Interview part 1: Brain training for runners

Matt Fitzgerald is the award winning endurance sports journalist and best-selling author of more than 20 books on running, triathlon, fitness, nutrition, and weight loss, including: Racing Weight. An experienced running and triathlon coach and certified sports nutritionist, Matt also serves as a brand ambassador for Mizuno.

Matt has an encyclopedic knowledge of all aspects of running, however to remain in tune with the Rundamentalists theme, the interview focused on his book: Brain Training for Runners and his insightful views on mental toughness.

When we met, Matt spoke passionately about running and his role as a coach and mentor, he described his philosophy:

Question: Rundamentalists
In your book: Brain Training for Runners you appear to differentiate between brain training and mental training – can you clarify?

Answer: Matt Fitzgerald
Mental training is from the world of sports psychology and involves skills such as visualization, goal setting and motivation; whereas brain training acknowledges that there is also the physical side to the human brain. For example breathing and sweating are physical aspects controlled by the brain as the “Hub” of the runner. Our ability to calculate pace and dynamically manage the resources required to complete a run are controlled unconsciously.

 Q: Rundamentalists
In your book you include a number of proprioceptive drills…like ‘Running on Water’ and the ‘Butt Squeeze’ to help educate the brain to improve running form – please elaborate?

A: Matt Fitzgerald
Actually my thinking has recently evolved on this topic and I now believe that striving for perfect form makes a runner self-conscious and becomes an unnecessary distraction. My view is that runners will naturally ‘self- optimize’ and find the best form for themselves. Every runner is unique. Clearing the mind to allow your natural running style to prevail is key – indeed studies have shown that the best runners have very low brain activity when running at an optimum pace.

Rundamentalists thought
Some of the guys I run with definitely have low brain activity – particularly after a few beers. Attempting a perfect golf swing with your mind cluttered with distracting thoughts and coaching tips typically ends in disaster versus just swinging the club smoothly – Matt seems to be saying – don’t over think it – just run!

I am a follower of the great Arthur Lyndiard and his innovative coaching methods forged in New Zealand back in the 1960s. Arthur would emphasize the importance of relaxed, smooth, easy running. His approach was to try and get athletes “to get out of the way” and to run naturally.

Q: Rundamentalists
It is clear that you are a big advocate of cross-training – are there mental benefits as well as physical?

A: Matt Fitzgerald
I have personally used weight training and cross-training throughout my running and triathlon career and it is no surprise that all top elite runners prioritize gym time in their training regimens. If you are stronger – you will have improved running economy and should be less prone to injury.

Triathletes naturally cross-train but pure runners tend to view other activities negatively – taking them away from their first love…running. Indeed it is only during periods of injury that many runners will try something new. I tend to look for ways to make cross-training fun – for example, I am intrigued by the new outdoor elliptical bikes.

One concern I do have is a trend for strength coaches trying to provide advice to runners. Many do not understand the importance of the “endurance foundation”.… Would a weightlifter take advice from a skinny running coach?

Q: Rundamentalists
In your books you talk at length about the ‘Wall’ and coined the phrase the “Wall Hitters Club”… How do we defeat the dreaded Wall?

A: Matt Fitzgerald
Clearly, we all have absolute physical limits – I accept that I will never run a sub-two hour marathon. In my mind, the wall is a metaphor for the point where you can no longer tolerate the suffering. Many runners describe it as a point of total despair, where extreme self-doubt takes over and your mind is screaming at you: “Is this worth it?”

It is therefore likely that your psychological limit is reached first before your physical limit. You therefore have a buffer that mental toughness can draw upon to at least finish the race. However, in my experience, you are unlikely to really “bust through” the Wall and run a great time. You therefore have the train to prepare for and beat the Wall .

To avoid joining what I call the Wall Hitters Club takes a combination of training right and eating right. There is solid science that the elites adopt that will help the average Joe runner.

Q: Rundamentalists
In the book you talk about the importance of learning to cope with fatigue.

A: Matt Fitzgerald
Discomfort is a big part of distance running. It is definitely possible to increase your tolerance to fatigue. To quote the late, great Steve Prefontaine:

 

“I can endure more pain than anyone
you’ve ever met. That’s why I can beat
anyone I’ve ever met.”

 

Mentally tough runners learn to accept pain – to the point of welcoming it…. even actually embracing it. Of course your tough training runs will help you to go through the process of the desensitization and familiarity with fatigue.

In the next episode Matt outlines his thoughts on: the dreaded taper, race day tactics, elite runners and also shares his Top 3 tips for running success. Simply click here to jump to the next chapter.

“My job is to inspire others and to help athletes become the best they can be”

Matt Fitzgerald


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