Why We Quit, Early Fatigue and Long Runs – Learning from Runners

Some Runner’s World Gems I read Runner’s World magazine. While I don’t identify as “a runner,” I definitely qualify as one. I run 10 km every morning before training,...

Some Runner’s World Gems

I read Runner’s World magazine. While I don’t identify as “a runner,” I definitely qualify as one. I run 10 km every morning before training, which is about as habitual as any moderate runner. And I enjoy it, I guess; running is a stress reliever for me because I like being alone and just zoning out to the road or the podcasts I listen to. But more than any of that – more than the importance of running for having fitness in a fight – is the connection I feel  between the mentality of runners and the mentality of fighters. The similarities and connections are strong for me, and since there aren’t a lot of books or magazines written about fighting from a fighter’s perspective, I find that reading the memoirs of Ultra Runners and reading the tips and articles in Runner’s World pretty much cover the same things I’m experiencing or trying to accomplish in fighting.

Recently I came across these three pieces in a single segment on how to deal with common difficulties in training and race day. It really struck me how each of these applies perfectly to Muay Thai fighters.

Early Fatigue and Energy Dumps

Article 1: This first one – each article is below my description of it, scroll down – is on not being able to breathe in the early part of a race, or even when you’re just starting out on a run. Fighters get this too, in the early rounds, and it can even be something often talked about as an “adrenaline dump,” where you get overly excited and within a round you feel gassed out. I love that this article covers both the physical and mental aspects of this experience. It’s about running, but this fits with fighting and I experience this in the first rounds of padwork with Pi Nu at my home gym Petchrungruang (this image of the lady vacuuming out your lungs is what it feels like to work with Pi Nu, actually; it’s basically a portrait of him). They explain that your breathing rate doesn’t actually go down, you just kind of settle into it. There’s a temporary disconnect between the oxygen required by your body to do all that kicking and punching (or, running), and the oxygen that your lungs can take in and your blood can the supply to those limbs. But mentally, you’re thinking “holy shit, I’m tired already, I’m never going to make it.” Chill out, give it a second. Your limbs and lungs and heart will get into rhythm together. Don’t panic.

Related: A Fighter’s Fear, Like Feather’s Stroking Your Face

However, they do also explain that that temporary oxygen deficit can have lasting effects, meaning you actually feel more tired because your muscles tap into their anaerobic stores to keep you going in that early sprint. But after slowing down a bit and recovering, you get what’s often called a “second wind.” I can tell you from personal experience on a daily basis that “second wind” is very real and you can have fifth, sixth, tenth winds as well. My evening sessions can be 5 hours long (no shit) when I go from gym to gym; there’s a break between them when I’m on the motorbike in transit, and that’s maybe 10-20 minutes that totally allows me to recover and go again with way more energy than I thought possible when leaving the first or second gym.

So the solution, the article says, is to do a “primer” before your race (or fight). Basically, get that mismatched burst of energy and come down out of the way before the competition. They recommend a very high intensity burst at about 45-60 seconds, about 10-20 minutes before competition.

So the solution, the article says, is to do a “primer” before your race (or fight). Basically, get that mismatched burst of energy and come down out of the way before the competition. They recommend a very high intensity burst at about 45-60 seconds, about 10-20 minutes before competition. This gets your blood vessels to dilate, allowing for your muscles to have greater access to the oxygen that will be pumped through your veins when you burst again – in the actual fight. In the West folks do some padwork or whatever before their fights – in Thailand you won’t get that, it’s just not really a thing here, so you can use your shadowboxing before the fight to really push the pace and then come back down. I think this helps with nerves as well, getting all psyched up and then chilling back out so you’re not a ball of nerves climbing into the ring.

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Long Runs and Fast Twitch Muscles

Article 2: There has been a lot of back and forth between the proponents of HIIT training and the “old-school” believers in the method of long runs for Muay Thai. In Thailand, you run slow and long. Some camps will incorporate sprints into their running, but it’s in addition to the long runs – I’ve never seen it as an all-out replacement. When watching any given night of fights, you can see who has done their running and who hasn’t. Those in the English-speaking set of online debates I’ve seen who believe in the HIIT method seem to argue that because Muay Thai itself is a short-bust, fast-twitch sport, that’s what you should be doing to condition yourself for it.  It sounds science-y. But here’s some science to support the long-run method.

Obviously, HIIT training and sprints are designed to target fast-twitch fibers, but the reason this eat-away-the-slow-twitch-muscles-first method is important is that it trains the fast-twitch muscles to be more efficient.

Basically, this article explains how even at a moderate pace, actually sustaining that effort becomes harder as you go. So the first few miles are okay but even at a moderate pace the later miles will become harder at the same pace, because the longer you go, the more oxygen your muscles are consuming to keep that pace. When you first start a run, the first 20 minutes or so, your body uses slow-twitch muscle fibers because they’re easier, more efficient and can go for longer. But as you start to use up the energy in those fibers your body has to adjust and you end up recruiting fast-twitch muscle fibers to maintain, even if you are just keeping the same pace. So you’re running the same, moderate speed but the longer you go, you end up training your fast-twitch muscles. Obviously, HIIT training and sprints are designed to target fast-twitch fibers, but the reason this eat-away-the-slow-twitch-muscles-first method is important is that it trains the fast-twitch muscles to be more efficient. They eat energy way faster than slow-twitch fibers, which is why they’re used as a reserve in endurance activities. But by depleting your slow-twitch muscles first and then relying on your fast-twitch fibers, but at a moderate and sustained pace, you are conditioning your fast-twitch muscles to not burn out so fast. This is why you can burst even when you’re fatigued. A fight may only be 10-15 minutes long, but it’s an endurance activity as far as your muscles are concerned. So being able to access those fast-twitch muscles when you’re already fatigued is super important. And you can see it in the last rounds of high-level fights. You aren’t looking at a guy who sprinted up the sand dunes; you’re looking at a guy who sustains a moderate effort run twice a day.

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What’s so great about this little article, for me, is that it covers all the physical realities that go into the very-real experience of overreaching or maximum effort, but it also explains how the ultimate reason we quit…

Why We Quit – Effort

Article 3: This one feels like an epiphany to me; it feels profoundly important. I’ve written about Overtraining and how I don’t believe it exists, in the sense that it’s a movable line and not an ultimate limitation. I get a lot of flack for this, but I also get a lot of people who are inspired by my disbelief in it. So people fall on all sides of it. What’s so great about this little article, for me, is that it covers all the physical realities that go into the very-real experience of overreaching or maximum effort, but it also explains how the ultimate reason we quit, and the only way to overcome that, is mental. Basically, what we experience as pain – not the kind that makes you pull your hand off a hot stove or lets you know you’ve damaged something in your body, but rather the kind that lets you know you’re pushing really hard – is an accumulation of all the myriad physical challenges that go into a hard effort: dehydration, muscle fatigue, lactic acid build up, being out of breath, muscle damage, fuel depletion, etc. Your brain takes all that into account and considers the most uncomfortable collection of these experiences to be maximum effort; then it calculates out how hard it would be to sustain this maximum effort and decides, “no mas.” And then you quit. To be clear, it’s not your muscles actually shutting down. It’s not pushing to “failure,” it’s the mental calculation of how badly you want to get out of this experience. Scientists put together a series of studies where they attempted to alter subjects’ sense of maximum effort, using smiling faces and music to boost morale, or electrical pulses in the brain or computerized tasks to distract subjects from thinking about the exertion. The jury is still out on what exactly is effort, but the frontier appears to be heavily weighted in favor of the solution being mental.

In the same way that “time flies when you’re having fun,” physical impossibilities and maximum effort extends and become easier when you’re having fun. Fun might be the magic pill, after all.

The reason this feels so important to me is that I’ve argued many times in my side of the Overtraining debate that one’s mental state is far more important than the actual physical state of the body. How you feel about 100 pushups has a much bigger influence on whether or not you can complete them than do your physical muscles. So when your mind reaches this thought, “can I sustain this effort?” there is only a binary answer: yes, or no. But choosing “yes” in that binary, it seems to me and it seems the science is supporting this idea, is dependent upon how you feel about that continuation. In the same way that “time flies when you’re having fun,” physical impossibilities and maximum effort extends and become easier when you’re having fun. Fun might be the magic pill, after all.
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All three of these small articles were in the Dec/Jan issue of Runner’s World which I read through a Kindle subscription.

  1. Articles on Mental Training
  2. Articles on Overtraining

featured image credit goes to Todd Kellstein of the film Buffalo Girls (2012)

You can support this content: Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu on Patreon
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Mental Training for Muay ThaiMuay Thai

A 100 lb. (46 kg) female Muay Thai fighter. Originally I trained under Kumron Vaitayanon (Master K) and Kaensak sor. Ploenjit in New Jersey. I then moved to Thailand to train and fight full time in April of 2012, devoting myself to fighting 100 Thai fights, as well as blogging full time. Having surpassed 100, and then 200, becoming the westerner with the most fights in Thailand, in history, my new goal is to fight an impossible 471 times, the historical record for the greatest number of documented professional fights (see western boxer Len Wickwar, circa 1940), and along the way to continue documenting the Muay Thai of Thailand in the Muay Thai Library project: see patreon.com/sylviemuay

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