By Owen Morgan
Welsh distance runners Dewi Griffiths and Matthew Rees have taken part in an experiment which took them as far from their natural running environment as it is possible to imagine.
Griffiths’ routine training runs take him along the tracks and lanes around the family farm in Llanfynydd, surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of the beautiful rural Carmarthenshire countryside.
Even when competing, Griffiths’ senses would generally be assaulted by the colours, noises and atmosphere generated by crowds either lining road race streets, cross country courses or filling the stands at track stadiums.
Fellow Swansea Harrier Rees, who shot to fame at the 2017 London Marathon when he stopped within sight of the finish line to help a runner in distress, is used to training accompanied by his watch, GPS, and music to help improve his performance.
But earlier this month, all those external influences were taken away as a series of tests were undertaken over four days in a silent and blacked out track, housed at a huge industrial unit in East London.
Griffiths, who is on his way back to fitness after a stress fracture in his hip robbed him of a place at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in April, is renowned for his mental toughness in competition.
And that’s exactly what the experiment, conducted by global sports brand Asics, was designed to do – prove that mental strength is as important to athletic success as physical fitness.
For his test, Griffiths was joined by nine other athletes, including countryman Iwan Thomas, the retired Olympic, European and Commonwealth Games 400m medallist turned TV presenter.
The experiment was staged on the ASICS Blackout Track – the world’s first running track to train the mind; a custom-built 150-metre course cloaked in darkness with no tech, no music, no scenery, no comforts and no finish line.
Developed with leading sports scientists and top coaches, the track removes all distractions and forces runners to focus on synchronising mind and body.
All of the athletes in Griffiths’ group raced for 5k on the track in normal conditions – lights on, music playing, crowds cheering – and again in the darkness, with white noise, no motivation, feedback or technology.
The participants also completed the NASA Task Load Index, a widely used assessment tool to help assess the perceived physical and mental workload of a task, to help show how the mind can affect performance even when the physical capacity of the runners is the same.
The previous day American Olympic medallist and marathon record holder Deena Kastor, adventurer Danny Bent and actor and physics graduate Aarif Lee were the first to run the track as part of a 10k ‘mental marathon’. Each ran 66 laps in near darkness without any of the usual comforts.
Finally, a further 20 athletes, including Rees, took part in a further series of test runs on the blacked out track.
Rees said he jumped at the opportunity to find out how he would perform without external influences.
“We never find out what our body is capable of,” he said. “What gives up first your body or your mind?
“I wanted to learn more about what the Blackout Track could teach me, to help me improve my running whilst continuing to challenge and enjoy myself.”
After being briefed by Asics staff, Rees walked onto the darkened single lane track, a spotlight ready to accompany him on his way.
He said: “On the corners lights would turn on as you approached them and turn off as you ran past. I felt disorientated and uncoordinated. The blackness made everything more difficult. I was worried I would veer off the track and collide with some alien object.
“Round and round I went. Nothing to look at. No stimulus. It was just me and my thoughts. I started to think about my pace. I had no idea how fast I was running.
“Am I going quick? Normally I would glance down at my watch for assurance, but this time I was on my own. The only way to work out how fast I was running was to listen to my body.
“How do I feel? Is my heart beating fast? Am I out of breath? Are my legs moving fast? I felt so out of practice trying to read the physical signs that my body was showing.
“Every day that I run I can look at my watch for pace guidance. I can listen to my music to distract me. Scenery helps keep me interested. But here I was, lapping this blackout track with nothing.
“I started to feel more in tune with my body. I had to start to feel the pace rather than read it. I didn’t know how long I had been running. It started to bother me. How much time is left? 10 minutes? 15 minutes? 20 minutes?
“I had no idea about the duration I had been in there. It was a very strange feeling. Should I push on? I had no limits, I decided to run faster.
“I started to get into a rhythm. I found the beginning very difficult but I was learning to embrace the experience and let my mind and body work in sync. Suddenly the second beep startled me and the lights started to come on. I had done it. The end shocked me because I had no idea when the challenge would finish.”
Rees said he had found the experience of running without any outside influences and distractions beneficial.
“The Blackout Track taught me a lot about really listening to my body. It’s tough running without distractions but it can help develop your mental strength, whilst allowing you to find that natural running rhythm which is so beneficial to training.
“Not everyone has access to a Blackout Track but perhaps you can try bringing your mind and body more in sync on a run by leaving the technology at home and focusing on listening to all of the natural signs your body will give you.”
To give runners everywhere a taste of the track, Human Performance Coach Chevy Rough has shared tips on getting the most out of running performance on the ASICS website.
The company is also extending the challenge to the Runkeeper™ app which features a new ‘ASICS Move Your Mind Challenge’. Runners can compare their regular runs to ones without any audio cues and notifications on.
The full results from the Blackout Track experiment will be shared later this month.
You can read more about Matthew Rees’ experience on the Blackout Track on his blog at the Asics Frontrunner website.