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Train the brain as well as the feet!

While races are run with the feet, they are often won with the brain. Lance Smith explains how coaches can get their athletes to think and run with their brain.

There are four stages in learning to run. First is being able to run, and most have mastered that. Then there is the ability to run well, which not everyone can do. Then there is the ability to run fast, and in most cases, that must be learnt and indeed in all cases, must be practiced. Finally, is the ability to race. The last two are where the coach becomes essential.


It stands to reason that every training activity should have a purpose, which means the coach must know the desired outcome of a session (or series of sessions in a micro, meso or macrocycle) and plan accordingly. But usually, the "brain" part of the equation is overlooked in the planning. Therefore, the coach should have what I call a learning objective for a training session as well as the physical or physiological objective and include both in the overall planning.

The physical objective is the fitness/strength/speed requirement, and this usually determines the structure and content of the session. The learning objective is a skill or psychological factor you want to be learnt or practiced. Defining both the learning and the physical objectives when planning the session and helps achieve a balance and progression in training.

Examples of value objectives are pace judgement, learning to kick hard at the end of a race, building confidence, running technique, learning to change pace, practising relaxed running, specific skills such as hurdling for steeplechase or cross country, maintaining running form when tired and getting used to running in a crowd (as in a cross-country start or massed start 1500 metres). One of more of these can be included in a training session.

To give an example

A coach wants an athlete aiming for a 10k to do an aerobic capacity session. The athlete is set a series of 1000 metre at the current VO2 max pace with short recoveries. The physical objective is to improve oxygen uptake. However, value objectives can also be set. For example, the athlete has to run each rep at a consistent and stipulated pace, helping teach pace judgement. The coach may also want him to concentrate on running tall (keeping hips forward) throughout each rep, concentrating particularly on this over the latter stages when tired. (As we all know, technique falls to pieces when fatigue sets in - maintaining good technique when tired, demands mental concentration and can be practiced).

Another example

A group is set uphill sprints, with the physical objectives of improving leg strength and lactate tolerance (the hill is steep and long enough to have the runners puffed at the top.) The value objectives might include practicing arm drive, getting a high knee lift and running tall. The coach precedes the session with instructions on technique, why it is important and what he is looking for. He also reminds the runners throughout the session, particularly if any start to show poor technique.

The cross-country season is coming, and the races include jumps. So why not place a steeplechase hurdle on the track one training session (assuming there has been instruction on hurdling technique). By setting jumping as a valued objective and including it in a training session, you increase the effectiveness of the training.

The ability to change pace or develop a finishing kick is more than increasing speed - most young distance runners, for instance, will increase the pace by increasing cadence but continue with a distance running technique. Or try to increase stride length with a subsequent risk of over striding. What they do not is change from a distance technique to a sprint action. This is a skill that can be acquired and practiced by adding a learning objective to a rep session. A favourite for this is to have athletes run 200 metres at the desired pace, float 50 metres then suddenly increase knee lift, leg drive and arm drive and sprint for 50 metres. Distances can vary to suit the physical objective, i.e. 600m/50m float/50m sprint or 300/50/50 etc.

Time trials have obvious learning objectives - confidence-building and pace judgement, for instance. But be careful when setting time trials. They can be an invitation to failure. A time trial of race distance run alone, in the morning when the body is not fully awake or late afternoon when tired is quite likely to be slower than the intended race pace. The athlete gains neither confidence nor pace judgement If this is a possibility it may pay to have the learning objective over-rule the physical objective and set an under-distance time trial. The athlete runs it at a goal pace and has a greater chance of finishing feeling good. Hopefully, confidence goes up, pace judgement is practiced, the learning objective is achieved.

The key is planning

If the value objective is defined in the planning and made known to the athletes (the athletes are told "this is what we are doing, this is why we are doing it, this is what I hope will be achieved"), the session becomes a learning experience as well as a physiological one.

This will help the athlete learn to think on the run - to run with the brain as well as the feet.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • SMITH, L. (2005) Train the brain as well as the feet. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 27 / November), p. 4-5

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • SMITH, L. (2005) Train the brain as well as the feet [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Lance Smith is a practising coach with Athletics Southland in New Zealand with coaching qualifications in sprints, track endurance, road and cross country, steeplechase and high jump and has coached athletes to national championship medals in all the above events. He is also an active "master" athlete and takes part in harriers, track events and jumps.