by James Dodds:
About two years ago my wife and I were training with Schrup and he started the quality workout with a talk on fueling. He was making a point on glycogen depletion, etc and said, “I want you to bonk.” He went on to explain more about his purpose for saying it but all I needed was that one liner. Every season I grab on to new little “nuggets of wisdom” or one-liners and mantras to motivate me. I meditate on these mantras and the thoughts that come with them until they become something meaningful to my training and me. “I want you to bonk” was obviously my one liner from that season. I want to explain what it means to me and why I think many of you need to read this.
Firstly, when I say “bonk” I am not just referring to the idea of burning through stored sugar in the body. Yes, that is a part of what I mean, but I mean more. When I say bonk I mean I want you to have a shitty run. I want you to get tired and doubt yourself. I want your weekly volume to add up to where you start feeling sluggish. I want you to hit the freaking wall! That is what I mean when I say, “I want you to bonk.”
There are a number of reasons. I am offering four:
1) If you don’t bonk then it’s likely you are not improving
If you have been to Rogue Coaching School or spoken with Steve Sisson then you may have heard him say, “The body can adapt to any stress if you give it enough time.” In essence he is describing how the body becomes better at running, or any form of fitness for that matter. You stress the body, let it heal, and it will be stronger because of it. This is exactly what I want to happen to you in your training season. I want you to go out for a long run, I want your body to experience the stress of the run, I want you to rest, and then I want you to come back stronger. This is how the body actually improves. “Break it down and build it up, baby!” If you were in the weight room you know you would want to “feel the burn.” For the marathoner, bonking is our burn … “Bonking is the new burn” (yeah, I went there). Back to the point, if you don’t bonk then it is likely you are not improving. I want you to bonk!
2) The sciency stuff … When you bonk, your body has to burn fat instead of sugar
My definition of bonking obviously includes more than simply running out of sugar, but it is still part of the reason why I want you to bonk. Our bodies love to use sugar as fuel. Truth is, we can burn through it quickly and our body seeks to be as efficient as a possible. So much so that we actually store some sugar just in case. That stored sugar is called glycogen and we all have about 90 minutes worth stored away in our bodies. So when we go out for a long run and get past that 90 minute mark, our body is forced to be creative. First it will try and talk you into quitting. That is always the first go to. (More of that to come under mental training). However, consistent long runs help the body realize relief is not on the way and it needs to figure something out. So it does. It starts using fat as a fuel source. There is plenty of energy to be had from fat but fat is not as efficiently burned. So the body is only going to try burning it on the run if you teach it to. Bonking is part of that teaching process. When you bonk, your body has to burn fat instead of sugar. I want you to bonk!
3) Mental training starts when you bonk
The best of mental training occurs during the bonk because our brains run off that glycogen too. The brain needs sugar to function. This is why you start to lose hope. You doubt yourself. You pull out your best mantras at this point but they just do not seem to work. Even more the body just says, “Okay let’s stop.” This is when mental training actually begins. You have to teach your body to press on and fight for your goals instead of just easing off and plateauing. This mental piece is connected to our central nervous system (CNS). Our CNS functions like a governor to keep us from dying. It is the very thing that makes us jump and shiver when we jump into water that is too cold. It leads us away from danger. I am not saying marathoning is dangerous, but it is unnatural to your current level of fitness. You have to ask that governor to change and recalibrate to a new level of training. That is done when the mentally tough press on and continually extend their training load.
Furthermore, the race itself will be hard. Even if you are in the best shape of your life going into to race day, the task will still be a long one. 26.2 miles is long! If your mind is not up to the task then it does not matter how strong your legs are. Thus you will need to be mentally tough that day. Mental toughness requires training too … it starts when you bonk. I want you to bonk!
4) You have to learn to deal with discomfort
Bonking yields discomfort. It yields the worst forms of discomfort (well … aside from child birth and gun shot wounds and stuff). We need to be able to deal with discomfort. No matter how well trained you may be, the race will and should hurt. I think many people have the misconception that elite athletes are so lucky because they can “run so far and so fast, so easily.” While they are fast and definitely more efficient, they are not doing it “easily.” They experience crazy amounts of discomfort. They make the line of discomfort their home. I promise that Ryan Hall’s 2:04 marathon was far more painful than my 3:36. I bet the pain and discomfort set in much sooner for him in his race than it did in mine. He ran through it. Proper training will make the race physically possible. However, proper training will not make your race easy. You have to learn to deal with discomfort. I want you to bonk!
Why I really wanted to write this:
I am not saying that you should bonk on every long run. I am not encouraging you to run faster than your coach says to. I am not telling you to do something stupid or run through injury pains. I am really writing this because I want you to see “bonking” or “bad weeks/runs” as part of the puzzle. Many of you finish runs and think you are somehow becoming worse because your easy 20 didn’t feel so easy. You start to doubt and think, “Well if that was hard then how will I ever hit my PR?” But all of that is part of the season. This is why the PR is special. This is why finishing your first marathon is special. You have to go through so many ups and downs to get the prize. I want you to look at bonking differently. I don’t want you to start thinking something is wrong just because you bonked. I want you to be confused if you have NOT bonked. I want you to understand the benefits of bonking so you actually start wanting to bonk. I want you to bonk!