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?
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.