Mind Games: Surviving a track workout

The clouds were thick, sporting that ominous shade of gray indicating bad times ahead. The air was heavy with humidity. Sweat poured off my signature pigtails, dripping down my back. It was such an uncomfortable morning that once I got to the track, I actually took my technical t-shirt off and ran in my sports bra and well, that’s something I typically don’t do. But it felt right and comfortable and so there I was, pounding out a dozen 400-meter repeats in my sports bra and bright orange running shorts. I was alone during this workout. My running buddies were unable to join me. And this meant I had to find a way to fight through my time on the track without their assistance.

Turns out, I have more tricks up my sleeve than I realized. I simultaneously love and hate track workouts. While they are unquestionably effective in training and helping me increase my speed, they are even better for building mental strength — strength that gets me through not only my athletic endeavors but also my daily life. So here’s my mental tool box for surviving, and thriving, during a track workout, which tends to carry over to other parts of my day:

Break it down

Confession time: I like loops. I like breaking big tasks down into manageable parts which I can check off my list. I like the feeling of accomplishment and if it means celebrating each tiny little step, even if it’s just a “Go me!” in my brain, well then, I’m gonna do just that. In this particular workout, I had 12 400-meter repeats — one lap around the track. Instead of starting all 12 from the same spot, I did a lap then took my prescribed rest  by walking to the next 100-meter mark. Instead of doing 12 intervals, my mind was doing three sets of four. Semantics? Perhaps. But I was able to pace myself better and focus on the 400 at hand, instead of on the workout as whole. I could look at the immediate task in front of me and concentrate on that. I knew it was part of a bigger picture, but the time for a universal perspective would come later. All I had was the 400 in front of me. And by the end of the final set, I was putting up my fastest times of the day.

Respect the workout

The key to the interval track work is to do all the intervals. And to do all the intervals, often you can’t run each one as fast as you possibly can. In fact, often, running as fast as you possibly can is not part of the workout. There are different types of workouts with different goals — long runs, easy runs, tempo runs, interval runs. And even within my interval runs are different goals based on my race schedule, my recovery, my speed goals, my pace goals. Sometimes, it’s not in my best interest to run as hard and as fast as I can. This can be difficult to grasp, because so often we’re taught that only type of effort to give is 110 percent. Give your best effort. Go all out. But if I only know one effort level — all out, balls to wall — I burn myself out. I get injured. I plateau. I get frustrated and tired. What does the plan call for today? Giving my best effort doesn’t necessarily equate with an exhausting maximum effort. Really, don’t make the workout harder than it needs to be. There were plenty of hard workouts ahead. Don’t blow it all on this one.

Positive chatter: I am the greatest

Ok, yes, it’s corny, but I pull out every positive thought I can as my track workout progresses causing my legs to feel like solid chunks of cement. What we tell ourselves is powerful. Thoughts become things. Still, it’s difficult for me to say positive things to myself without feeling a bit ridiculous and a bit shy about it. Really, I’m telling myself how awesome I am on Interval No. 9? Why yes, I am. And I’m spouting off all the other things I am — strong, smooth, fast, amazing, powerful. Other mental chatter includes general positive reinforcement: Keep it going. Keep it going. Almost there. You can do this. You’ve got this. Don’t quit on it. Don’t quit on yourself. Just keep at it. And eventually I learn that while outside validation is always appreciated, always uplifting and comforting and encouraging to hear, I already have everything I need to become everything I want to be.

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