Upbeat Attitudes and Fast Running Go Together

Have you experienced this strange phenomenon on long runs?

Late in the run, you start to feel your energy flag, and you take a gulp of your customary fuel (fluid/gel/solid). And – golly, that’s strange, your energy immediately lifts, even though you know it will take the body 5 to 20 minutes to process the fuel you’ve just imbibed.

I notice this consistently. I read an article recently that might help explain why we get that immediate rush when we ingest carbs.

It’s an interview in Athletics Illustrated (UK) with Dr. Trent Stellingwerff, Senior Research Scientist in Sport Nutrition, Energy and Performance at the Nestle Research Centre (Powerbar) in Victoria, BC.

Stellingwerff talks about two ways our minds affect our performance: (1) confidence and self-belief appear to enable us to compete better, and (2) washing out our mouth with a carb solution tricks the body into performing as well as if we’d actually ingested carbs.

Although I’m strictly an amateur tinkerer, I believe I know why a carb mouthwash works. I think – conjecture, hypothesis, WAG – that washing our mouths with a carb solution signals the brain that it’s okay to release carbs from storage, since more carbs are on the way.

So far, so good. But I worry about what might happen if this becomes a popular strategy, for example among runners looking to spare a few seconds by avoiding fueling in long races, or runners looking to lose weight.

I hope this doesn’t turn into one of those “scientifically verified” strategies that prove dangerous in the end. It’s well known that the body, in its wisdom, never completely runs out of carbs, since it always keeps a certain amount of carbohydrate in reserve, to protect the brain and heart, the body’s most carb-dependent organs. If your brain and heart ever ran completely out of carbs, what would happen is simple: you’d die.

I know the feeling. I once went on a strict, very stupid, one-hundred-percent carb-free diet. (OK, I know most foods contain some carbs, but I ate no CHO beyond what’s contained in fruit, nuts, and veggies, while training 40 miles per week.)

The consequence was that my body punished me severely for my foolishness. I recall with horror the 3½-hour runs in the Marin Headlands, after which I literally staggered across the Golden Gate Bridge to the finish. My mind was a mess, my body was reduced to a shuffle, my spirit was whimpering. When I gave up the diet and began eating starchy carbs again, the effect was instantaneous and remarkable. Within 30 minutes of eating a single cup of rice pilaf, my brain and body felt completely restored, refreshed, and renewed.

But I was more interested in what Stellingwerff says about positive attitudes. He believes the psychological factors that affect performance have been under-researched, thanks to the prevailing scientific prejudice against studying whatever can’t be quantified in numbers.

CK (the article’s author, Christopher Kelsall): It is interesting that today there continues to be little (albeit growing I am sure) expert usage of psychology in athletics training by the coaches, but the work on the subject started at least in the 1500s with Ambroise Paire.

TS: Indeed, I think a lot of this has to do with what we can measure. It is much easier to quantify things from the neck down (physiology/biomechanics) – e.g. VO2max, blood lactate, force, power output and correlate these quantitative data to performance outcomes. It is much more difficult to measure things consistently from the neck up (psychology), as it is much more individual and qualitative in nature. However, I would suggest athlete psyche and mental aptitude is a huge player in overall performance outcomes – especially at the elite level.

It would be an interesting theoretical study at the Olympics to screen and measure physiological and biomechanical metrics of all Olympic finalists – then blind the data set, and I am pretty certain it would be very difficult for experts to try and pick winners based on the data. Conversely, at pre-Olympic training camps you can almost sense the athletes who are psychologically coming into their own  (gaining confidence), who are getting ready to perform optimally on demand – this really captures the complex nature and “art” of coaching, and the delicate balance that the applied sport practitioner plays.

In my 40-plus years as an applied sport practitioner, it’s been my privilege to meet many highly successful athletes, academics, and business leaders. All of them, without exception, shared three qualities: they had exceptional energy, amazing mental focus, and a positive, can-do attitude.

Lately, I’ve been watching my attitude when I run, including the physical factors that reflect my inner mental attitudes, such as posture, stride, and breathing patterns.

There’s a sound reason why we use a special vocabulary to describe how we feel when our energy is low: I’m in the dumps. I’m down. I’m sandbagged. I’m lower than a Dachshund’s belly.

By contrast, the words we use to describe the days when our energy is high make use of upward images: I’m soaring, sailing, flying. I’m high.

These images reflect actual movements of energy in the body when we’re feeling upbeat. Specifically, there’s an upward movement of energy in the spine – we stand tall, shoulders back, spine strong, straight, and energized. We take deep breaths, and the corners of our mouths turn upward.

These are the factors I’ve been watching. After sitting for hours at the computer, I’ll sometimes start a run feeling soggy-bottomed, flop-bott, and slough-footed. When I correct my posture and breathing, the effect is remarkable. I find it helps to breathe high in my chest and straighten my posture, especially the part of the spine above the shoulder blades.

I’m six weeks short of my 72nd birthday, and I find that it still pays big rewards in happiness, confidence, and joy to do whatever gives me more energy. Even if it means I must opt to run shorter so I can include some “energizers” during the run — for example, several lighthearted sprints of 20-30 seconds, and/or some uphill sprints of 100-200 yards. (Stadium ramps are a great place for the uphill romps.)

I no longer race, but I’m forever competing against the forces of low energy that try to persuade me that I’m old. So far, I’m winning the battle. My 14-year-old brain can still make this old body fly.

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