Community Pain, Momentum, Sacrifice and Glory: When is Punishment Good?

    Pain, Momentum, Sacrifice and Glory: When is Punishment Good?


    Ben Flanagan isn’t only one of Canada’s best runners, he’s certainly amongst our most ambitious. The holder of Canadian records in the 10K and half marathon, he makes no bones about being greedy in his desire for even more slots in the record book. 

    “I was happy last year setting road records, but everything this season is about making the national team and qualifying for the World Championships this summer,” he told me, before the 28-year-old went on to set a new personal best in the 3000-metre last weekend at the New Balance Grand Prix. “All of my decisions right now are based upon accomplishing that goal.” 

    The one thing you probably share in common with Ben Flanagan is a desire to achieve your goal. However, there’s certainly a sweet spot between safety and going hard, taking a day off or completing one last rep and, like when the temperature drops to below negative-40 in Manitoba, running outdoors in three pairs of mittens or skipping your workout, saving your energy for another day.

    Flanagan, a sponsored athlete for the buzzy new Swiss company On, has spent oodles of time thinking about glory and pain. He’s suffered stress fractures and says that, eighteen months ago: “I literally broke.” So while Flanagan continues dreaming big—including setting the 5K record, qualifying for the Olympics and, eventually, scaling up to the marathon—he’s also meticulously cautious: he’s stepped over the ledge and he’s gotten himself burned.

    “I have a negative relationship with the term ‘punishment,’ and prefer ‘sacrifice,’ as a framing method, and it’s good to have an understanding of what you’re putting yourself through,” continued Flanagan. “When you finish a workout that’s so challenging that you never want to do it again, that’s problematic and not sustainable—and probably does more damage than good.” 

    It’s interesting the concept of ‘damage,’ because working out is, by definition, tearing your muscles apart and rebuilding them to be stronger. The process, by definition, is uncomfortable. But how much discomfort is helpful, especially when trying to go further and faster and finding a new threshold for your own capabilities? Flanagan pushed himself past his breaking point, learned his lesson, and now is aware of his body, and his times improved. The question is: how should all of this relate to you? 

    “I’ll run solidly into the -30s, because nothing makes you feel like more of a super hero than coming home from a run in those temperatures and being able to say that you did it,” says Kirsten Parker, who, in addition to hosting the podcast Women Run Canada, works at the Manitoba Marathon, one of Canada’s best summer events. Parker, a proud middle-of-the-pack athlete, has asthma and knows that icy roads are dangerous, but says there’s a mental edge she gains when defeating the elements. She said, “Knowing that you are doing something that 90% of the population thinks is crazy feels good!”

    FROZEN: Parker, on the run in Winnipeg.

    Obviously the hurt we feel in practice can translate into race day success and some of the reason why we run in the first place is the feeling of accomplishment after achieving difficult things. But our hobby shouldn’t always be punishment and if your workouts leave you crippled, it will be difficult to sustain. Flanagan also brought up an interesting training phenomenon in our conversation, which could be another way of framing the conversation: momentum. 

    Whether it’s a long run or a training day off, as runners we strive to build consistency. And so if a hard run knocks you out for the rest of the week—and then you have to rebuild your base, and in the meantime you polished off a Dominoes Pizza—that workout wasn’t worth the long-term equation. On the other hand, if speed work in the dark and cold led to a breakthrough: if you ran into the wind, surprised yourself, and then hit your next workout refuelled, the degree of difficulty would have proved a success. Since training is a process, says Flanagan, each run, each race, should set up the goal on your journey.

    Even Ben Flanagan says our sport is about the long run, not about the sprint.  

    “When I’m faced with challenges, the two things I emphasize are motivation and momentum, and how will each of my specific decisions affect those two things,” Flanagan says. “Every once in a while, it’s not bad to go to deep uncomfortable states, but you have to prioritize sustainability and good habits. I found out the hard way that happiness over the long-term leads to better success than that naive mentality of grind-or-die.” 

    Since we all know running gets tough, especially in Canada in February, On wanted to extend a helping hand (or foot) to the iRun readers. Tell us how running makes you feel good, and two lucky runners will get merino socks, headband, and a toque or running cap, courtesy of On. A perfect serum for easing your suffering as we head towards spring. Leave your comments down below.


    1. Here’s a way to look at it- this summer when I’m 80 miles into a 100 mile race, and things are getting really tough, I won’t be thinking “man, am I ever glad I skipped that run in Feb because it was too cold/windy.” I think the mental strength gained from getting out in tough conditions is way more beneficial than the physical benefit of that run.

    2. If you aren’t experiencing a small measure of discomfort with fitness in general; then you really are coasting through, gaining nothing. The couch is not your best friend; friend!

    3. If there were no pain in running everyone would do it. Everyone is different, we have to know our personal limits. Running has forced me to learn about my body and it’s limitations. I started later in life and the goal is to run as long as I am able, so I have to be smart about it. All the while remembering you only get out of your training what you put into it.

    4. When I run, I leave any stress from the day behind me; it’s a way for me to recharge and get the balance back into my life.
      This is a timely article as I’m rehabbing a running injury-an injury that i probably could have avoided if I’d listened to my body.

    5. Running makes me feel accomplished and motivates me to keep trying my best. I lost my job at the end of November and felt defeated and depressed. If it wasn’t for still setting my alarm early and getting my butt out of bed along with the encouragement from my fellow friends whom I like to call “my sole sisters “ I would have gone deep in that rabbit hole which is not always easy to get out of especially this time of year.

    6. I love all of these so, so much (except the French one, I don’t speak French – Fracois, what does that mean?) Thanks team, Ill post a photo of what the prizes look like later today – have a great day, despite the grey and mist and whatever else is going on in your world.

    7. Running provides me with space and clarity which are often hard to come by in our busy lives. Running on wintery trails adds a whole other layer of connection and energizing vibes, a rush of endorphins and positivity that can fuel me for days.

    8. “You shall know your personal limits, you shall listen to your body, bla bla bla. There is no progress if you don’t treat your body like a bag of dirth. My body shall listen to me and do what it is required to reach my breaking points and eventually break them. I have been running since I was 6 years old. My personal best was unofficial world record of 12min 54s when I was 17 years old (in Morocco). I am 60 now and I am running the 5k under 17 min. I never had any serious injury. The body is a machine and it has to be treated as such.

      I am training like hell to run the 5k under 16 min, and there is nothing that is going to stop me from reaching this goal, even a stroke!

      So, stop listening to your body, stop making excuses by invoking personal limitations. Strength and mental toughness come when you subject your body to extreme and harsh Mechanical. Thermal, Fatigue and Loading conditions. My friends and colleagues think that I am a crazy runner. Coming from them, I always take it as a Badge of Honnor.

    9. Running introduced me to so many unique people. There’s something about sitting down after a run with a diverse group of people after a run and sharing stories. I learn so much more running with my sister in law than I would just sitting around at a gathering. Finally, I let my fiancé running – around the time I’d settled into the idea of just staying single. It was such a great way to start out as friends and get to know each other. We still love going for runs together – now with our dog!

    10. Running is time for me. It’s time for my mind to reflect on the day, work on unraveling a problem, enjoy a good book, or just take in my surroundings. My body gets to move and I get to be grateful for all that it can do for me. It’s a chance to practice consistency and prove to myself that I can work for the things that are meaningful to me. On the tough days, it’s an opportunity to challenge myself and see what I’m capable of. On the days with brutal weather, it can be gratifying to know that others may have stayed inside – and it makes it all the greater when you do see another fellow runner out amongst all the snow. It’s not that my training plan says I have to run. I *get* to run.

    11. Running has been the main driver of my mental well-being for a long time; the runner’s high has always been great! Most recently, running has made me feel good in building in myself the confidence that I can set a routine, build good habits, work towards a goal over a long term, and accomplish it. Now I just need to tap back into that same confidence and get back outside to train for the next marathon!

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