Thursday, June 30, 2011

It's all in the mind (the mental flexibility of the successful runner)

I spend a fair amount of time on the letsrun message forums, and one point that comes up repeatedly is the concept of "two types of runners."  You can read the entire thread here, but it reduces to the concept that different runners have different ratios of fast-twitch to slow-twitch muscles, and thus benefit from different training regimens.

The "two types" are defined by their physiology, but I think you can also classify runners by personality.  Based on a ton of observation, my perception is that there are three types of competitive runners, from a mental standpoint.  And just like the "fast-twitch v. slow twitch" classification, in which many runners fall in between the two extremes, I think of these classifications not as absolutes, but as different zones. There are many who fall into more than one of these buckets.

Type 1: These guys are characterized by their relaxed, fun-loving approach to training and racing.  They sign up for racing because they enjoy the atmosphere, and pick races with fun shirts, nice goody bags, etc.  They care about their training, but they also value other activities, sometimes (or frequently) skipping runs in favor of happy hours, work, bad weather avoidance, or just plain sleep.  They are willing to shut down workouts early if the workout is not going well, though sometimes they are too prone to shut it down.  Similarly, if these runners run into a difficult patch of training, their normal response is to take a break, and then return to running when they feel fresh. 

These runners are rarely at the very front of the pack, but they are completely happy with that -- their priorities lie elsewhere, with friends and family and other commitments.

Type 2:  Workouts are completed no matter what (and this type may show up at the track to do the workout on their own when it's cancelled, or when they've been told not to show).  Rain, snow, bad knee, sore throat, major personal crisis, sleep-deprivation, they're there.  This type tracks (and evaluates and analyzes and applies several other verbs to) nearly everything, including every single split of every run.  Including the warm-up and cool-down jogs.

And they're always looking to do more, whether training is going well or badly.  "Rest" is a relative concept; it may be given lipservice, but it's not followed in spirit.  And it's easy to understand why -- to this type, "rest" is not very restful.

These runners are generally in the middle to the front of the pack, and they advance very quickly early in their training.  But they hit an artificial ceiling well before they reach their true potential and the front of the pack.

Type 3:  In actuality, this isn't a type of its own, but rather a distinct blend of types 1 and 2.  These are the runners who are more "type 1" in most of their training.  Easy runs are relaxed and informal -- they do what they need to do, but they feel free to skip a workout if they feel off or if there's just too much going on in their life. When it's hot and humid, they don't fret about slowing down or cutting the run short.

However, these are also the runners who are able to magically swap to "type 2" at the right moment -- during a key workout or a race.  When it really matters, they turn it on and give their all.  They are flexible, going back and forth between the two mindsets as appropriate.

My observation is that the "front of the packers" are almost universally type 3s.  And it's been eye-opening to recognize this.


I'm a solid type 2, and I'm reasonably sure I'm not unique here.  When my training's going poorly, my overarching instinct is to train harder, to fix things.  To the point where, after a bad workout or race, it's very hard to resist the urge to go out the next day (or even that afternoon) and do a hard workout to compensate.  I do resist, but it's a struggle.

And of course, when my training's going well, I want to train harder -- to strike while the iron's hot.  I get greedy.

I actually believe that nearly all competitive runners are type 2s, to some extent.  Simply because it's a certain type of personality that is drawn to running to begin with.  And also because the culture of training logs and plans, discussion boards, Garmins, etc, encourages that type 2 personality.


I've been lucky enough in the past few months to be able to run with some very successful runners.  And I've noticed that they're consistently type 3s.  That seems to be the mentality of the runner that makes it to the very top.  They maintain a healthy perspective that carries over to easy runs, warm-ups, cool-downs, and rest days (I've noted particularly that people much faster than I run their warm-ups and recovery jogs much slower than I, and are much more comfortable in skipping days).

And yet, these guys are able to flip the magic switch at the right moment, and shift to type 2.  More importantly, they are able to distinguish when it's appropriate to be a type 2 (i.e. finish the workout no matter what), and when it's appropriate to take a break or cut back.

The conclusion's pretty obvious -- those of us who are type 2s are held back by our tendencies, and will never reach our potential until we learn to back off a bit, and not sweat (literally) the small stuff.  So why don't we?

Easy.  It's insecurity.  A lack of confidence in one's running leads to a constant search for reaffirmation, be it in the splits at the end of an easy run, or the miles in one's training log.  A bad workout is an emotional blow; thus the urge to prove to oneself as quickly as possible (by running hard the next day) that it was a fluke.

Moreover, many of us type 2s fear that we don't have the mental strength to be tough unless we practice it constantly -- if we relax and adopt the type 1 mentality, we won't be able to turn it on when it counts.  Or we may even see ourselves as type 1s, who have only advanced as far as we have due to constantly fighting our natural tendencies.

Becoming a type 3 runner is all about self-confidence at the end, and that's what makes it so hard.  You need to believe in both your fitness and your mental toughness, without proving it to yourself repeatedly in workouts.  You need to be secure.

I don't know quite how you get there.  But it seems that if you have the discipline to push everyday, you should have the discipline not to push.  One hopes.  The alternative is that you never reach your potential, and that's not terribly appealing.


  1. I love this post, it is dead on!

  2. I'm trying to become a type 3 to make it to the type 2 position in the pack. But it's hard to not be all-or-nothing on the 1 and 2 personalities!

  3. so true...I think I'm a type 1. I think I used to be type 2 or even 3. Not so much in my advanced chubby age..

  4. I think you've become more type 3 since your injury. Compare yourself now to how you were last year at this time. I think my injury has also made me more type 3, and I feel like I am mentally in a better spot about my running. Anyway, I agree with Dash--- your post is really accurate!

  5. OOooh, I love this post, too. I used to be all 2 but without progress, it wasn't worth it. So I basically gave up! Stopped caring so much, took down time (when before I'd be freaked about 2 whole weeks off) and through that have found a more peaceable way to be, not to mention more successful.

    It remains to be seen how much 2 I'll have in me, I've yet to test my mettle again, but I'm hopeful.

    As for you Cris, I think you're a total achiever type of person in whatever you do. Look at your career, that's not an easy path you took, it required tenacity and strength. So yeah, maybe you could afford a little letting go but being driven seems to be in your nature. It'll be cool though, to see if you actively work on this a bit, you might just surprise yourself in a big way.

  6. <---- type 2, working hard this yr to be type 3. Like this week having my mom here is def throwing my routine way off; trying to be type 3 this wk....trying to be okay with skipping todays workout, and only running 4 yesterday

  7. the whole time I was reading "type 2," i was nodding and thinking about this past winter. right now i'm much more a type 1-er, by decision, but i'm hoping that when my next training cycle starts i'll be able to start working towards the magical unicorn of running - type 3.

    great post, i really enjoyed it.

  8. Now that you mention it, the best, by which I mean fastest, runner I've worked out with is a 3. We'd almost get lapped doing warm-ups for track workouts and he'd rail at me for not doing enough easy days after a hard race and order me to take X days off after something like a hamstring twinge.

    The trick is to find the balance between 1 and 2 (says one concerned about doing the former), to know when to push through a workout and when to shut it down. And when not to beat yourself up about a bad run or race and put it into a broader perspective. Easier said than done. And now I have to get back to LetsRun.

  9. I'm glad that both Julie and Joe linked to this post. I like it a lot. I think trying to be a type 3 is precisely the problem. You don't get there by trying. Many of the type 2 runners I know (myself included) are relatively new to running and I would suspect don't have the experience to evolve to a type 3 perspective. I definitely see it as an evolution. Depending on your peronsality, you become type 2 after you've spent a while in type 1, having fun, getting the t-shirts. You become type 2 once you realize you have some talent you might be able to develop if you just work at it. And you work and work and work at it, making all the mistakes despite all the warnings from Runners world articles and letsrun threads. At some point you're forced to confront your limits as a human, as a runner and that's where I think you begin to evolve. My two cents anyway.

  10. This is well written and quite true.

    Interestingly (and probably tellingly), I don't fit any of these. I've certainly fallen into the "must. do. this." mentality which is probably how I got injured this time around. But I'm also prone to the exact opposite: failure gets me afraid to do much of anything other than sit around and drink beer which makes me slower which, well, makes the problem worse.

    To that end, can I lobby for the type 4? The mediocre kind of semi-respectable but still not any good runner who is only motivated when doing well? The motivation is still performance oriented, but type 4s go on self-destructive periods of slackassness and misery after a defeat. I know I'm not alone...

  11. Interesting parallels between your proposed runner types and muscle-fiber types. Just as there are three types of runners, there are three types of muscle fibers (I or "slow oxidative," IIa or "fast oxidative," and IIb or "fast glycolotic"). And just as Type IIb muscle fibers can become more like Type I fibers given sufficient aerobic endurance training, type 2 runners can shift to a "hybrid" or "transitional" type with the right influences in place.

    For my part I was always a 3 when running my best. My easy days were almost comically easy and I had no compunctions about tabling a scheduled workout for a day if I felt like crap early on -- I always factored this in as an ineluctable hazard of being a 100-miles-per-week sort. As long as I got my four or five or whatever hard sessions I'd scheduled in a two-week period done within those 14 days or so, I was happy. Or at least not enraged.

    In my experience as a runner and coach, being a rigid Type 2 runner is untenable if you want to run your best. It's very convenient to try to follow a schedule to the letter, as this if nothing else simplifies matters. But as with all things black-and-white or overly rigid, in the end it's usually counterproductive.

  12. Heh - a lot of good points in response. I really like the extension of my analogy to the muscle fibers. To explain more, I am a type 2 with a coach who is trying to drill into my head that I need to be a type 3. The fact that muscle fibers can shift to some extent with training gives me hope.

    It is hard, though. It's akin to trying very hard to keep your mind empty, or forcing yourself to fall asleep -- how do you try to try less hard?

    Angryrunner -- I actually see your "type 4" as a variant on "type 2" -- both type 2 and type 4 tend to lose perspective and engage in unwarranted self-destructive behavior when things don't go exactly as planned. It's just the mechanics of the self-destructive reaction that vary.

  13. "It is hard, though. It's akin to trying very hard to keep your mind empty, or forcing yourself to fall asleep -- how do you try to try less hard?"

    About ten years ago, I started coaching high-school cross-country. I did a lot of running with the boys and the girls on the team, meaning that easy-run pace was anywhere from 8:00 to 9:30 pace. I was a 2:30/1:11 guy at the time. After doing a decent amount of my recovery running (I would say 1/2 to 2/3 of it) very slowly, I found myself running much better workouts and wound up running 1:08 and 2:24 in the next 1 1/2 years. Obviously no one factor produced this, but I forever learned the value of extremely easy recovery days and being flexible in general.

    In subsequent years I PR'd at every other meaningful distance -- most at age 34 -- and though I was no longer coaching, I ran a lot with an S.O. who was about a 21-minute 5K runner and ran her everyday runs at 8:00-9:00 pace, so it was the same "governor-on-the-engine" effect.

    Basically, you need to structure your running life so that external factors ensure that you stick to a plan even when you tendencies are driving you to do otherwise. There's no shame in this. Once you've reaped the rewards of daring to "come up short," you won't see it as such and you'll never have a problem "slacking" again.

  14. "Basically, you need to structure your running life so that external factors ensure that you stick to a plan even when you tendencies are driving you to do otherwise. "

    Actually, I already do that. :) I have a training plan that sets ceilings on what I should do each day, rather than floors; similarly during workouts I have "no faster than" targets. I've also used a HR monitor on my easy days to keep a limit on my easy runs.

    But that's really just a coping mechanism that converts a flaw into an asset; what I'm talking about is the next step, where you don't need that sort of regulation. Basically, what you suggest above is worrying about different things; I'm taking about getting to the point where you don't worry :)

  15. Gotcha. Well, all I can add is that after a while the patterns I mentioned became natural and remain so today. Habitual behavior tends to become, well, a habit, no matter what the catalyst. Imagine someone with an alcohol problem who takes Antabuse for a few months so that when cravings hit he's unlikely to drink because of the threat of severe consequences, but ultimately stops the Antabuse and simply abstains because the cravings have been replaced by better practices and impulses. I have hundreds more equally imperfect analogies if you need 'em.

  16. I love this post. I am totally type 2 and I could not agree more with all that u have said now if I Can only get to type 3!

  17. I've been Type 2 in my professional life for 20 years -- combined with a recurring injury and the fact that I'm slow as hell make it pretty much impossible for me to be a Type 2 runner. I'll never BQ, I'll never break an 8mm, I'll never run a sub-50 10k but I'm nearly 42, feel great and am in the best shape of my life (OK, for this particular age group, since I was a pretty buff competitive swimmer at one point), so I'm happy.

    All you people with real potential are the Type 2s going crazy!

  18. This was incredibly insightful! When I first started running I was definitely a type 1. Running was just another thing to do to stay in shape and races were pretty fun. When I got more serious about it, I became a very clear cut type 2 with my meticulous records about paces, distances to the hundreth of a mile, etc. I'd like to think the past few months I've been able to transition at least a bit towards type 3. I don't fret the paces on my easy days, I don't fret the distance if I don't know where I'm running, I'm pretty smart about my workouts, about when to back off and when to push harder. I'm definitely still learning but I can't argue with the results, and for the most part this year they've been better than I expected.

  19. I enjoyed this post!! thanks.

    I think I'm between type 2 and 3 but maybe a bit closer to 3 than 2. I was never type 1.

    Being a type 3 for me is out of necessity - when I was younger, and I tried to run, it would always go like this: I would be out of breath after 10-15mins of running, I would repeat this 2-3 more times over a week or so, with the end result of mentally burnt out really quickly, meaning I gave up the running for several years before retrying. The first time I was able to keep up running was when I bought a heart rate monitor and discovered the joy of going at an easier effort feeling like I'm not even working at all and not breaking a sweat.

    I love such runs.

    Sure, the pace may be strangely slow, but you are aware that you could go faster if you wanted to. But you decide not to go faster, instead just enjoy the run, which is a very very addictive feeling indeed, and also get in some recovery if needed and hopefully it will also make you improve.

    At the same time, I want to get better in my running, and feel very competitive, I'm pretty driven about things anyway. That would make me a bit of a Type 2 perhaps.

    Again, at the same time, I'm a big avoider of risks in general, so with the running I'm trying to be very careful to avoid injury. No way in hell that I'd try to run through a serious injury. I would find it way too risky. Now that's more type 3, I think.

    Also, I think that doing too many hard workouts is counterproductive if you are trying to improve your times. So I'm not crazy about working out that hard that often. I don't know what it means when others say they try to prove to themselves something with a hard run. I do like to prove myself in a race though...

    Again about hard runs, I don't long for that too often anyway, it would have me burn out mentally pretty fast (as I mentioned before). So I'm pretty happy with limiting the frequency of hard workouts. That's kind of Type 3, right?

    However, another thing that drives me a bit to Type 2 is that I like to analyse stuff, garmin is great!, I try not to analyse the easy runs but I invariably do it anyway, still I strictly keep the heart rate low, I just bitch to myself about the pace after the run if it happened to go slower than usual; I do get bored fast if I try to go into the splits so I skip over that part usually, thank god (seeing some Type 1 here?).

    I care about the pace of hard workouts but during the workout it is only for practical reasons. Basically, I keep a watch on the pace so I can avoid going out too fast in the first part of intervals, etc. But I also make sure not to go too slow, I try to do the prescribed pace, unless circumstances make it too hard (e.g. bad weather). So that's Type 3. Of course my attitude all changes after finishing the workout; the analysing afterwards may be a Type 2 trait.

  20. ...
    Still, I find analysis useful to detect regression as early as possible, and that is important if you want to keep improving without overtraining. The rational mind again takes over emotions here and that helps avoid overdoing training.

    Another Type 2 feature also that I have the insecurity that has been mentioned here. That's part of why I feel the need to analyse so much.

    OH, it would be great to get rid of the insecurity... a big part of it is from that I'd had several seemingly inexplicable setbacks in my running for a while. They would come even when I wasn't training much, e.g. after resting for a few days, etc. Finally, it turned out that I had a plain deficiency that then got sorted out just recently. I'm soooo looking forward to seeing less setbacks and more improvement in my running!!

    Btw, the first such setback was when I'd been only running for 4 months or so. This experience made me try and run at an even lower heart rate than before, it was basically feeling like walking, and I did not get faster from it at all, but it did help me recover over a few weeks so my pace did get better, in that it returned to my previous normal pace. I still value such low-intensity (read: slow) runs very highly. For recovery they work like magic!

    Going back to the topic of injuries, I was always careful enough and I think the real-easy runs also help with recovery so I never had to take off much time, but what would make me a bit of Type 2 is that I would be feeling pretty crazy if I had to take off, like, 2 weeks. Of course if it was necessary, either to help improvement (by resting enough) or to fix an injury, I would do it, I would just be pretty sad and impatient. So that's both Type 2 (feeling impatience) and Type 3 (resisting temptation to go out for a run).

    Someone mentioned something about slow warmups - I love slow warmups, I let my legs just go as easy as they want to, they ususally have me start out very slow, but then tend to gradually pick up the pace a bit though still very easy pace. There I don't even look at the actual pace or anything (feel no need to analyse during warmup, woo hoo!). These warmups where I let my legs decide how easy to go are really enjoyable for me.

    I do fear that being too driven sometimes about trying to improve makes me have a hard time dealing with failures. I have to fix this part of my mentality about running, need to take failures easier. Just getting rid of the insecurity thing would sort this out probably! And that insecurity would be helped if I could get somewhat closer to some of my goals. Though, in the end I always bounce back and regain my optimism about running in general.

    And, running is not just about improvement, it's just as much about enjoyment for me. A funny mix to me :)

  21. Ooh, I really like this post. I think my goal oriented yet extremely type B personality gets me solidly in the third group. Although I'm not actually fast, I work hard when I need to and take a week off to drink beer when I know it won't affect a race performance. I also take the year in training cycles with definite down time/off periods where I work out very little and just let my body and mind rest. Its been working well for four years!

  22. This is a fantastic post. If I turn Type 1, I end up on the couch with chips.

    I'd like to be Type 3. I wish I could figure out how to run not so HARD. It's like I have something to prove every day I'm out there. I like your thought that it stems from some lack of self-confidence in my running. Will have to bear that in mind this season.