Racing on instinct: is it the right way to run?

Instinct in racing is not about self-preservation and playing it safe, but being courageous, taking risks and seeking rewards.
Photo by Victoire Joncheray on Unsplash

What exactly is instinct? And should it govern how we race?

One dictionary definition of instinct is the natural or intuitive way of acting or thinking.

Biologically speaking, instinct is a type of complex (i.e. not a reflex) behaviour pattern an organism is born with.

In a given situation, or circumstance, an organism will instinctively act in a very specific way — and not because they have learned to do so, but because that specific pattern of behaviour is encoded into their genetic make-up.

In the animal kingdom, instinctive behaviour is everywhere: insects and birds build nests, spiders spin webs, turtle hatchlings scurry towards the sea, nocturnal animals operate at night.

All of these behaviours are based on instinct. They just exist.

The fight or flight instinct

As humans, instinct is what often guides our response to dangerous, potentially harmful situation. It’s the same binary choice that governs most predator-prey interactions: fight or flight.

Both are instincts, and which response you innately perform — I use that word deliberately, rather than choose — is based on a snap calculation your body and nervous system make about self-preservation.

Which option is the least likely to get me killed?

As humans, however, we are constantly evolving and learning from past experiences and interactions.

Consequently, we rely less and less on what I might term pure instinct. Sometimes, we intentionally betray our instincts. We design strategies, make decisions and act in ways that are counterintuitive.

To chase or not to chase

I bring up the idea of instinct, because I often hear runners talking about instinct with regards to racing.

For example, Runner Y might throw her game plan out the window mid-race to chase a pack of faster athletes, because she’s feeling good and overcome with a surge of confidence.

She might later say it was a decision made on the fly, on the so-called basis of instinct.

Or there’s the inverse example: Runner Z fails to listen to his instinct (as if that were a choice) and watches a lead pack disappear into the distance.

There’s an element of the term being mis-used in these examples.

Racing instinct implies courage (not conservation)

You could arguably make the point Runner Z is the one actually behaving instinctively. Chasing the lead pack and going too fast is a risky move, whereas running at a more conservative pace is the safer option.

In my opinion, that’s instinct at play, in it’s truest sense: operating rationally, and safely.

But I do get what athletes mean, when they talk instinct.

As I understand it, racing based on instinct is not about self-preservation and safety, it’s about risk and reward. It means following your heart, rather than your brain. It’s almost used interchangeably with courage.

Game planning for races and instinct

Why am I interested in the idea of instinct?

In part, because I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few weeks thinking about the strategy I’ll employ when running my next marathon in Canberra.

The goal is a personal best. As such, I’ll likely settle on a target pace, which I’ll try to hold for most of the race. (Or else, I could employ the 10-10-10 approach, which I explain here.)

But I don’t yet know who’s in the field. And I know there’s an advantage to running in a pack.

So the question arises: do I allow some mental flexibility to make ‘instinctive’ decisions on the day? (Remembering, of course, that true instinctive actions are not decisions — a finer point we’ll temporarily ignore).

In other words, would I deliberately run a few seconds per km faster to be in a pack? Could I be that courageous?

Instinct and inexperience

I’d like to imagine the answer is yes. But really, it’s a definitive no. Not in the marathon. Not this time.

For a half marathon, it’s conceivable. I’ve run more and I trust myself, and my ability, over that distance more than I do over 42.2 km.

I can also (in theory) run more half marathons in a calendar year. I’m more prepared to be courageous, but also to blow-up and have a shocker. This is only my third marathon attempt and I’m still approaching it somewhat conservatively.

When it comes to ‘instinct’ and racing (which is all about risk and reward) experience is essential.

What I mean is this: you have to be very well acquainted with (and honest about) your capabilities, limitations, and goals. Being courageous in a calculated way is one thing; being blindly courageous is a recipe for disaster.

This notion in itself is a paradox, as experience (and the learning it yields), is the very thing that allows us to override true instinct. But experience enables courage, and risk-taking.

And elite runners need to be courageous to win races.

Awesome result, not satisfied

I was reminded of this recently when Canadian runner Rory Linkletter competed at the USA Track & Field 15km championships.

His time of 44:41 (equivalent to running roughly 2:59/km) was good for 13th position.

It was a very impressive race. And yet, Linkletter was dissatisfied. He aired his frustration on Instagram:

“I missed a big opportunity to compete with the top group by hesitant racing. There was a hard mile ran from 3.5-4.5 and the race strung out, about 12 people stuck with that move and I wasn’t one of them. I don’t think it was a matter of fitness or fatigue from training that held me back. My head held me back. Racing is about instincts and mine weren’t sharp enough. I’m pissed off and determined to not let it happen again.”

“Racing is about instinct and mine weren’t sharp enough.” Canadian runner Rory Linkletter.

Held back by hesitation

As in the example mentioned earlier, Linkletter didn’t stick with the lead group during a mid-race surge. He said he missed an opportunity due to “hesitant racing”.

For him, instinct is a matter of innate competitive drive. Matching the surge should have been automatic.

He didn’t say it explicitly, but he implied it: “My head held me back.”

In other words, he didn’t listen to his heart; his instincts weren’t “sharp enough”. He didn’t dig into the well, and find the courage to stay in the race, with the front runners.

For most of us, it’s almost unfathomable to think an athlete could be unhappy with this performance.

But that’s what makes it so inspiring: here is a pro, sponsored by HOKA ONE, a 1:01.44 half marathoner (2nd all-time Canadian), a 2:12 marathoner, and he’s as hungry as ever to keep improving.

I should have mentioned, Linkletter is only 24.

With a bit more race experience under his belt, and in the legs, he’ll certainly sharpen those instincts.

Instinct and the everyday runner

I’m not saying throw your race plan out and run purely on instinct. That would be terrible advice, and it would undermine your training.

But it is okay to be mindful of the concept; and your own ability to be courageous.

At the elite level, running courageously might mean matching a surge — or throwing one down, in the hopes of breaking an opponent’s will, or creating a gap.

For everyday runners, courage might manifest differently. Sometimes it’s the courage of simply showing up.

Or maybe it’s battling through fatigue in the late stages of a race, and continuing to move ever-forward when every muscle in your body is screaming at you: stop.

There’s courage in starting. And in finishing. No matter what level of runner you are, that’s worth remembering.

Want more? Check out all of RunCreature’s long-form features and interviews.

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