on January 30, 2013

I often have people ask me if I think certain “things” will make them faster runners. Some of the more common among these are speed work, cross training, weight lifting, eating meat, not eating meat, more hill running, less hill running, more mileage, less mileage, and so on. In some of these cases I think there are somewhat definitive answers. If you are running 15 miles a week and want to get faster at a marathon, then more mileage will almost certainly help with this. In most cases though, I think it comes down more to whether you think it will make you faster than it does to any scientific logic or certainty. In this sense, what I’m saying is that it’s often more about the mental aspect than the physical. In other words, I think confidence might just be the most important component of getting faster.

Thus, a very important question becomes: how do we build our confidence as runners?

Certainly you have to do the training, and put your body through enough physical stress that it will make physiological adaptations that over time will allow you to run a little faster with the same amount of stress. However, our bodies will not respond in the same way all the time to the same amount and same type of physical stress. Even more interesting is the reality that no two people’s bodies will respond the same way to the same amounts and same types of physical stress. In this sense it seems most logical to base your training on a constant process of trial and error. This process is also a really simple way to build our confidence.

It’s really this simple. You gather ideas and information from other runners, coaches, or any resources you come across. Then you implement these ideas when they make sense to implement them. If something new seems to resonate, you keep doing it, because this inherently builds confidence. This is the first part of the process, and this is something that virtually everyone is doing in all areas of life all the time.

Next comes the importance of training in ways that help build this confidence. If we’re feeling like we want to become better runners on technical trails we have to do more than just go out and run on technical trails. We have to run on technical trails in ways that make us feel like we’re improving. Sure, we need to challenge ourselves to get better, and sometimes this means running on terrain that might be a bit over our heads and that might leave us feeling “beaten” by the trail, but ultimately we need to believe we are good technical runners to be good technical runners.

How do we do this? First, shorten your stride. There is a lot of evidence out there that a shorter stride is actually more efficient anyway, but more importantly it’s a lot easier to run smoothly on technical trails with a shorter stride. Even if you’re going slower at first, you will very quickly gain confidence in how much easier it is to negotiate the terrain, and in no time you will find yourself running much faster on technical terrain with this shorter stride.

Next, find a technical trail that you enjoy and that is near where you live so you can run it a few times a week. In this way we get to know the trail. We can eventually memorize every rock, root, stump, and almost know ahead of time where to place our feet. As we memorize more and more of this trail, it will feel significantly easier to run than it does initially. With this our confidence will increase, and when this occurs we will not just feel like we are better trail runners, but we will in fact be better trail runners. When we take this higher level of confidence to other technical trails we might feel like we’re not that good, but we will be running smoother and faster without even realizing it.

Here’s another method which I highly recommend to increase confidence: Take measures to make yourself feel good about your hard and/or long training runs. Nearly every distance runner does long runs as part of their training. Most also do speed/interval runs as well. Certainly there is a physiological benefit to building endurance through long runs, and building speed through intervals, but I think it’s really hard to get much benefit from these workouts if we don’t feel good about them.

There are different ways to do this, but the simplest is to intentionally put yourself in a position to feel good about these runs. Don’t go into your longest or hardest run of the week totally tired out from staying up late drinking a six pack. Not that you can’t do a 30-mile Sunday morning run on three hours of sleep and a hangover (trust me, this can be done), but you are almost certainly going to feel better if you don’t have the hangover and the lack of sleep. There might not be a huge difference in what your body takes physically out of either method, but it’s not going to do a whole lot for your confidence if you finish the run feeling horrible.

Instead, try to create conditions in which you end these long runs feeling really good. Sleep and eat well the day or two before; start the run really easy so you can finish stronger; eat and drink really well during the run. Doing 30-mile runs will likely make you a stronger distance runner no matter how you feel (as long as you’re not overdoing it the rest of the week), but doing 30-mile runs in which you finish feeling great and, thus, really confident will make you a MUCH stronger distance runner. More benefit from the same workout. Seems like a good idea.

Of course, it’s not this simple. Gaining confidence isn’t as easy as just saying: “Take measures to gain confidence.” Sometimes we just feel sluggish no matter what we do, and other times we feel great when we don’t sleep or eat well. Sometimes we trip over dozens of rocks on a trail that we’ve run a hundred times and then hop on a trail for the first time and feel great. For the most part though, we will feel better in our runs when we make a conscious effort to do the little things that typically give our bodies the tools it needs to do so.

When this all comes together just right, we create a positive feedback loop that boosts our confidence, and it is the confidence we gain from this that will make us stronger than anything else we can do as runners.

Geoff Roes has set numerous ultramarathon course records including the Western States and Wasatch 100 milers. Salomon, Clif, Drymax, Ryders Eyewear, and Atlas Snowshoes all support Geoff's running. You can read more about his running on his blog Fumbling Towards Endurance and join him at his Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camps.
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