In sports psychology a comfort zone is a zone in which an athlete continues to perform at a level which may not be indicative of their capabilities. They find it difficult to reach that next “breakthrough.” Sometimes it shows when we practice but most definitely shows while racing. The athlete may self-destruct on the verge of a good performance or they end up “stuck” at a given performance level. Trail runners may go through the motions of a “good effort” but not break through to the next level.
Case in Point I: One elite age group runner was accustomed to falling in line behind another runner with whom she was competitive with but as of yet not beating. Workout after workout she would fall right in just behind. I even observed her moving up on the other woman’s shoulder, and not pass. She has even eclipsed the other woman’s times. After urging her to go by and having conversations about limiting herself she indeed broke through her comfort zone.
Case in Point II: A top masters runner trying to break through in the 5K demonstrated sub-20 capabilities. His mile times were well under 6:00; he could run 20×400 at sub-20 5k pace with short recoveries. He is an exquisite pacer – we call him the metronome. He thrives more off competing with himself than others so his issue is not about staying behind someone. Instead, split times themselves feed his mind.
Do you perform in your comfort zone?
Do you find yourself falling in right behind the same other runners during workouts or races?
Do you hesitate to pass those same runners – fearing you might fatigue too soon?
Do you follow split times and immediately back-off if you are on the faster than projected time?
Do you tense up after hearing a fast “split” – start thinking about if you can hold it?
Do you start to worry when you are ahead of personal record pace?
Do you find yourself en route to a new personal best only to lose it in the final miles?
Does your mind wander to outcomes (hitting higher places, faster times)?
Do you feel pressure to race faster?
Four Ways to Breakthrough Comfort Zones
1. Test yourself. For middle distances through 5k and 10k – go out a bit faster than usual (not a sprint…). Use some reason and caution doing this with longer distance races where you are far more likely to crash and burn – marathons are not fun that way.
2. Run by “effort” instead of time and pace. Forget the watch. Run at what you “think” feels like a good hard race pace. (If you MUST have your splits, click your watch but do not look at the split.) I use this approach in workouts often. I use it to gauge my fitness and sense of pace.
2. Run with the next competitor up from you (maybe a teammate). Go out at their pace. Run their race. But notice, I didn’t say go run with the world record holder! It should be an incremental, reasonable stretch beyond what you think might be your current capabilities.
3. Drop the watch! Stop listening to splits. Run a race! Compete! A race is about who can get from the starting line to the finish line before someone else! There is too strong of a tendency to interpret, analyze and moderate your pace when you know splits.
4. Create and use an affirmation that gets you refocused. For example in the last half of a race you could take on the attitude of “nobody passes me in the last half of a race.” Now, your focus changes from holding back within your comfort zone to pushing with whoever might be around.
5. Find a faster runner who is willing to pace you just a bit faster than your comfort zone. You just concentrate on staying with him or her.
6. Trail runners can stop time watching and take one climb at a time. Focus on maintaining an intensity-based pace. Or hang with another runner and let them pull you along. Focus only on their backs and the trail immediately in front of you.
In fact, #5 is exactly what we did with “Case in Point II” above. We lined a whole group of runners up and we ran 5000 meters on the track. It can’t get more accurate. They were all of similar capabilities. they were instructed to just follow. No watch watching. During the run, my intermittent chat included reminding them to relax; follow; just do one more lap at that pace; now focus on the last mile; you can do just one mile; you can do just one more lap; etc. But I didn’t read out times. In the end we had 4-5 guys run PRs in the 5K… and that was just practice. They now KNOW they are capable of so much more. I am confident they will all be setting breakthrough PRs in the near future.
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