Sympathetic tone and long-distance running

Last Sunday I ran in the largest road race in Michigan, the Dexter–Ann Arbor Run. All together, its three races (5k, 10k, half-marathon) have more participants than any other race in Michigan each year. I did okay, but I was about 4 minutes off my target time I set this winter/spring and a minute and a half slower than my 2008 time. So, I took 51 weeks to deprove by only a minute and a half! Great… Considering that I’m a year closer to being over the hill, that should count as like a one-minute improvement, right? No, I don’t feel too bad about it, but it is frustrating. I ran it in 52:44, compared to 51:07 last year. I seem to have reached a plateau of around 52 minutes.

I don’t know why I can’t run 10 kilometers any faster than that. I wonder if it’s because I didn’t get in that good of shape before reaching my mid-20’s, and so my fitness peak of the last year or so is the best I can ever do, whereas if I had gotten down to 48 minutes at age 22 it would have been easier (hell, possible) to maintain that fitness level, rather than try to achieve it here in my late 20’s. People always say, “It’s easier to stay in shape as you get older than it is to get in shape,” but that struck me as being more psychological and free time–dependent than biological. Maybe it is biological, though.

My friend who read Born To Run by Christopher McDougall after I forwarded her an excerpt from the book (which I blagged about here) said part of the book is about how almost everyone has the capacity to be a great distance runner, and that 27 is typically the age at which we plateau in our physical fitness&#8212but the key is that it’s a plateau, not a peak, so we can maintain our age-27 conditioning for 20 or 30 years.

Thinking about my long-distance running endeavors both before and after she told me that (I haven’t bothered to read the book myself; seems like I only read things online anymore), I still thought I ought to be able to improve my times considerably here in my 28th year. Maybe I reached my plateau at age 26, though. I’m not quite ready to believe that, so I’m going to train really hard this summer, not for any road race but just for my own satisfaction. I’m considering running longer regularly&#8212say, 10 miles instead of 10k on the weekends. That might help. I have two 5k’s in the summer and fall that I want to rock, as well.

Even people who already are, or used to be, athletes who take up distance running as a semi-competitive endeavor, like me, can only appreciate how psychological of a sport running is after they’ve struggled through it for a couple months. It takes a lot of will to push yourself to keep going when you don’t feel like it and could very easily say, “Screw it, I’m walking.” You’re just out running on your own, right, so it’s incredibly easy to simply stop. It’s very difficult to increase your mileage each week, to tough it out when it’s hot and humid, or to stick to your plans even when it’s cold and rainy or you’re tired or stressed or busy or hungover.

But I’m almost convinced that, entirely aside from the conscious, psychological component to running, there is a neurological component that is completely out of our control. By that I mean it’s largely genetic, though it could probably be affected by our training during youth. Irrespective of your will to push yourself, to improve your times, to finish strong, to embody the mantra “no pain, no gain”, if your brain doesn’t tell your muscles to keep going a certain speed for a certain time, they won’t. Just like height, bone density, and propensity for muscle mass, the sympathetic tone to our muscles and our capacity for running endurance are mostly genetic. Sympathetic tone has nothing to do with an emotional understanding of someone else’s feelings; it means the level of neural activity that’s being sent to your muscles at a constant, basal, and involuntary level. Everyone has a different basal level of it and a different range through which it can be modified by training.

I think my sympathetic tone and my genetic predisposition to aerobic fitness are pretty good, but not great. It’s surprising because I’m pretty skinny despite my best efforts. (Hmm, well, not my best efforts, but I do have a hard time gaining muscle mass.) So I would have thought my high metabolism, low body-mass index, decent athleticism, and good sprinting abilities would make me a very good distance runner. I think when it comes down to it, when I’m out on the road or on a trail exhausting myself during a 10-kilometer run, regardless of how I push myself or how much adrenaline race day has given me, my brain just doesn’t feel like making my muscles perform faster or longer. I have three friends who are good baseball players, two of whom played football in high school and at small colleges, who got fantastic times in half-marathons recently. Two of them are pretty tall and strong, not skinny or lanky, and the third is thick and stocky, a real powerful guy. You would never peg them as great distance runners, and maybe one of them looks like a fast sprinter (and is). But with much less training than myself or my hardcore running friends, they got half-marathon times of about 1 hour and 55 minutes or 1 hour and 45 minutes. That annoyed the hell out of all of us. Just as they were born to be taller and/or more muscular than me, they were probably born to have a higher sympathetic tone (or something else) that allows their nervous system, heart, lungs, and, especially, leg muscles to keep going faster and longer than us normal people. It is something separate from psychology and training.

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