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!”
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.