Learn how to overcome setbacks, endure hardship and keep your body moving when you just want to stop.
Powered by Huel, ultra runner Russ Cook, aka @hardestgeezer, has been attempting the impossible: run the entire length of Africa. It’s a superhuman feat that takes an insane tolerance to heat, pain and hostile border guards – with over 360 marathons (that’s 9,432 miles) to contend with across deserts, through jungles and over mountains.
In honor of this herculean effort we’re delving into a topic each and every one of you has likely encountered at some point in your lives – and no doubt Cook is contemplating every second of his African odyssey. Namely, how do you keep going when you want to quit.
Most of these tips will relate to running, but lessons can be taken for any discipline – fitness or otherwise. Of course, with Cook understandably preoccupied, we turned to another record-breaking long-distance runner who knows a thing or two about hitting the wall, and then bulldozing straight through it.
Nick Butter is a British endurance athlete, speaker, best-selling author, Kineon ambassador and holder of 11 world records. In 2019, he became the first person to run a marathon in every country on Earth. Two years later, despite suffering a flipped meniscus and fractured shin bone, he ran 200 marathons in 128 days around the coast of Great Britain. “Pain is perception,” he shrugs.
If Nick’s and Russ’ examples have inspired you to lace up your runners, but even jogging round the block is a struggle, then these tips should help push you further than you ever thought possible.
Before sharing his advice on how to keep going when you want to quit, Butter says he wants to stress that you are allowed to take your foot off the gas sometimes. Just like he has had to at times.
But, he says, whatever you’re training for, whatever your goal, you need to be doing it for the right reasons. Otherwise it will never be sustainable.
For Butter, running was therapy. “Before all this I worked in finance,” he recalls. “I was in a very stressful world, working all hours, sleeping under my desk. I needed an escape and running helped clear my mind.” That led him to realize that the more he ran, the better he felt. “That’s what sustains me now – you need to do it for the love.”
In other words, if you’re only running for the kudos on Strava, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. “That will only get you so far,” Butter says. “Learn to love it and do it for yourself.”
Training for a higher purpose, such as to set records, has enabled Butter to keep going when the going got tough – like it did during his run the world marathon attempt.
“It was near the end, country 180 out of 196,” he says. “I was in the Marshall Islands, which are famous for having 4 dogs to 1 person. All strays, all hungry. I checked into a hotel and was told I’d need two things: a room key and a stick.”
The next morning as he started his marathon run, he was surrounded by dogs snapping at his heels amid a tropical storm. “I was swinging this stick but going nowhere,” he says “I could have packed it in but I had a mission.” Instead Butter found a small dog-free car park nearby and ran 340 laps of it to tick off the 26.2 miles on his schedule.
The lesson: if you want it enough you’ll get it done. “Define your mission, set your goals, then you’ll achieve it,” he says. “And whatever happens, don’t get bitten.”
Unsurprisingly, Butter is often asked, “What keeps you going?”. His stock answer: it’s a lot easier to keep going than it is to stop.
That applies mid-run, when your lungs are screaming and calves aching, as well as over the longer term. “If you’ve been doing anything for 10 days in a row and then stop for a couple of weeks, it’s going to be a lot harder to get going again,” he says.
“Even if you’re tired, it’s cold, it’s dark, as long as you just tick it off, the next day will come along and all of a sudden you’ll be 30, 40, 50 days into your plan. Then it becomes much easier to continue because you’ve got so much behind you. Running is all about consistency and building momentum,” he adds.
Likewise, if you’re having a bad run or your times are down and you let that consume you, you’ll find it a lot harder to start going again. “Failure is all part of success,” Butter says. “So learn to embrace it. You can’t achieve anything without tripping over yourself a few times.”
Every few miles, or every few minutes if covering a shorter distance, Butter will perform a status update to tighten up his form. At these times long-distance legend and the former women's marathon record holder, Paula Radcliffe, comes to mind.
“As soon as she gets tired, she’s said that her head will start to drop and her arms will come up,” he explains. “For a long distance runner like me, I need to keep my arms and hands low, down by my pockets, because I don’t want my heart to work harder to pump blood uphill to my fingertips. I don’t want to be hunched up, cramping my internal organs either.”
Butter’s corrective cue is to imagine a piece of string coming out the top of his head that’s pulling his body upright. “That will ensure you land evenly on your feet, reducing the risk of injury to your ankles, and provide the space for your lungs to fully expand,” he explains.
Another technique pitfall Butter often spots affects cadence, or the number of steps taken per minute. “Most people tend to over-stride, especially when trying to improve,” he says. “They stretch their legs out. All that does is cause more soreness and fatigue.”
He likens it to doing biceps curls with 50kg dumbbells, whereas taking lots of little steps is like doing curls with 1kg weights. “A shorter stride puts less strain and load on the muscles and joints of your legs, lower back and shoulders,” he says.
Butter’s cue to shorten stride length is to pick up your knees, even just an inch higher, while noting a cadence of 180 (or 90 steps per foot) is optimal. “If you focus on counting out your cadence every few miles your brain and body will soon adapt to this rhythm.”
For a marathon, Butter says he always has two bananas before the race and avoids energy gels or drinks until the halfway mark to avoid a sugar crash.
“Food is always the first port of call for me,” he says. “If you want to tuck into your jelly babies, your fruit pastels, your gels, save it for the last half when your body will really be needing it.”
Music is a powerful performance enhancer. It can help you exercise more efficiently, nullify feelings of fatigue and push through the pain barrier. Butter, however, prefers to tune out completely or let his mind wander into a good book.
“I very rarely listen to music when I run,” he says. “Seventy percent of the time I listen to nothing, the other 30% I’m listening to audiobooks or podcasts. I want to let my mind escape into a good novel.”
One genre he thinks can be unhelpful for long-distance runners is “super upbeat music”. “You’ll end up running faster than you need to,” he says, which could be why you feel the need to tap out sooner than you’d like.
“A lot of people also tend to spend too much time in the gray zone when training for a marathon,” he adds, meaning you’re not really building endurance or speed, but rather just tiring out your body.
Instead, he says, run the long runs slower and the short runs faster. “You’ll develop both your aerobic and anaerobic capacity properly, rather than just plodding along in the middle.”
The number one reason why people stop running, Butter says, isn’t injury, or lack of willpower, it’s when life simply gets in the way. “Life can stop you running before you’ve even begun.”
Rather than trying to squeeze in your training around a busy schedule, his solution is to create more time at the start of the day. “Go to bed and get up an hour earlier every day,” he says. “Do that every day and by the end of the year you’ll have created an extra half a month of time. Use it to exercise before your day begins and then nothing else has to change.”
With more time on your hands, you can then establish a rhythm. “The best way to create a routine is to get out every single day, no matter the distance. It could be 200m,” he says. “Get your clothes on. Get your shoes on. Get out the door. And run every single day. If you do that for 30 days, you won’t stop.”
The rhythm of getting your gear on and out the door is half the battle. “I said that to a friend over a year ago and as of last week he’s on day 500. From a complete non-runner.”
This might be hard to swallow, when it feels like a stitch is cutting you in half, but, as Butter will testify, even pain is surmountable.
It’s a lesson he learned the hard way circumnavigating the Great British coastline. “I was running two marathons every day, living out of a van. On day six of four months my meniscus flipped. It was agony – 12 hour days became 19 hour days. I was hallucinating. I dreamed I saw a lion on the beach. I looked like I’d drunk 40 pints.”
At this point he sought medical attention and a physio gave him this advice: “Pain is perception. It only exists in your mind.” He gave Butter a home remedy of capsicum mixed with meat to eat. “Within seconds it felt like my legs were on fire. The more I moved, the more it burned. But, crucially, it took my mind off my knee.”
On day 33 of his quest, took another turn. “I was running 400 mile weeks, which is huge,” he says. “But my legs were getting very weak, losing bone density. My shin bone fractured, then completely broke.” This time Butter had to go to hospital, and left in a protective boot.
He could have quit. Instead, he told himself, “I’m an endurance athlete – I need to endure”. Butter took three days off then set about completing two marathons a day on crutches.
“I was crying every day,” he admits. “But my physio said, ‘If you can mend yourself a tiny fraction every day, eventually you will mend yourself enough to reach your goal’.” Three weeks later he was back running. Two months later he accomplished his mission.
It might be an extreme example, but next time that slight niggle is making you want to throw in the towel, ask yourself: what would The Hardest Geezer or Nick Butter do?
Words: Sam Rider
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