Throughout my life, I have thought a lot about what it means to push yourself to the limit. And most of the time when you think you are there, in reality you are nowhere near.
Actually pushing yourself to 100% physical capacity for anything more that a few minutes leaves you feeling drained, unwell and nauseated for the rest of the day. How often does that actually happen? Not much. That’s probably a good thing; those of us who have to get up to work and train the next day need to leave something in the tank.
The reasons it is so psychologically difficult to reach your physical limit are probably evolutionary: you don’t want to wear yourself out picking berries in the morning and then end up having to outrun a sabre-toothed tiger in the afternoon. The same goes for us now; it needs to be difficult to really run oneself down to the wire because we need to continue to function in society. Realistically we should probably save draining the tank until the last 15 minutes of a race that we have trained 3 months or more for. And then book the next day off work.
To get the most out of ourselves, however, we need to be able to get near that limit every now and again, and that takes some practice.
For me, the issue of reaching my maximum appears during races. I feel myself holding back (especially in the first half, when the rest of the race looms large ahead) but then end the race feeling like I could have given more. One of the methods I have used to tackle this is interval training. During your fast intervals, you should be approaching maximum capacity but only for a short period. The main benefit of this, in addition to training muscle, lets you experience what really pushing really feels like. Doing this on a regular basis gets you familiar with and unafraid of the sensation and hence gives you some benchmark when racing. If at 2km into a 10 km race (that you care about) you feel like you do during your fast interval, you are probably going too fast. If you don’t feel like that at 9km, you are probably not pushing hard enough.
Once you have become comfortable with where your maximum capacity lies, only then can you begin to expand and increase it.