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Digital Subscriptions > Men's Running > Jan-17 > Suffer club

Suffer club

When training and racing, how hard are you really trying? David Smyth meets the athletes and experts who argue you can always give more
© Martin Scott Powell

As R Kelly sang in ‘Bump ‘n’ Grind’, the R&B superstar’s famous song about crosscountry running, “My mind is tellin’ me no, but my body, my body’s tellin’ me YES!” We can receive conflicting messages when racing, and it’s hard to know what to believe. Most confusingly, how can we tell that we’re trying as hard as we can when we run?

If you cross the finish line and are able to chat straight away, or indeed feel comfortable enough to natter during a race, you could probably give a little more. The problem is that we don’t usually recognise that until late on. If you can summon a blazing sprint finish at the close (and most of us can – that’s the best bit, isn’t it?), who’s to say that you couldn’t have used that extra energy more effectively in the rest of the race?

“The question, ‘How can a runner tell if he has given his best effort over the full distance of a race?’ is fundamentally unknowable,” says coach and author Matt Fitzgerald, who wrote the book How Bad Do You Want It? “No matter how hard an athlete feels he has tried, he always finishes a race – or at least reaches the point where he begins his finishing kick – with a reserve of physical capacity. This is because runners pace their races based on subjective perceptions of their physical limits, and humans appear to be wired to always underestimate these limits.”

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About Men's Running

We all think we’re giving 100% in races. But watching some elite athletes, their faces contorted in late-race agony, I can’t help but ask myself: how hard am I really trying? In Matt Fitzgerald’s How Bad Do You Want It? – a brilliant book with a toe-curlingly bad title – he writes about our ‘unreachable physical limit’. That’s not to say we are all super-athletes of unlimited potential. Quite the opposite: we are all wimps unwilling to break free from our mind-forged manacles. It is not the body that slows us down, but the brain. The bravest athletes – the Prefontaines, Radcliffes and Brownlees – get closer to their physical limit than most. The rest of us? My guess is that we rarely realise more than 80% of our physical potential. Yet we can, with consistent training and iron-willed determination, walk a little further along those hot coals. Perhaps not as far as Radcliffe or Brownlee, but further than we’ve ever gone before. It’s a theme that David Smyth explores further in the month’s ‘Suffer club’ article on page 60, speaking with some of these athletes about how they’re able to push themselves to their very limits. So next time you find yourself in a race, telling yourself the same old lie that you’re trying your hardest, be brave and ask yourself honestly: can I give more? The answer is, inevitably, yes.
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