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What’s the most difficult part of an endurance race for you? Few people will say the beginning because they are excited and full of energy at the start of the race. Some say the middle of a race, particularly those doing, for example, Ironmans and ultra-runs, because they’ll have been out on the course for hours, are getting tired, are starting to hurt, and still have a long way to go. But most endurance athletes will say it’s the last few miles that they dread the most.
Some endurance athletes will say that the last part of a race is entirely physical. They struggle to keep their pace to the end because their lungs can’t transport enough oxygen and their muscles begin to fail. Others will say that it’s entirely mental; they just need to double down on their effort and push through the pain.
My response is that the ability to finish strong is both physical and mental. Clearly, you can’t finish an endurance race strong if your energy stores are completely depleted. At the same time, there is a plethora of anthropological and exercise physiology research demonstrating that, unless you are having a “Julie Moss moment,” there is a hidden reserve of fuel within all of us that is available at the end of a race.
And therein lies the challenge. Our bodies have developed evolutionarily to avoid pain for a very practical reason: If our forbearers experienced pain, death was likely to follow. So, we are wired that when we experience fatigue and pain toward the end of a race, our body sends high-volume and persistent messages to our brain that we are in danger of dying. Those messages evolved so that they are very difficult to resist, but resist them we can.
We all possess the capacity to override our primitive instincts, emotions, and urges, but it’s not easy. Think of it this way. Our most base drives have been around since our ancestors began walking upright about four million years ago.
At the same time, our cerebral cortex has only been around for about 300,000 years, a mere blink of an eye in evolutionary time. But our cerebral cortex and, more specifically, our prefrontal cortex give us the ability to exert control over our primitive brain and our body. Our prefrontal cortex enables us to engage in “executive functioning,” which involves the capacity to consider short-term vs. long-term consequences, weigh risks and rewards, plan and work toward a defined goal, and, most basically, identify possible options in any given situation, make deliberate decisions, and exert conscious control over our behavior.
Table of Contents
Finishing Strong Starts With Preparation
- Have the fitness to finish strong. Finishing your race strong actually begins even before your race starts. One thing that is obvious to every endurance athlete is that you can’t fake speed or endurance. You simply can’t swim, bike, run, ski, or what-have-you faster than you’ve trained your body to go. Given that reality, you first need to lay the foundation of strong finishes by gaining the fitness necessary to go the distance.
- Practice finishing strong. I also believe that whatever you want to do in a race, you must first do it in training. In this case, that means practicing strong finishes. I’m practicing what I preach here. On every run workout, I pick up the pace at the end and practice finishing strong (see below for specifics). The idea is that if you practice what you need to do to finish your races strong, you create physical and mental habits that will emerge on race day.
- Fuel well. You can prepare for a strong finish by ensuring that your body has the physical energy to “bring it home.” A well-thought-out nutrition and hydration plan can make sure that you are taking in enough calories and water for your reserve to be topped up for the end of the race. A well-executed pacing plan, based on your current level of fitness, will also give you the physical capacity to maintain that pace right to the finish.
Mental Tools for Finishing Strong
As you approach that “this is when it really matters” moment toward the end of your race when your body is getting really fatigued and experiencing increasing levels of pain, you need to reach into your endurance race toolkit and deploy some essential mental and physical tools.
- There is fuel in the tank. When your body is telling you that your tank is empty and you need to slow down or stop, remind yourself that there is fuel in the tank that will allow you to finish strong (this should be a part of your end-of-race routine). That realization alone can prevent you from going to the “dark side” and thinking, “OMG, I’m dying here!” and taking your foot off the gas pedal. Instead, it girds your prefrontal cortex to take control at the end of a race and assert itself over the screaming coming from your body.
- Breathe. At the end of a race, you begin to lose control of your body. Your heart is pounding out of your chest, your legs are burning, and you may be gasping for breath. Conscious breathing is a powerful tool that can help you physically and mentally. As you begin to lose control of your body, the one physical function you can still control directly is your breathing. Simply taking deliberate breaths will help you get the oxygen you need, relax your muscles when they want to tense up, and settle you down for the final push to the finish.
Breathing also has psychological value. By taking control of your breathing, you feel more in control (we humans don’t like feeling out of control), comfortable, and confident. It also directs your focus away from the pain and onto something positive that will help you finish strong. You can also use your breathing as a metronome for your stride to help you maintain a sense of rhythm and flow.
- Power words. As I have already noted, toward the end of your race, your body will start talking to your brain with ever-increasing volume and ferocity because it believes that the pain it is experiencing will lead to death. For your prefrontal cortex to override those messages from your body, it must have its own well-trained and clearly communicated messages that it is going to yell back at your body that say, “No, we are going as hard as we can all the way to the finish!” I have two sets of power words that I have ingrained in my mind through training: “Dig deep!” and “Finish strong!” (said with energy and determination). I just keep repeating those power words until I cross the finish.
Using power words has several benefits. First, power words take your mind off of the pain you’re in, thus dulling its effect on you. Second, they generate positive emotions and gird your motivation to finish strong, and they act as rocket fuel that propels you to the finish.
- Smile. Now I’m going to share with you my secret weapon (tool) against pain at the end of a race. Yes, I’m talking about smiling. I’ve been using smiling as a tool with the athletes I work with for years to resist negative thinking (e.g., “I suck”) and unhelpful emotions (e.g., anger, frustration, despair), but I had never deployed it to combat pain until I read some research recently. I’ve been using it in my triathlon training the last month or so and it really works.
Let me explain how. First, as physical beings, it’s difficult for us to think and feel in ways that are counter to what our body is communicating to us. In a sense, the physical act of smiling overrides the negative thoughts and emotions that can predominate at the end of a race. Second, as we grow up, we become conditioned to the fact that when we smile, we must feel good and be happy. Thus, at the end of an endurance race, when we are struggling both physically and mentally, smiling lifts our mood and makes us feel better emotionally. Third, research has shown that when we smile, our brain releases endorphins (our bodies’ natural relaxants and painkillers) that reduce the pain we experience late in a race.
When I suggest that you smile as you work toward the finish line, I don’t mean that you must be happy and enjoying yourself; that’s difficult to do when you’re in a world of hurt. I simply mean raising the sides of your mouth into a smiling position. Having been experimenting with smiling at the end of my training runs in the last month, I can assure you that it is not easy. When I’m in pain, smiling feels awkward; my mouth doesn’t want to smile. But, with practice, I have found it becomes easier to smile, and, yes, I feel better psychologically, emotionally, and physically.
Finishing strong in an endurance race should become a part of your overall endurance training. When you train yourself to finish strong as part of your training regimen, you develop the capacity to finish strong in races. Not only do you feel more fulfilled and proud of your effort by knowing that, in bringing it home with the pedal to the metal, you left it all out on the course; you also increase your chances of achieving your race goal.