Improving resilience by running beyond your comfort zone

Become a stronger, more capable, more resilient runner by challenging yourself in new ways and improving your adaptability and flexibility.

At the risk of making unfair generalisations, it’s probably safe to say many runners like to do things in particular ways. After all, part of the key to progress as a runner is to be consistent and make a habit. Establishing this habit can involve carrying out the same pre-run routine, wearing the same brands of shoes, and perhaps sticking to the same routes and distances.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this if it is what you enjoy. Your relationship with running has to be right for you, and if this works, then crack on.

However, there are benefits to be had from mixing things up a bit.

The physical benefits

Training benefits come from a balance of stress (exercise) and rest (sleep, especially!). As our body adapts to deal with a particular stress, we have to provide new stress stimuli to trigger the responses we want. In simple terms, the more we do a particular type of run, the less of a training benefit it can have. This is why the coaches to top runners, who have years of training history, will adjust training plans from season to season.

For runners without access to personal coaches, that can mean switching between different off-the-shelf training plans. This tends to happen naturally: As runners become strong enough to handle increased mileage, they may choose the next plan up in a book, for example.

To take it on another step, focusing on different event distances will also help. For example:

  • Feel like you’re struggling to hold your pace to the end of a 10K, then give a half marathon a go to build your endurance.
  • If you can go all day, but are lacking in speed, then spend some time trying to knock out a quick 5K.

When you go back to your preferred distance, you can carry some of the training benefit of the other events with you.

The mental benefits

Arguably more important than the physical benefits of doing different things, are the mental benefits. Imagine this scenario: You’ve trained all year for a big event. You’ve practiced your race day nutrition in training, worked out your travel plans in advance, have set reminders on your phone to eat or drink at particular times, and know exactly what you’re going to wear.

But on the day itself, something unexpected happens that throws your well made plans into disarray. Your travel is cancelled. The start time is moved from the morning to the afternoon. You can’t find anywhere that sells your favourite sports drink. Your laces snap. It’s ridiculously hot. There’s an unseasonal blizzard. You get stung by a bee in the first mile. Or you simply go off too hard and start to suffer for it.

How would you react?

Has your focus been so narrow that any deviation from the plan causes panic (which is always going to have a negative effect on your performance)? Or do you have a broad base of experience to draw from and find a solution? And if there isn’t an ideal solution, do you have the mental flexibility and resilience to adapt and do the best job you can in the circumstances?

Plan or practise?

One way to pre-emptively deal with unexpected problems is to plan for every scenario you can imagine. This is sound advice, until the unimaginable happens and you don’t have a pre-prepared answer. What then?

This is where some breadth of experience can come in handy. You might not have experienced that specific situation, but something similar to it. You may be able to use what experience you have to come up with an answer to the new problem.

More importantly however, your experience will remind you that there’s more than one way of doing something, which makes it a lot easier to keep calm and deliver your best performance.

If Plan A is out of the window, don’t panic. Plan B might work just as well. You just have to stay calm, switch focus and adapt.

Do new things

How to broaden your experience? It’s simple: Get out of your comfort zone and do new things.

Run at different times of the day. Experiment with what you eat and drink, or wear. Speed up or slow down. Go long or short. Get off or on road. The possibilities are almost endless.

Yes, you’ll have your preferred runs, and you shouldn’t completely ditch every single thing that makes running comfortable or enjoyable for you (because that would be horrible!). But every now and then, adding a little variety to the mix can be enough to improve your ability to cope with new running scenarios (and perhaps even non-running ones, too).

Personally, I like running marathons, but I can’t keep up the focused training all year round. So in the downtime in-between goal races, I like to try new events. Last year it was swimming. This year I’ve tried to set PBs over shorter races. Next year I’m tempted by cycle touring. I do these for fun, but I also know that they will benefit my marathon running, too.

What about you?

Have you tried mixing things up to improve your running resilience? Carry on the conversation in the Lonely Goat Running Club Facebook Chat Group: LINK

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