How many times have you set out to do something and after you get partway into it, you just can't sustain the energy needed to do it?
The mind is a weird thing. For example, you wouldn't think that eating a radish would make you more likely to give up during an activity than eating freshly baked chocolate chip cookies does. Or that circling every "e" on a page would make you more likely to give up watching a boring video. But that's what happens according to this article by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang at the NY Times. They go on to say:
"Other activities that deplete willpower include resisting food or drink, suppressing emotional responses, restraining aggressive or sexual impulses, taking exams and trying to impress someone. Task persistence is also reduced when people are stressed or tired from exertion or lack of sleep."
How you go about your day will affect how you perform in practice or during the race. Not just physically, but mentally. In other words, your willpower is affected by...everything.
The authors continue:
"In the short term, you should spend your limited willpower budget wisely. For example, if you do not want to drink too much at a party, then on the way to the festivities, you should not deplete your willpower by window shopping for items you cannot afford.
"If you need to study for a big exam, it might be smart to let the housecleaning slide to conserve your willpower for the more important job. Similarly, it can be counter-productive to work toward multiple goals at the same time if your willpower cannot cover all the efforts that are required. Concentrating your effort on one or at most a few goals at a time increases the odds of success."
Basically, not forcing yourself to exert willpower on some things will help you retain your willpower for when you really need it. But what does this mean for us distance runners? Should we be eating and drinking whatever we crave, wearing our emotions on our sleeves, satisfying our every sexual impulse, blowing off our exams, sleeping in late, and belching and farting in front of everyone we meet?
Does it mean we should just give in on some things in order to give more during our race?
Well, yes and no. It may benefit you in the short-term, but in the long-term, the correct approach is to build your willpower. You do that by literally exercising it. And that requires that you build more discipline and self-control into your life. You don't have to start big, either. (In fact, trying to do too much will likely just result in failure. In this regard, it's no different than training.)
You can build willpower incrementally. And in surprisingly easy ways. Like brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand. Or by managing your finances (Need a good starting point? Try iwillteachyoutoberich.com). In terms of your daily training activities, however, this is boosted by keeping a training log, by maintaining stretching routines, and by simply regimenting your lifestyle.
Just as with physical talents, some people have natural mental talents. These include passion, motivation, focus, and of course, willpower. But great champions don't get all their willpower naturally. They build it, reinforce it, nurture it. They do this by demanding an inordinate amount of discipline from themselves. Over time, this discipline becomes routine, but the process of building that discipline into their lives makes their willpower that much stronger when they really need it.
Like, say, in the last lap of a mile, or the last mile of a 10k.
I posted a quote earlier this week by Meb Keflezighi: "The workout's not over until you do all the little things." Yes, doing all the little things is essential to Meb's being physically ready to perform on the big day. But imagine what years of doing all the little things has done for Meb's willpower.