical runner runner. Valaria, I believe, weighs more than me and is certainly much more fit than I am. Like, I cannot go out and run 50 miles right now, but she can.
S1: Where would you say running fits in terms of the hierarchy of, like, the best things you can do to be fit?
S3: Yeah, I mean, fortunately, I’m totally unbiased on this question so I can give you the absolute turn of answer. I think that it’s hard to be running for an accessible, convenient and extremely potent way of getting fit. That being said, I look at myself. I’ve been running for a long time. I’m quite thin. It’s like if I want to eat healthily, I need to put on some muscle. And so I take my my strength training fairly well. I wouldn’t say seriously, but I do it religiously a couple of times a week. It’s part of a balanced diet of exercise. If someone else loves cycling or they love, you know, joggling, which is running and juggling or if they love swimming or, you know, or playing tennis or whatever the case may be, you know, there is no one right answer. Absolutely.
S2: If you think you might like running, but you’ve gone on a couple of runs and they’re just like, really freaking hard, like, stick with it and be easy on yourself. But also, if you don’t like it, don’t do it. I don’t I feel like running sort of has this like high station in the hierarchy of fitness where people maybe this is just like my warped perception, but people think like runners are super fit and like doing something super difficult. And like maybe that would be that sort of something to aspire to. If you don’t like it, don’t aspire to it. I heard sort of breaks when I hear people like, oh, I wish I could make myself jog more and I’m like, no, don’t don’t jog. It’s fine. You’re going to be fine.
S1: Here’s our final rule, don’t run, that is if you really don’t want to, there’s no one look to fitness, but I hope after hearing this, you’ll at least consider it more than maybe you did before. Still, as long as you’re finding ways to challenge yourself and feel good for you, you’re winning the most important race. Shannon, you sort of talked about turning your day around with a run. Are there other things that you’ve sort of learned in running that that you think apply to other parts of your work or life?
S2: Yeah, I think, like, I run not because I’m, like, fantastic at it or because I’m going to win any special awards for it. I do it because I really love it and I try to apply that to my writing and editing life as much as possible. I have aspirations of writing a novel and I haven’t even gotten to the point where I’m really sitting down and being serious about it. But in strategizing about how I would do that, I try to think of it like, OK, like this is a little bit like your goal to run a marathon. Like you’re going to plan it out in a similar way to, like, doing this really like, intense thing that ultimately is going to be mostly for you,
S3: to me, running as a metaphor for pretty much everything. And I think running really taught me that it’s fun to have goals to strive for and that if you’re lucky enough to achieve them, it will not fill the gap in your soul no matter how fast you run. There’s always someone who’s running faster and does all it, and you always discover that you believe you can run a little faster. And so focusing instead on enjoying the pursuit of the the goal, as opposed to thinking that the goal is going to change everything for me.
S1: Shannon, are you thinking about running an ultra?
S2: Yes. The goal is to run a 50 miler at some point. I kind of think I had a goal to do an ultra at some point, even before I had a goal to do a marathon. That doesn’t make any sense, but it it seems like something that is so difficult to do and so out of my grasp. And and so I would like to try it.
S1: Thank you to Shannon Palus and Alex Hutchinson for sharing all their running wisdom. Be sure to look for Shannon’s work at Slate, especially her series on running. She hosted for the working podcast a couple of years ago. We’ll link to it in the show notes and look for Alex’s book Endure Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. And you can find him on Twitter at Sweat Science and all that talk about running. I got to say, it really got me fired up. I actually went out to the track at 10:00 p.m., did some intervals, which leads to my final tip. If you’re still working from home, sometimes where you’re running close and you’ll have a much better chance of getting out the door at the end of the day. Finally, if you like, Shannon, are interested in running an ultramarathon someday. Check out our episode called How to Withstand Pain. It features an ultra runner who gets some unorthodox advice from the Dutch extreme athlete, Wim Hof. Look for it in our feed. Do you have a problem that needs solving give one hundred miler that you’re training for or something that just feels like it? Send us a note at how to exploit dotcom or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. We might have you on the show. And if you like what you heard today, please give us a rating in a review and tell a friend that helps us help more people. How TOS executive producers Derek, John, Rosemary, Belson, Margaret Kelly and Rachael Allen produced the show and this is actually Rachael last episode with us. So we want to wish her the best in her next adventure. Good luck, Rachael. Our theme music is by Hannis Brown remix by Margaret Jacob, our technical director, Charles Duhigg is host emeritus. I’m David Epstein. Thanks for listening.