* Athletes train during a cross country practice in 2022
Photo Credit: Sarah Tobias/The Advocate/USA Today Sports
"When we let ourselves relax into the discomfort and actually find it fun, it makes the discomfort we feel an exciting place to be. It makes us experience it in a form of growth, rather than in a form of inhibition or limitation."
Being comfortable with pain is ultimately the thing that every runner has to master.
Training revolves around hitting this threshold of pain and discomfort, recovering, and then stacking weeks on top of weeks of this cycle.
One of my favorite kinds of runs to practice being in this pain and discomfort are fartleks, or broken tempos. A fartlek is a run that is "on" and then "off" and is normally broken up by intervals of time. For example, you may run 5 minutes "on" and then five minutes "off", four minutes "on", four minutes "off" and then go all the way down to one minute.
The key is that you never stop running, only change the pace. The "on" intervals are run at an appropriate tempo/race pace, while the "off" intervals are run at the pace of an easy run.
Fartleks are effort based, which is what makes them one of my favorite kinds of workouts. In a lot of other styles of workouts you are trying to hit splits, and the pace is very calculated. Fartleks are based on the effort that you have on that given day, and how hard you can push yourself in the moment. When you are in a race, especially in cross country, you have to be the one to decide to put yourself in pain and push yourself hard.
You often don't have an exact time to hit and you may not know exactly where you are in the race. You just have to push. Although the on-again-off-again style does not mimic the structure of a race, the practice of putting yourself into that pain cave and staying comfortable within discomfort is why these types of runs are so beneficial.
For me, fartleks help to put the focus on the NOW -- into the PRESENT moment -- rather than forcing you to worry about the effort you need for the upcoming interval. This is similar to a race, in which you don't want to waste energy worrying about mile three of the race while you are in mile two. The key to getting comfortable with the pain is being present in the moment.
Farkleks may not be the type of run that works best for some people, but personally, it is one of my favorites because I get to learn how to discover pushing myself based on "effort." This puts no limitations on what I can run for that interval, just like there is no limitation in deciding to push yourself in a given moment of the race. The continuous nature of fartleks, as opposed to intervals, is what helps us get uncomfortable over time and experience the growing nature of discomfort similar to the way pain develops throughout a race.
I typically incorporate fartleks into my training when I am trying to build a strong base, usually throughout the first half of a season. During this time I may run different types of fartleks and distances 1-2 times a week. One of the biggest things I have taken away from this kind of run is learning to re-label the pain.
For me, fartleks help to put the focus on the NOW -- into the PRESENT moment -- rather than forcing you to worry about the effort you need for the upcoming interval. This is similar to a race, in which you don't want to waste energy worrying about mile three of the race while you are in mile two.
When we look at pain like we are willingly putting ourselves into this state, and we want it, crave it, and like it because it is challenging, it makes it a lot easier to get through and embrace. Labeling the pain as something to be pushed through, as we often do in a workout that is more interval based, makes it something daunting, scary and difficult to overcome.
But in a fartlek type of workout, we can choose to put in this level of effort because it is fun, it is what we crave, desire, and want to get better. This labels pain as something much more positive, something that you have control over and not something that comes on and takes over. Pain is merely a sensation that we can choose to label as good or bad.
When we let ourselves relax into the discomfort and actually find it fun, it makes the discomfort we feel an exciting place to be. It makes us experience it in a form of growth, rather than in a form of inhibition or limitation.
Jessica is a 2019 graduate of Old Saybrook (CT) High School and a junior at the University of Delaware. She was a multiple-time CIAC State Open and CIAC Class Class S Championship qualifier and placer, and held PRs of 2:22.78 in the 800m and 5:07.42 in the 1,600m. This is a monthly series where Jessica writes about important and wide-ranging subjects involving young and developing runners.