Dreading That Tough Workout?

Nearly every runner experiences some degree of workout anxiety. Sometimes the feeling creeps up between hard workouts, disrupting sleep the night before you’re scheduled for kilometre repeats on the track. Other times, it strikes in the midst of a hard session, triggering thoughts during rest intervals like OMG, I can’t believe I need to do that again. The symptoms of workout anxiety – lost sleep, increased muscle tension, elevated heart-rate, negative mindset – stifle performance.

But what if you could lessen workout anxiety by ever-so-slightly tweaking how you run intervals? Enter the “peak-end rule.”

“The peak-end rule could have a very interesting application to and effect on running,” said Steve Magness, a cross-country coach.  “It’s important for how we think about pacing workouts.”

Discovered by Nobel Prize winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman, the peak-end rule states that we remember the pain of an experience based on the average of only two points: the peak and the end. This rule helps explains why, for example, women who experience childbirth elect to have more children or why runners who experience the discomfort of a marathon elect to go again. Memories of the joy and jubilation at the end of both experiences overshadow the steady pain felt throughout them.

In fact, experiments in health care demonstrate that post-treatment, patients prefer a longer procedure with considerably more pain, so long as the pain was spread evenly, over a shorter procedure with higher peak and end pain. In a fascinating parallel, a recent study shows that marathoners have a similarly distorted recollection of pain. Runners remember marathons as a lot less painful than they actually were; an effect that becomes stronger with the passage of time.

The implications of the peak-end rule for interval training are simple yet powerful: Although the total time elapsed is the same, two 4-minute Ks can be etched into our memory quite differently. A steady paced interval with a relaxed finish will be remembered as a lot less painful than an erratic interval with a tense finish. “By evenly pacing intervals and focusing on staying smooth through the end, we can probably push the body further while creating a situation that is easier on the mind,” Magness said. “Both within a workout and over the long run, this allows runners to get more work in by staying consistent, in part thanks to the mental advantage of how we process and remember the intervals.”

This doesn’t mean there isn’t a role for workouts with variable pacing and strong finishes, though. “Unlike in most practice situations, in racing we face uncertainty in pacing; points where you speed up, slow down, dramatically change speed,” explained Magness.  “If all we do is run evenly paced intervals in training, we’re not prepared for these race situations, physically or psychologically.”

Still, according to Magness, erratically paced workouts should remain a minority part of training. “A large portion of workouts should be evenly paced,” he said.

And while the physiological benefits of evenly paced intervals are more commonly discussed in running circles, perhaps just as important are the psychological ones. If your foremost goal is to hit pace targets, keep the peak-end rule in mind during your workouts. Avoid surges and finish as relaxed and smoothly as possible. Doing so should decrease workout anxiety, or in really bad cases, downright dread, heading into your next interval or workout.


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