Oh yes, the track workout was hard. My body was working outside its comfort zone with each repeat. I knew this would make me a stronger runner and the purpose was also to help me develop speed. But there was another fundamental importance with a challenging workout — developing my mental toughness.
Then again, mental toughness is a bit of a misnomer since “toughness” conjures up images of muscling through anything and sometimes power isn’t what’s needed. (For proof of this, see the lesson I learned this week in shifting into my big ring on my bike. Part of the reason it wasn’t moving over smoothly was that I was pedaling too hard. Back off just a tad and the transition is smoother. Nice metaphor, no?) Regardless of what it’s called, mental training can be just as important as physical training. The cliche goes something like this: The longest distance of any race is between your ears.
Axioms and quotes and phrases provide great inspiration, but how does that translate into actual practice? How do I develop positive thoughts and focus? Just as no training plan is right for everyone, so it goes with training your mind. But are some tips and techniques that have been helpful to me. Try them out on your workouts and races this weekend and share some of your favorite methods for training your mind:
Did I just say meditate? Indeed. And if you’re quick to respond with some immediate negative response (too new-agey, not enough time, not for me) practice the mental/emotional skill of letting go of judgement and consider it for a moment. Meditation is a practice to quiet the mind. We have constant chatter going on in our heads and a practice of taking some time to be quiet, to be present, to be in the moment is beneficial on many levels. In my experience, meditation has served as mental training. It’s a chance to practice all those “mental toughness” traits — focus, positive thoughts, the process, releasing judgement.
Before the Flower City Half Marathon, part of my morning preparation included five minutes of meditation. Just five minutes. As easy to fit in with some warmup stretches and my coffee. And it helped calm me down, get me focused on what it was I wanted for this race and put me in the right frame of mind. Sometimes the benefit is an instantaneous bit of calm. Sometimes the benefit isn’t immediately noticed, but it accumulates and becomes noticeable down the road.
My meditation practice runs form 5 to 15 minutes most days. My preference is a guided meditation, one that usually has a theme and takes me through the practice. My favorites come from Meditation Oasis (which also has a smart phone app) but there are all different kinds of meditation and there is no “right way” to go about it. Meditation is not about finding “perfection” but about the practice.
Strong and Playful Words
One of the key items in my race bag is a Sharpie. Why? So I can write words on my hands. The words are touchstones for me since I’m a verbal person. Perhaps you’re more visually in-tune and a picture or images works better for you. (And you don’t have to write or draw on your hand. That’s just my particular brand of quirkiness.) In order for my words to work on race day, however, I must practice with them and find what words work for me.
I use two sets of words: strong and playful. Sometimes my strength word is simply “strong.” It has also been fearless, smooth, steady, focused. My playful word is also what I call my “happy place.” It’s a word or phrase which makes me smile, which reminds of something fun. Usually, this makes sense only to me and frankly, that’s part of the happy place fun. Chocolate milk has been a popular happy place word for me. In my last race I used “D-Diamond” which would take far too long to explain and it’s not that interesting of a story anyway. Suffice it to say, it prompted me to remember a good time, a fun time, a time when I felt confident and smiled a lot. And that’s the point of the happy place word.
The Sharpie comes into use on race day, but the words and phrases repeat all the time during workouts. Call them mantras if you want, but having a word, phrase or image that instantly puts me in a good mental place helps me get through challenges both in training and in life.
We all tend to reserve our celebrations for special occasions. The big whoop comes after completing our race. But race day is just one part of the experience. Want to learn to be positive? Create positive feedback for yourself. All. The. Time. It can be unnatural at first and feel a bit like your ego has run amok, but if you’re battling negative thinking your ego is already out of whack. But the more you allow yourself to see all the good you already are doing, the easier it will be to reach for those thoughts and examples when the going gets rough. Nothing is too small to step back and appreciate. Just nail a workout. Woo-hoo! That was fantastic. Cook your own amazingly healthy dinner? You are awesome. You don’t have to chronicle every amazing move on Facebook but take the opportunities to see your successes in every day things. By doing so you begin to create an internal dialogue that focus on the positive rather than scanning the horizon for possible pitfalls.