Many years ago, on a clear and brisk Saturday in October, I was scampering through a forest not far from Boston, alertly watching for roots, rocks, and downed branches. On that glorious morning long ago, I was confident in my speed and strength, and believed I was as fast as anyone else in the race. In one hand I held a map with a route and individual destinations marked in red ink. This wasn’t my first time orienteering, so I was pushing harder than the last meet, zipping this way and that as I navigated through the woods. In front of me was a steep hill, and I charged up it. As I did so, automatically, my world narrowed until there was only one thing on my mind — getting to the top of that hill.
When I reached the summit, my mind was a complete blank. I had completely forgotten what direction I was supposed to be heading and even what I was looking for. As I felt the sweat pour off my face, I looked at the map still clutched in my hand, and it might as well have been in Phoenician hieroglyphics. It took me several precious minutes to re-orient myself and take the next tentative steps towards my next destination. When I reached it some time later, I was just in time to see a 70-year-old woman walking calmly away from it.
That experience in my youth taught me two important lessons. First, if you don’t know where you’re going, speed is NOT an advantage. Second, when you’re really tired, thinking becomes really hard. What I experienced while orienteering was what happens predictably to pretty good runners when they tackle a sport that requires complex thinking and pattern recognition skills in ADDITION to physical fitness. I relied so much on the fitness part that I was unable to perform the thinking part with any competence. I had literally run myself stupid.
I hadn’t thought about these lessons for a long while until I saw a tweet last week from Steve Magness with a link to study titled “Volitional Running and Tone Counting: The Impact of Cognitive Load on Running Over Natural Terrain“.
The study looked at how well participants performed on a challenging cognitive task (tone counting) when inactive, when running at a moderate pace over uneven terrain, and when running quickly over that terrain. Not surprisingly, running hard was associated with diminished performance on the cognitive task. The study’s authors conclude: “In occupational settings requiring both movement and cognitive tasks, the interacting effect of these tasks needs to be carefully considered. For example, where speed is important any additional cognitive load should be reduced or eliminated if possible.”
That conclusion might seem obvious, but I think that we runners under-appreciate both sides of the relationship between thinking and running. On the one hand, we forget that hard running impairs judgement. That might be why coaches are useful collaborators at training sessions: there ought to be someone capable of making good decisions when the athlete is in extremis towards the end of the workout. On the other hand, we frequently neglect the negative effects of battering our brains all day at work, and then waltzing over to the track for a high-intensity evening workout.
I acknowledge that sometimes that’s exactly why we DO run a hard workout, to obliterate the tension and stress left over after the day’s hassles. But here I think there’s a difference between how hard a workout feels and how much speed we’re able to summon. I propose that when we run workouts to purge stress, we are actually under-performing in absolute terms. To put it another way, we’re really having to grind out those intervals, just to hit times that ought to feel well within our abilities.
But I don’t know: do we run best when we are relatively free of mental burdens, or do those mental burdens actually motivate us to lose ourselves in running fast?
In my unscientific studies of the behavior of high school runners, I’ve observed that they go into predictable slumps as they approach emotionally and mentally draining milestones, such as due dates for major assignments, deadlines for college applications, and dates for hearing back from colleges. It’s fun to watch as the deadlines pass and they become faster overnight. On a micro level, I’ve also seen high school runners have their worst performances when I’ve given them a complicated race plan that forces them to think too much about what they’re doing and what everyone else is doing. Now my philosophy is to keep things as simple as possible. As legendary Villanova coach Jumbo Elliott is supposed to have said. “Act like a horse. Be dumb. Just run.”
In my even more unscientific study of myself, I’ve observed more ambiguous results. There have been times when I’ve run reasonably well in the throes of emotional meltdown. And there have been times when I’ve been happy, carefree, and confident and run poorly. So for myself, I would have to say that the STATE of my mind is less decisive for performance than the AVAILABILITY of my mind to focus on running. In fact, when running is an escape from the preoccupation of some personal misery, I’m likely to do fine. But if my brain is still trying to solve some practical problem, then I’m in trouble.
My interest in orienteering was short-lived. I competed in meets for a few years and then gradually stopped, and once again put all my efforts into normal running. But before I left the woods behind for good, I did have an interesting experience that gave me another insight into the strange way that mental and physical processes interact. It was another beautiful fall day, I think in early November. It happened that there was a 5K cross country race schedule early in the morning, leaving plenty of time to show up and compete at an orienteering event in the afternoon. I raced the 5K pretty hard, so that an hour later when I started orienteering my legs were quite tired. I figured I’d just walk/jog the orienteering course for fun. What happened was that I experienced the best, most mistake-free experience of navigating the woods that I’d ever had.
Instead of running myself stupid, I’d slowed myself smart.