Project BQ: Training the muscle between my ears

I wrote a post last week in which I talked about a lot of the non-running specific training I’ve done to get myself ready to take a flying leap at qualifying for the Boston Marathon (which is now a whopping five days a way, omg!) but because the post was getting stupidly long, I decided to save my thoughts on brain training for a separate post.

Out of all of the things that fall under the rubric of “athletics,” sports psychology is probably one of my favorite aspects to study and practice. I’m very much a big fan of therapy and psychology, but in my life those things have mostly been in the context of dealing with trauma or personal difficulties. What I like about sports psychology is how they aim to make a person excel.  Plus, it’s not like the tenets of sports psychology only work when it comes to sports and then immediately fall apart when applied to the rest of life.  I’ve taken a lot of what I’m going to outline below and put it to use in my non-sports life, and it’s worked really well for me.

When I first got into endurance sports, I really struggled with mental toughness. I whined, I complained, I psyched myself out over hills and bridges and wind and heat and cold and everything. When things got difficult I’d fall into the spiral of suck, and then that was it, I was done. Sometimes I’d get so angry and frustrated, too. Once, during a long, hot training run, I told Brian to go fuck himself and then I burst into tears. (I still feel shitty about this and it happened four years ago.) I had a tiny bit of raw talent but I lacked the discipline or hard work to actually develop it and turn it into something cool.

I realized things had changed dramatically late last year when Brian told me he was really impressed with how mentally tough I’d become. I can’t point to a single pivotal moment where, like, I attained enough gold coins to level up in Mental Toughness. Instead I spent a couple of years processing everything with Brian, reading books and blogs, experimenting with myself, and engaging in a lot of honest self-examination (because, let’s be real, bullshitting yourself ultimately only hurts yourself).

Over the course of all those hours of thinking and analysis, here’s what I’ve figured works best for me:

1. Re-writing the story of myself.

For most of my life I’ve struggled with self-confidence. From as early as I can remember, I felt socially awkward and weird, terrified of the world, inadequate, cowardly, incompetent, bad at nearly everything I tried, pathetically wimpy. The reasons for this are complicated and manifold, but in the context of this conversation, they don’t really matter. What matters is that my ideas about myself were relentlessly negative. I already thought of myself as a failure; I didn’t even see the point in trying because it would already confirm what I knew to be true about myself.

When I hit my late twenties – specifically when I went back to college to finish my bachelor’s degree AND when I took up running and weights – I started to understand that my perspective about myself was just that: my perspective. Just because I thought a particular way about myself didn’t mean that was how I actually was. I actually had some control here. I could re-frame things in a way that was still reality-based but that also offered me compassion and respect instead of condemnation and self-hate.

So instead of being the victim, I became the survivor.  Instead of being abused, I was resilient and tough. Instead of being cowardly, I was cautious.  And I wasn’t incompetent or bad at nearly everything I tried; it’s perfectly normal to try something new and suck at it.  It’s called being a beginner.

Basically, I’m learning to re-write the story I tell myself about who I am. In the process of reconstructing my self-image as one of strength and competence and courage, I have found the confidence to be willing to try all kinds of things, including things that scare the shit out of me. Including things like running ultramarathons, swimming in open water, and trying to qualify for Boston.

2. Embracing the power of positive self-talk.

The phrase “positive self-talk” feels so woo-tastic that I’d be hesitant to write about it if it weren’t for the fact that it has worked so well for me. It’s Sports Psychology 101 and for good reason, because it works. It works so well that it practically seems like magic to me.

I only came around to positive self-talk after I realized that what I had been doing was not only not working, but it was actually making things harder on me. Here’s an example: during Marathon Bahamas, when I hit mile 20, the sun came out and there were no trees and the sea breeze decided to take the day off and it was literally hot as balls. (No, seriously, I’m pretty sure the mercury on the thermometer hit the hash mark labeled “BALLS” that day.)  I had been cruising along, on pace to hit a sub-4:00 marathon, but the heat knocked me to an abrupt walk. So in an attempt to get my ass moving again, I started berating myself, thinking being a hard-ass was the way to get results.  So I’d get myself shuffling along, and then I’d think, Don’t you DARE walk, and then mere nanoseconds later, I was walking again.

Now when I’m dealing with a particularly difficult stretch of training or racing, I make an effort to avoid shit-talking myself from the get-go.  Instead of saying, “Ugh, this sucks” or “This is sooo hard” or “I can’t do this,” instead I say, “You’ve got this” and “You can do this” and “You’ve done harder shit before.”  When I take on the mindset that puts strength and capability as my default setting, it becomes a lot easier to manage adversity because I’m operating off the assumption that I can and will do it.

Of course, sometimes when I’m feeling really vulnerable, I fall into my old ways of thinking. The spiral of suck opens its gaping maw a little too close to me and I get pulled into its vortex.  It happened two weekends ago during my long run.  I’d been dealing with some serious work-related stress and a lack of sleep, plus I got a late start so it was hot outside, and so all I could think about was how stressed out and tired and hot I was.  I made it to mile five before I had to pull off to a park bathroom so I could lose my shit in private.

For the most part, though, I find that making an effort to be encouraging and positive in my self-talk works a hell of a lot better than when I try to go all Full Metal Jacket drill sergeant on myself.

3. Staying in the moment.

I used to do all sorts of things to distract myself when I was racing or training.  Sometimes I’d play games with myself where I’d tell myself I’d have to run three minutes before I could look at my Garmin again, sometimes I’d try to break things down into more manageable chunks of time or distance, anything to take my mind off what I was doing at that moment in hopes of being able to better endure suffering or boredom.

The paradox is that making an effort to focus on the present has actually increased my capacity for dealing with these things and also makes the time pass a lot faster.  When I pay attention to where I’m at – including how I feel and what my body is doing – instead of trying to distract myself, I start to experience what’s been described as “flow“:

[Csikszentmihalyi] defines flow as a state in which people “are completely absorbed in an activity, especially an activity which involves their creative abilities. During this ‘optimal experience’ they feel “strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities.”

Whenever I catch myself trying to play those distracting mental games, particularly when I’m far from the end, I’ll take some deep breaths, run through my internal checklist, check my form and my pace and remind myself to just be in the mile I’m in.  It’s an ongoing process – a practice, really – but when I can actually achieve that state, it feels mesmerizing and energizing.

Of course, I still use those psychological tricks I mentioned above, but I try to save them for the end of a race, when my tank is running on empty and I have to conjure shit out of nowhere to get myself across the finish line, instead of relying on them right away.

4. Welcoming discomfort.

Let’s face it – running long distances will hurt. Not can. WILL. It hurts for the people who are running at the front of the pack just as it hurts for those who are running at the back.  It hurts whether you run a 5K or an ultra.  The sooner I learned to accept this as an inevitability of my chosen sports, the sooner I got over worrying about it.  Now I just accept that at some point I’m going to be uncomfortable and I will probably hurt, and that it’s going to be okay.

The truth is, I’ve gone beyond accepting discomfort right into relishing it.  Part of it is knowing that the more I hurt during the race, the more delicious that finish line will feel when I cross it. But I’ve found a perverse sort of pleasure in it as well. When I’m feeling the air in my lungs and the blood whooshing through my veins and my muscle fibers feel like someone has set fire to them, I feel incredibly alive. I certainly feel more alive than I do during any of the several hours of my life per day spent sitting in front of a computer screen, that’s for sure.

I actually have a lot more to say on the subject of learning to be comfortable to being uncomfortable, but I think I’m going to save that for another post.

5.  Keeping some f-ing perspective.

I love that I have shaped myself into a pretty focused, dedicated athlete. I love that I set big goals for myself and then work my ass off to achieve them. These things are very important to me, which is why I am willing to put in the time and effort, even when I don’t feel like it. (Although sometimes I really don’t feel like it and I take that as my cue to rest.) I’m also extremely lucky that I take such pleasure from all of this, because I know a lot of people look at running and triathlon and think it seems all very crazypants.

But as much as I want to excel at my sports, I also keep it in perspective, which is that ultimately, no one else gives a shit how I do at a race.  No one cares what my PR is.  I am not a professional.  If I have a race where things don’t go well, big deal.  It’s not the end of the world.  I recently read a book by Ironman legend Paula Newby Fraser where she made this point, that there are few things in the world that matter less than how you do in a race. And it’s true. There are so many things that matter more, like how I treat other people, how I conduct myself in my relationships and at my job, what I contribute to the rest of the world.  How I do in a race and whether I qualify for Boston or not is really only important to me.

Ironically, once I learned to stop putting so much pressure on myself with regards to racing, I actually found I started to do better because I’d get on the starting line and feel totally relaxed and excited about what was ahead.  Go figure, right?

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Share some of your tips and tricks for mental training below!  I’d love to hear what you all do to get yourself ready to train and race.

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36 responses to “Project BQ: Training the muscle between my ears

  1. Just this morning I was thinking about a week long mountaineering camp I signed up for this summer (6 days of long hikes, climbs and traverses – something new for me), and I thought: “I need to train my mind, not just my body,” so I don’t tap out and not make the most of an epic experience. A few hours later, your post pops up on Twitter. Thank you for taking the time to share your experience. I have bookmarked this post and I plan on taking your pointers to heart in the weeks and months ahead.

    What has worked for me in the past when I have pushed myself beyond where my body and mind have been before – when I am facing the wall and feeling incapable of embracing the suck – are two tricks. 1) Have your moment. As you mentioned in your post, sometimes you just have to lose your shit in order to move forward. Get those tears out. Acknowledge you are gripped. When I take a moment to let my emotional demons out, they can’t get back in. Only then I can start again on addressing the physical challenge before me. And 2) Remember the last finish. I try to remember how good I felt that last time I was in this exact place, pushed through and finished. When that last long run, hike, climb or push was over, how the pride in completion overrode all the pain and self-doubt that happened along the way. I remind myself, “When this is over you’re going to look back and think (because you have thought this every, single time before), “That was freakin’ cool! When can we do it again??”

    Enjoy qualifying for Boston.

    • Thanks for this comment! Your #1 about “having your moment” is a really good one. I think people have a tendency to really get all bent out of shape by negative emotions – be it frustration or anger or sadness or whatever – instead of recognizing that those emotions have a purpose and that you’re better off recognizing them and feeling them than trying to stuff them down a la Unikitty in The Lego Movie. That was a key thing for me when I did my ultras last year – understanding that I was going to have moments where I felt like shit and that the important thing was to keep moving and that those moments would pass.

      Your #2 – I’m tucking that in my pocket for this coming Saturday. I have a feeling I’m going to need it.

  2. amazeballs post btw. I’ll probably etch lots of this onto sheets of paper for the growing pile of wisdom on my kitchen worktop. Thank you!

  3. Great post again, it seems as though you’re as ready as you can be to go for that BQ – good luck!

    I love what you say about ‘rewriting the story of myself’ because in a way I think women in particular are adept at measuring their abilities in a conservative way. It’s deemed societally unacceptable for a woman to be visibly ambitious or demonstrably proud of her achievements. Whether it be the prevalence of ‘imposter syndrome’ in academia, or the desire in young girls to mark themselves against unattainable ideals of physical beauty, it’s hard to learn not to self-sabotage.

    I had a bit of an epiphany about this in the pool a couple of weeks ago. I only started to swim again very recently and I always swim in the slow lane because – you know, I think I suck… I realised though that length after length I was swimming just a bit faster than the guy in the medium lane next to me. It’s such a small thing, but to see direct evidence that I was imposing a restriction upon myself that was actually below my abilities made me give myself a bit of a talking to. And it’s the last time I’ll banish myself to the slow lane!

    • Nice! I’m glad to hear you’re open to being honest about your skills and abilities, and I hope you enjoy swimming in the medium lane. Sounds like that’s exactly where you belong.

      I was thinking about your comment this morning and I realized when I was growing up, I used to hear a lot of people talk about “being conceited” and “thinking you’re too good for everyone else.” The thing I could never figure out was where the line was between acknowledging when you’re good at something or you’re smart and “being conceited.” It always seemed to me that the mere act of saying anything positive about yourself put you squarely in the “you’re conceited” camp. I mean, humility is a great, important quality to have, but that’s not humility. That’s grinding people down and making them small, and it definitely seems to be more culturally accepted for women than it does for men.

      • Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true. For me, learning to take ownership of things I’ve achieved and being proud of them is an important thing. I’m proud to have done my first triathlon on Sunday (just… wow, by the way…. one of the hardest but most amazing experiences ever!) and I’m going to tell people that. But for me, a line is crossed when people get sanctimonious about it.

        Like, yes super-fit-triathlon-man, you CAN swim more efficiently/cycle further/run faster than me, but that does not make you a better HUMAN BEING than me!

  4. In the vein of #5, I try to remember to find the joy in the training/racing. There’s nothing better than being outdoors and pushing yourself. If I can remind myself that I’m supposed to enjoy it, then I usually do! (unless it’s a Baltimore summer, in which case, I’m going to find the joy in watching HGTV on the treadmill).

    • Hahahaha! Yeah, running outside in the summer can be the opposite of joy. But yes, a reminder that I’m doing this because it’s fun and I like it is a good thing to keep in mind! I’m having some serious taper madness right now and one of the things that helps me is remembering that even if I don’t hit my BQ standard, I’m still going to have a lot of fun because I like running marathons! It helps. (Kinda.)

  5. Man, I love your blog so much! I look forward to all of your posts. I am not an athlete, but one thing I’ve learned the past few months is that dreading going to the gym is ALWAYS worse than actually going to the gym. I am working on having the mental strength to just not ‘go there’ when I think about the gym, or any task really. I don’t think about the gym until I am driving there and then I just go in and handle it just like Olivio Pope. This mental shift has changed everything for me.

    • Thanks so much! And YES to handling your business like Olivia Pope. I LOVE that image.

      re: the anticipation being worse than the actual thing – isn’t it nuts how that happens? Even me with my big old jock-y self struggles with that from time to time, despite knowing that I’ve never actually left the gym or finished a training session and been like, “Well, that sucked and I wish I’d never done it.” Adopting a mindset of “don’t think, just go” has helped me a lot with that.

  6. Ahhh, this post couldn’t have come at a better time. I feel like I’m just *starting* to make some strides into getting mentally tougher, but I still have a ways to go.

    Two Sundays ago, Mike took me up on a hill that involved almost 15 minutes of straight climbing. It was a gorgeous day and we were running up a hill in the middle of Switzerland – you’d think I’d be in the moment. Instead, I was panicking about how hard it felt and the fact that it was at the beginning of an 18-mile long run (my first since 2011) and I was worrying about losing steam and not being able to finish the run. Partway through, I stopped to catch my breath and when I saw Mike trying to take a picture of me, I lost it and told him “not to take a fucking picture of me”. Too ashamed to face him, I turned, ran up the hill as fast as I could and burst into teary, screaming fit once I reached the top. I couldn’t believe one training run could bring out that kind of reaction for me – neither could Mike. I still feel ashamed, but it was a turning point for me. I think I’ve been getting better.

    Yesterday on my first 20-miler since 2011, I felt myself slowing down and feeling sluggish so I checked that I was absolutely alone and forced myself to smile and said out loud “you are so lucky”. I was shocked that it actually WORKED, and I felt instantly better. I’m a believer in positive self-talk.

    Points #3, #4, #5 are all “in progress”. Thanks for sharing this all – I really enjoyed the read and extra kick of inspiration. 🙂

    • I’m so sorry that happened during your training run, and I have totally been there and it sucks. (It’s also a little funny, too. I mean, I laughed both times I read your comment. Is that terrible of me?) I’m glad that your next long run went so much better, though! And also, hell yeah, you are lucky to be running in Switzerland! Of course, I say that from the flat comfort of Florida so my tune might change a little bit if I had to deal with some of those inclines as well…

      I’m glad you were able to take something positive from this post! I think we all struggle to various degrees when it comes to things like this, and so being honest about it is a good way to help both ourselves and each other deal with that.

      • Haha! Actually, it IS funny so don’t feel bad. In fact, I showed this blog post and my comment to Mike and we both laughed about it. Mike is Australian and the saying he uses to describe my special moments is “chucking a dummy spit”. I think he might start using “suck spiral” now, though. 😉 By the way, we ran up a different side of the same “hill” this morning and I kept my shit together the entire time! Progress! 😉

  7. One thing I like to do if I need to get my brain going before an evening workout is to listen to music beforehand to psych myself up, and I’ll listen to anything from Survivor to Florence and the Machine, and that will often help. (During my workouts though I prefer to have a show on because I think it’s less distracting. Go figure.)

    Staying in the moment is really important for me too. I’m currently working on adding weight to my deadlift after many weeks of working on my form, and I try not to think about what the weight actually is; instead, I’m solely focused on the movement itself. It definitely seems to be helping as I’ve been feeling more confident whenever I walk up to the barbell.

    This has been such an interesting process to read about–I wish you an awesome race this week and can’t wait to read more about it!

    • Thank you so much! I’m glad to hear you’ve liked my posts about this. 🙂

      I also loooove music and take a lot of psychological energy from it. It’s so awesome how a good song can really just make your blood feel like it’s been set on fire. I admire people who can run strong without music but I’m not there yet. It’s definitely a performance aid for me.

      Also, that’s awesome that you are improving with your deadlifts. It sounds like you have a really good mental process in place for dealing with increasing your lifts. 🙂

  8. It’s like you can read my mind!

    I’ve dealt with negative self-image and “impostor syndrome” for what seems like forever so this post really resonates with me. I’m in midst of training for my first half marathon and I find myself utilizing some similar mental tricks. It seems that telling myself not to look at the clock/watch is a surefire way to make time come to a complete standstill. Instead, I try to focus on my breathing, my form, what the race will feel like, what I’m doing after the run, etc until my mind drifts off to more pleasant things. I’ve had to do this a lot recently living in snowy, ice-y Massachusetts. Many of my runs have been moved to a treadmill which just seems so. much. harder. than running outside. An “easy 3” seems like a goddamn eternity.

    Anyways, I don’t comment much but I’m a devout reader/believer! Best of luck this weekend. This Masshole is rooting for you!

    • Thank you! 🙂

      And ugh, the treadmill. I know some people love it, but I have the same issue with it as you, where even short runs feel like they take soooo long. Plus I feel like I run a lot slower. Ugh, I’m so not a fan. I hope this freaking snow situation you all have been having decides to finally let up soon, not least of all so you can move your runs back outside soon. (Seriously what is up with all that snow? I lived in Massachusetts for three years and while, yeah, it snowed a lot, it was nothing like what you all are dealing with right now.)

      • I’ll never forget when I first started running and heard that treadmills often overestimate how far you’ve run due to incorrect calibration. So that 3 miles that felt like hell weren’t even a “true” 3 miles. I can’t even.

        And you’re right this winter is truly something. I’ve lived in Massachusetts my whole life and we’ve seen our share of storms but this is next level. I can’t complain too much because I’m actually traveling for work on west coast of Florida at the moment so I’m taking full advantage of your beautiful climate. Morning beach runs FTW!

  9. I just wanted to say that I love your phrase “suck spiral.” My new catchphrase 😉

    • Haha awesome! I wish I could take credit but I stole it from Brian, who used it to describe the way I would totally fall apart on some of these runs.

  10. I can relate to so much of what you’ve said here! I’ve found that staying present and being “comfortable uncomfortable” to be really beneficial for me, and have recently been exploring the concept of re-telling my story as well. After all, the past is just a story that we tell ourselves, and she who tells the story owns the narrative.

    • “she who tells the story owns the narrative.”

      I LOVE the way you phrased that. Like, letting someone else dictate the story we tell about ourselves is basically handing control of our lives over to that person. What a great way to think about this.

  11. I’m the worst when it comes to gaining mental clarity, but WHEN I do, I manage to sit and meditate for a half hour at minimum. If that doesn’t work, I’ll write it out. In other words, just start writing about nearly anything until eventually whatever is blocking me comes out on paper and I don’t have to live with it anymore. It’s like a mental release to get it out even if it goes nowhere.

  12. Best of luck to you! Although you have done a terrific job of leaving as little as possible to luck – you are taking control! Can’t wait to hear all about your experience once you’ve had time to catch your breath.

  13. Thanks so much for sharing this series on running for a BQ. I got injured last year after spending four years building up my running, getting faster and finally running my first full marathon (I managed to collect 7 half marathon finishes along the way!). Over the course of the recovery (Achilles tendinitis and secondary calf tear), I slowwllllyy slid back mentally into the place I was before I started running. Despite weekly physio sessions with an AMAZING chiro/physio/running coach, I felt like such an imposter… like I have been pretending to be something else for four years and now the real me is back.

    Since Christmas, I have been running again. The first few runs were so uncomfortable and hard. My lungs burned, my hips were so stiff and my calves hated me. It was so tempting to just give up and go home to a bowl of M&Ms. To turn it around, I have embraced using mantras while I am out running, which I set each week with my coach and repeat over and over when things get hard mentally. I have always been skeptical of hippie voodoo (being a bit facetious here : )) but dammit, if it doesn’t work. My favourite one is “Trust your legs” because it reminds me that I have run thousands of miles, so this moment of discomfort will pass and just be another number in that collection.

    Dietary changes have helped because like you, I am now focusing on quality of the food I eat. I was listening to a nutrition round table with Chrissie Wellington on the Marathon Talk podcast (sidenote – they are a fantastic series put out weekly by two Brits that I highly recommend) and she said something along the lines of the fact that sports nutrition isn’t about what you eat on race day, it is about what you eat every day. Woah, lightening bolt moment.

    As this comment is becoming an essay, I will wrap it up and say thanks for your post. I have also printed it off and will keep it for when I need reminding that running is about training the whole person. Thanks so much!

  14. Yet another great blog – I always love reading what you have to say. Since I’m so far behind in replying, you’ve already run your race…so congrats! Obviously whatever you’ve been doing has been working!

    I don’t know that I have any great tips or tricks. I guess when I have goals in mind, I have the willpower to push me toward those goals. I’ve had plenty of rough workouts where I’ve told myself that I suck, but when I’m suffering I usually try to tell myself that it’s making me stronger. I tell myself that I WANT to do this. When there was a snow squall a few weekends ago, I decided I’d be less miserable doing 11 miles on the treadmill…crazy, I know. Once I committed to it, I told myself I had to get it done – and I did. Of course it’s not always that easy, but willpower can be a strong thing!

  15. I don’t listen to music while cycling at all. I do want to be present and aware of all things around me.

    I find it useful to do yoga breathing if I start to worry about my stamina, etc. Long, slow breathing instead of quick, fast.

    Also to remind myself, no matter how difficult the hill may be, I need to remind myself..I can at least be mobile, I can move, I can walk. I am fortunate..so make use of my leg muscles and my whole being.

  16. First off, item 2 about positive self-talk: YES it really really does work. Why did it take me so long to learn this?

    Apart from that my favourite tip is: rest is as important to your training as your training is, so rest well. As cyclists say ‘why stand up when you can sit, and why sit when you can lie down?’

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