What is the most important body part for running performance? It’s not the feet, calves, quads or butt. It’s the brain.
The brain’s importance is obvious when you think about the intrinsic motivation that makes you a lifelong runner in the first place—why you get out the door at 5 a.m. in January or keep at it after a stress fracture.
What’s less obvious is how the brain modulates performance while running. Your brain plays a large role in determining how hard you think you are working—also called Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE). RPE goes a long way in determining what you can actually do, and how much you enjoy it.
The CDC defines Perceived Exertion as a subjective measure of “how hard you feel like your body is working.” It usually correlates with actual exertion, but not always. You probably understand that offset intuitively—a day when you are miserably slogging at 12 minutes per mile and then, when a friend runs by or a great song comes on, you suddenly start running happier and more relaxed at 10 minutes per mile
From coaching experience, I’ve observed that the most consistent runners often have methods to reduce perceived exertion, or at least make sure it aligns with their actual effort. Here are three tips to make the daily grind feel like a breeze.
1. Listen to music
When I think back to my most transcendent—even spiritual—moments on the trails, most involve floating down winding singletrack as a great song plays on my headphones (most recently, “Waiting on the Summer” by the VHS Collection). At that moment, running felt effortless. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say it was a 1 for effort and 10 for putting-arms-out-and-loving-life.
There is science to back up the anecdotes. As summarized in a 2017 article in the Journal of Sport and Health Science, it all comes back to the parallel processing model, which indicates that dissociative strategies (like listening to music or podcasts) can reduce perceived exertion at low-to-moderate intensities. Essentially, music provides a distraction from fatigue. Most studies show music loses its benefit at high intensities, when performance requires more active focus on the task at hand.
Reaching your running potential requires many hours of mundane running. Music can help the mundane feel magical. Consider wearing a pair of wireless headphones and listening to your favorite music or podcasts on some of your easier runs, especially on days when motivation may be waning. (Though remember not to play the music so loud that you can’t hear the other trail users or wildlife around you).
2. Run with friends
There’s a reason most elite runners train in groups, and it’s not because of the smell. Running with partners provides accountability and can reduce perceived exertion during both easy runs (by providing a dissociative tool through conversation) and hard runs (by providing an associative tool through focus on pacing).
Studies haven’t reached a consensus on the circumstances when group running reduces perceived exertion. For example, a 2016 study in the Journal of Exercise Physiology found that higher perceived social support within a running group reduced perceived exertion, but that running in a group didn’t make interval workouts faster across the study participants. Other studies are all over the place. The takeaway seems to be that group dynamics and individual personalities matter.
So, simply finding warm bodies to run with may not be enough. You must also care about the people you run with. Consider joining a local running club with the intent of not just finding running partners, but cultivating relationships. Friends can make the miles fly by.
3. Consume caffeine
On the morning of the World Mountain Running Championships in Italy in 2014, I was sitting next to Patrick Smyth at the breakfast table when he ordered an espresso. “Okay, that’s normal,” I thought. “It would make me sick, but everyone is different.”
Then, he ordered another … and another, sipping them quickly as we waited for the bus to the race start. Fueled by a hefty dose of caffeine, he went on to finish in the top 10 later that morning.
While Smyth had likely built up a tolerance, caffeine has been shown to reduce perceived exertion and improve performance across the athletic population. A 2005 meta-analysis of all studies on caffeine and exercise to that date found a 5.6-percent reduction in perceived exertion (and associated performance improvement) from caffeine ingestion.
Running is a beautiful sport. Caffeine can make it 5.6 percent more beautiful. Consider a small cup of coffee or caffeinated gel before runs, starting with a low dose of caffeine and being careful not to exceed 200 mg without consent of a doctor.
By making running feel easier, getting out the door and putting in the miles can feel less daunting. Just make sure you remember that a reduction in perceived exertion does not necessarily change actual exertion. Whether you have music, friends or dark roast motivating you, don’t fall into the overtraining trap from loving running too much and going too hard as a result.
David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.