Mind Games & The 40 Percent Rule

We run with our legs, right? Well, technically, yes.

But there’s something else that isn’t talked about much and I argue is the single most important factor in running and racing and that’s training a strong mind.

How many times have you found yourself there? In that place where you have given up. You’re umpteen miles from home, your body is exhausted, your brain is telling you to quit.

You’re so miserable that you’d give anything to have the run finished, you’ve thought about calling someone to come get you but that would be admitting defeat. So you don’t. Instead you slog through what seems like the longest miles of your life. Grumpy, miserable, on the verge of tears. Suddenly, every little discomfort in your body becomes a tiny pebble, turned boulder, in your shoe.

Tired. Hungry. Thirsty. Sweaty. Legs trembling. Armpits chaffed. Make it stop already.

Those are the runs when you do the real training. The real work. It’s not on the easy runs, it’s the hard ones. The ones where you want to quit, but you don’t. That’s when you become an endurance athlete.

There’s science to the mind games. Your brain wants to maintain a state of homeostasis, the happy place where the body can maintain a stable internal environment despite changes in external conditions. In the case of endurance running, our brain wants us to actually finish what we started and not kill ourselves in the process, so it self regulates.

Because it’s awesome, our brains can monitor all of body’s systems to know exactly how far and how fast we can push ourselves while still maintaining that happy, comfortable state. All this is done without our knowledge. It says, “Joni, slow down. You can’t hold this pace for another 7 miles…”

…and it says it with side stitches. Muscle cramps. Fatigue. The list goes on.

Your brain is wanting everything to be a-okay, it’s protecting you. But there’s more in there. There’s more to give.

I recently read an article in Hustle about a millionaire, a navy SEAL and the 40% rule. It’s about how your brain will hold you back from your body’s true potential.

It says, “…when your mind is telling you you’re done, you’re really only 40 percent done.”

It’s mentioned again by Steve Magness in the book The Science of Running. I believe it. It’s the reason I can run mile 25, faster than mile 24. The reason I can only do 15 pushups when I’m working alone but can somehow manage 60 when my trainer is watching.

Your brain wants so badly for everything to be comfortable, it will do everything it can to keep you from being uncomfortable. Including telling you to quit. It’s a powerful thing, the mind.

Much like we train our legs and our hearts we have to train our mind, as well.

How do you train your mind? You force your body to recreate the pain of a race during training. We force ourselves into being uncomfortable under controlled conditions so that when we’re uncomfortable during the uncontrolled conditions of a race we know what we can safely push ourselves through.

It’s knowing the difference between challenge pain and warning pain, choosing to listen to the warning pain, and telling the challenge pain to go fly a kite.

We need to know exactly when we can tell our brains to shut up.

That’s the difference between running and racing. It’s also the difference between finishing and winning.

The only way to do that is to purposefully put ourselves in a place where our brains are telling us to quit…and then running 5 more miles. You never make progress while being comfortable, it’s not until we truly push ourselves out of our comfort zones, both mental and physical, that we find growth – this is true in life as it is running.

So, the next time you’re up late with a sick kid and all you want is sleep, do the long run anyway. The next time you’re tempted to cut that tempo run short, don’t. Unless you’re on the verge of injury, by quitting you’re robbing yourself of valuable training, not of your legs but of your mind.

And training your mind might be the most important part.

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