Adrenalin—it can help the runner. . . or hinder.
By Russ Ebbets
It seems to happen with the regularity of a full moon. You flick on the TV and there is a car chase leading the nightly news. The driver seems to break every rule they taught you in driver’s ed—high speeds, red lights run, wrong way travel and almost predictably a car crash to end it all. If time allows you get the slo-motion replay that makes one’s head shake and spurs a universal thought—what were they thinking?
As it turns out—not much. Scientists have studied this bizarre behavior and found that the adrenalin rush of the chase raises the heart rate to astronomical levels, well above 145 beats per minute. This causes a physiological reaction in the body where the blood is shunted (re-directed) from the cerebral cortex portion of the brain.
The problem is that shunting the blood from the cortex may effectively shut down that area of the brain that includes logical thought, reason and judgment. The shunting of the blood and the possible diminution of mental functions can foster a more primitive, simplistic and instinctual “fight or flight” response.
Interestingly, the shunting of the blood can affect the chaser as well as the chasee. The surge of adrenalin in the police officer, with a subsequent loss of reason and judgement has been seen as one of the reasons police officers revert to excessive force that has been recorded on dash-cams or gone viral on YouTube. Once the heartrate zooms humans begin to exhibit behaviors that are embarrassingly not-so-human.
So what does this have to do with competitive athletics in general or running in particular? Depending on your training philosophy, be it tempo runs, zonal training, intervals or H.I.T., one of the goals of each of these methods is to crank the heartrate above 145 beats per minute to get a desired training effect.
Fortunately, in a controlled training environment we don’t see people going wild during or after an interval workout but what you might notice is a subtle lack of inhibition that does follow a hard workout or race.
From a spectator’s viewpoint one can observe the effects of crossing this 145 barrier in the later stages of a track race, particularly (but not exclusively) with novices. The runner enters the last lap of a mile and suddenly he takes off. The runner has started his other kick 60-70 seconds out which proves to be both a distance and pace one cannot maintain, leading to stretch drives that are painful to watch.
One would think these runners would “learn from their mistake,” but the opposite is often the case. They have developed a pattern (an unthinking one) that although untenable becomes their default pattern which can be difficult, if not an impossible habit to break for both the athlete or coach.
If one truly understands the shunting business and the possible loss of the higher cognitive functions it no doubt dawns on you that we all become a slave to our lower, instinctual behaviors. While this statement may be generally true it is not necessarily a point of despair.
One of the goals of training is to automate behavior. This means to make certain actions and movements automatic, make them our default mode of movement. This has several advantages. Most importantly, this instinctual movement pattern does not require thinking nor does it require the involvement of the higher processing functions of the cortex.
The advantages of this should be obvious. You get into the later stages of a race, your heart rate begins to skyrocket but tactically you still do the right thing; you compete, as opposed to blindly charging ahead at an inopportune time and die in the stretch.
The goal then becomes to develop automatic behaviors. This part is not so simple. It takes forethought, planning and a diligent attention to detail. Fundamental movement patterns such as arm actions, knee lift, foot placement combined with using visual cues (a marking on a track, a tree or rock in cross country) can be used to cue subsequent actions. These actions need to be practiced again and again, day-in and day-out until the desired actions become unconscious. They become the way you move. Think of how Bruce Lee could defend himself with his martial arts discipline.
Concurrent with these deeply ingrained movement patterns is the adoption of a training philosophy regarding “training to failure.” There is a recurrent, generational thought within the coaching profession that is supported with pithy maxims such as “no-pain, no-gain” and the necessity of giving 110% effort. Unfortunately, these sentiments are often a cover for coaching insecurity or overpreparation, ultimately resulting in overtraining.
Training to failure is training to fail. When running form, a desired, coordinated movement pattern begins to break down one is no longer practicing productive movement skills. One is practicing “bad habits” which in “the heat of the moment” (read this as: heart rates above 145 beats per minute) become the patterns that are practiced, learned and used. Therefore, it becomes incumbent that one “practice what you can do, not what you can’t.” i.e. don’t train to failure.
Automatic actions can be learned with forethought, time and practice, practice, practice. Training to failure subverts the process. For the recreational runner this is not much of a concern, but if competitive performance is one’s goal attention to this training goal will pay dividends come race day. And if by chance on the day of the meet you see flashing lights in your rearview mirror—pull over.