Zone Out to Dial in – Using Disassociation to Improve Your Running Performance


By Rick Morris


Every race or training run you do is a game. It’s a contest between yourself and fatigue. You’re trying to run further and faster while fatigue is trying to make you go slower or stop running completely. Wouldn’t it be great if you could add a new weapon to your arsenal to fight fatigue? Maybe there is!


When you think of fatigue you’re probably envisioning a physical problem, either muscle fatigue or a rise in your blood acidity or potassium levels. There is no doubt that those are causes of running fatigue, but there are other, less obvious causes of running fatigue.


Your brain is in control of everything you feel or do. It controls your muscles, your thoughts and your emotions. Your mind can also take control of your running performance. If your brain believes that your body is struggling or that hard times are ahead it can take measures that will negatively affect your running.


Imagine you are running a 10 mile loop. You are at mile 3 and you begin to feel fatigued. It starts to rain and you’re feeling miserable. Off to the right is a nice warm café with fragrant, steaming coffee. Your conscious mind tells you that you would be much better off stopping your run and relaxing with a nice cup of hot Joe. So – your body reacts by becoming even more fatigued. That is the power of your brain. But you can use that power for good instead of for the dark side.




























There are a number of techniques you can use to harness the power of your mind, including focus and positive thinking. Another is disassociation. There is a great legend you may have heard of involving Tibetan monks. According to this legend, a group of monks ran 300 miles in just 30 hours – a blistering pace of 6 minutes per mile. This story, as reported by an anthropologist, says that the monks performed this unworldly feat by fixating on a distant mountain peak and repeating a mantra with each stride. They disconnected their conscious minds from their body’s physical demands and feelings of fatigue.


This legend may or may not be factual, but the mental trick they used is very real. Placing your mental focus on some external event or object takes your conscious minds attention away from the upcoming difficulty or the physical fatigue of your run. You are keeping your conscious mind from getting in the way of your running goal.


I had a rather fantastic encounter with disassociation in a race several years ago. The event was both a 5K and 10K race. The 10K race was two loops of the 5K course. I was running in the 10K event and was doing well – 3rd place overall but I was beginning to feel very fatigued. At the end of the first 5K loop there was a race volunteer directing 5K runners to the finish line and 10K runners to the second loop. When I approached there was a miscommunication between the volunteer and myself. I ended up being directed towards the 5K finish line instead of the second loop. I ran about 200 meters the wrong way before I was turned around. I was so upset about my mistake that all I was thinking about was catching up to the front 10K runners. My conscious mind was completely focused on the front runners that I was trying to catch. I was not thinking at all about my feelings of fatigue or the fact that I had a full 5K to complete before the end of the race. My only focus was on the back of the competitors I was trying to catch and on the cadence of my stride.


To make a long story short, I not only set a new 10K PR in that race but also ran my fastest 5K ever – in the second half of a 10K!  After that experience I became a true believer in the power of the mind and in the technique of disassociation. I use it now with great success in every training run or race I do.


Disassociation is something that can come upon you suddenly as in my 10K race, but you should make a habit of practicing this technique and consciously using it in your training runs and races. Mental training like disassociation is just like physical training – it requires practice. The more you use it the better you will become at it. Top level runners use this technique extensively. Elite marathon runner Paula Radcliffe recently said that she uses disassociation by counting her steps during a race. Radcliffe said, “When I count to 100 three times, it’s a mile. It helps me focus on the moment and not think about how many miles I have to go. I concentrate on breathing and striding, and I go within myself.”


You need to find your own type of dissociation that works best for you. Whether it is focusing on a mountain peak, the back of your competitors, your steps or some imaginary Shangri La – there is no doubt that using dissociation will keep you from tripping over your conscious mind on your way to running success.



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