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New research suggests keeping training enjoyable is more important than you might think.
Written by: Matt Fitzgerald
There is always a risk of burnout when you train hard for an extended period of time in preparation for a big event. We can define this type of burnout as a loss of motivation to train and a loss of enjoyment in training. Burnout usually occurs when one’s training is not going well. It is a psychological problem precipitated by a physiological one.
The importance of the link between enjoyment and success in training is underappreciated. Most runners recognize that they enjoy training most when their fitness is improving and enjoy it least when their fitness is stagnating. But whereas runners typically focus on training for improvement and simply trust that they will enjoy their training if they train properly, new research on the role of the brain in exercise suggests that we may be better off doing the opposite: prioritizing enjoyment and trusting that the more fun we have in training, the fitter we will become.
The latest scientific support for the idea that the more you enjoy training, the better will be the results you get from it, comes from a paper authored by Bertrand Baron, an exercise physiologist at Université de la Reunion in France. Baron’s paper is about the role of emotions on pacing strategies and performance in endurance sports events. Citing past research, Baron observes that experienced athletes are better able to pace themselves in races so that they finish in the shortest time possible given their abilities, instead of starting too fast and crashing or starting too slow and finishing with something left in the tank. Pacing is done by feel, and it is learned through training and racing experiences as athletes discover how they should feel—how easy or hard it should be to continue running at a certain pace—at any given point in a task that they seek to complete in minimal time.
The ultimate purpose of these feelings (or emotions), says Baron, is to discourage athletes from trying to override the fatigue process, which could put their health at risk. This process begins when the muscles run low on fuel, or lose power, or approach some other limit and send warning signals to the brain, whose job is to shut the muscles down before serious damage occurs. This happens on a subconscious level. But at the same time, the brain also generates conscious feeling of suffering, which again serve to discourage the athlete from trying to consciously override the fatigue process.
Of course, athletes can choose to ignore the “slow down” message delivered by feelings of suffering during workouts and races, but only to a limited extent. For example, if you start to feel lousy halfway through a marathon, you could, instead of slowing down, break into a full sprint. However, within 20 or 30 seconds you would slow way down involuntarily as your subconscious brain took over to protect your body from serious harm. Nevertheless, some athletes are able to tolerate more suffering than others before slowing down, and each athlete is able to tolerate more suffering in some circumstances than others. And the more suffering one is able to tolerate, the better one can perform.
Baron contends that motivation is the major factor that increases the maximum tolerable degree of suffering during exercise and thereby maximizes performance. And there is a well-known relationship between motivation and enjoyment in training. When an athlete enjoys workouts and fully embraces the training process, he or she is willing to work harder. For this reason, Baron believes that training should be planned not only to stimulate physiological adaptations, as is usually done, but also to keep the athlete looking forward to workouts and feeling rewarded by them.
Naturally, to get the best results from training you have to do some hard workouts you dread and some workouts that address your weaknesses, which are seldom enjoyable. But in planning your training you should not be ruled by a sense of strict obligation to do only what is necessary to improve your fitness. You should also feel free to choose training patterns that you prefer, to act on hunches and even to be spontaneous sometimes. There is more than one right way to build a high level of racing fitness. And the new research we’ve just reviewed suggests that, among the collection of effective options, the best way may be that which you’ll have the most fun pursuing. Doing what feels right in your training will steer you around burnout by keeping your motivation level high, and by keeping your motivation level high it will enable you to train, and ultimately race, harder.
Check out Matt’s latest book, Racing Weight Quick Start Guide: A 4-Week Weight-Loss Plan for Endurance Athletes.