How do you keep going when your legs are dying, your lungs are burning and the little voice inside your head is screaming at you to stop?

If you want to be the best you have to know how to train hard. That means to be able to push yourself to your limits. It’s something that as an athlete I have always been quite good. However, until I started coaching, I hadn’t reflected much on it. Now as a coach I would say it’s both a talent and a skill developed over years of training and racing. So how do you develop this skill?

What is pain?

A good place to start is by understanding what is pain. It’s an unpleasant sensory experience associated with tissue damage. We feel pain when a signal is transmitted along neural pathways to the brain. It’s also an emotional state. In essence, pain is literally all in your head.

This doesn’t make it hurt any less but it can help you to develop some good mental strategies. However, it also makes it trickier when it comes to endurance running because there’s a lot of time to think about a lot of things, including how much it hurts.

800ms to Marathon are all on the same continuum of pain

As someone who progressed from winning national medals as a young athlete in the 800ms up to the marathon as a Masters athlete I have a lot of experience across the range of endurance events. So I can confirm they all hurt. They just hurt in different ways.

There’s the short-lived but intense, lung-searing agony of oxygen debt over 800ms. At the other extreme is the prolonged suffering and attrition in the marathon. The nature and duration of the pain may differ. But they all require the same key ability to push yourself when it gets tough.

Train for pain

Just like VO2 Max or lactate threshold, you can train yourself to develop more effective mental strategies. There’s a lot of sports psychology support available to help. This not to advocate that you should ignore easy days and recovery. But it does mean you need to practice pushing yourself hard in training.

As an athlete, the relentless track sessions we ran at Bedford & County AC were critical to my later success. They were long and hard and you hung on even if you thought you were literally dying. We used to “joke” that if you could survive those sessions, then the race would be easy. But all joking aside, those sessions enabled us to develop essential mental resilience.

Is an ability to hurt one of the benefits of moving through the distances from a young age? Credit: Trevor Painter

Some athletes don’t always appreciate just what it means to push yourself hard. I was fortunate to watch Paula Radcliffe (and numerous other top international athletes) train on trips to Font Romeu. It was eye opening to see how hard those athletes really push themselves. Closer to home, those Bedford sessions also set an example to others of how to train hard. I remember being collapsed on the inside of the track at the feet of another coach and his group. He gestured towards me and said to the group “THIS is how I want you to be at the end of your session!”

Develop a range of helpful strategies

The best runners develop a range of strategies to help them in different scenarios. Over many years I perfected my ongoing internal dialogue. It consists of a mix of bribery, corruption, threat and deceit. Promising treats. Telling myself it’s not that bad. It won’t last forever. One more lap of the track. You’ll be pleased when it’s over. If you give up now, you will never forgive myself and all your pain and suffering will have been for nothing.

Distraction such as singing in my head or chanting mantras works well. Even now I always count down the last 60 seconds of every rep. It helps me to focus on the numbers and the here and now. What’s more, it stops the bad habit looking at your watch every five seconds too.

If masochism fails, try sadism

I have always said the best competitive athletes have the perfect balance between masochism and sadism. In the heat of competition (and during those track sessions at Bedford) one of my personal coping strategies was to switch focus to the suffering of my fellow competitors. Tell myself they hurt just as much as me, or even more. This helped me to hang on while I squeezed out a little bit more effort to make sure I finished them off.

If you want to achieve your best you have to develop the skills to train hard. That means how to cope with the pain of searing lungs, lactate build up in your legs and sheer exhaustion and fatigue. The good news is it is a skill you can improve. The bad news is it takes a lot of practice. So next time your lungs are burning and your legs are screaming, tell yourself “this is all in my head” and push harder.

Jo is a former GB marathon runner and now fully qualified British Athletics coach. To find out more about her coaching visit her Running Jo  website or to see the latest updates on her running and coaching follow her on InstagramTwitter or Facebook.