Before I introduce myself, I would like to take a second to thank Salty for this wonderful opportunity to write for her awesome website. I’ve been reading post after post each day, eagerly awaiting for my daily subscription alerts. Now that I am on board, I hope that these posts will find you, lovely runner and reader, as engaged as I have been thus far. With that being said, hello! I’m Ginger (with a J). I have been a runner for about thirteen years. However, I have only just started to focus on getting faster within the last six months. It is my hope to chronicle my journey to get faster. I don’t know how fast that will be, but I have high hopes. Mainly because in my experience and interactions with other runners, I see it happening all the time, though no one journey is the same. And that’s the exciting part! Read more >>
We’ll get to affirmations, but before we get there let’s talk about something I’ll call the Mental Bermuda Triangle: the point in some races where our confident bad @$$ self disappears and a weak blob of wussitude remains in our place. It’s the point in most races where we are most vulnerable to our mental weaknesses. It’s usually somewhere in the third quarter of the race: far enough in that we’re hurting, but far enough from the finish that we start doubting whether we can make it.
Maybe you’ve had a race experience like this. The gun goes off and so do you. You’re on pace and feeling good through the halfway point and then all of a sudden you don’t feel so well. Maybe your legs are hurting or you feel nauseous or just start worrying that you won’t be able to finish. Maybe you start contemplating dropping out. You might start berating yourself for slowing down or being a wuss. You might bargain with yourself, “if we can slow down a little this mile I swear I’ll pick it up the last mile.” When you lose yourself in the Mental Bermuda Triangle (MBT) in a race you end up slowing down and finishing disappointed.
We can leave it to chance whether we will have a great day and not get sucked down by the MBT. Or we can strengthen our minds through training to hopefully avoid it all together. Of course we’re going to pick the latter option! So what can we do to train our minds to be stronger to weather the MBT?
Why affirmations, of course! When someone first mentioned that affirmations might improve my racing I thought they were insane. I associated affirmations with this:
CHEEZ. E. I thought affirmations were just these trite pats on the back. “Oh, you are just sooooo perfect and wonderful, self!” I could not picture myself telling my self how great I was all the time. It sounded silly and pointless and a big waste of time. Oh, but how wrong I was.
Affirmations need not be cheesy pats on the back. They can be any positive statement about yourself that you repeat to yourself until you believe it. Basically affirmations are a tool to fake it until you make it: if you say something enough times eventually you will believe it. It’s as simple as that.
While you can use something like, “I’m so awesome!” as an affirmation, affirmations are most effective if you tailor them to buffer yourself against your particular mental weaknesses.
Here’s a brief example of how affirmations work. Say, a runner (definitely not me or anything!) tends to fear going to the well and really experiencing pain at the end of the race.
An example affirmation would be:
“I am not afraid to go to the well. Pain is fleeting. Achievement is forever.”
A runner who fears the pain that comes with gutting out a breakthrough performance gets caught up in the yucky feelings of the moment and loses sight of the big picture. This affirmation tells the runner that the MBT is temporary and reminds her of her goal.
This runner might write her affirmation on a post-it and stick it to her bathroom mirror. She’d repeat the affirmation to herself every time she saw the post-it note. She’d also practice it in workouts. For instance, she might practice repeating the affirmation through the last half of her tempos or through the last few intervals of her track workout. This runner who before affirmations would become scared to push herself when the going got tough in a race, would be much more likely to ignore the MBT and push through the pain to the finish line after practicing her affirmations for several months.
Now that we’ve introduced you to the mental training basics (relaxation, visualization and affirmations) we can start working on addressing mental weaknesses and exercises to help you sail past the MBT during your next race.
It might have been my best race ever.
I went to the race alone and got there in plenty of time to register and head back to my car before my warm-up. Coach instructed me to use the 5k race as part of my training run which was to run 11 miles at 7:00 pace. I stripped off my warm-ups and headed out for a brisker than normal warm-up along the loop course that I remembered from running the race several years earlier. I noticed the familiar slight undulation and location of the turns along the course. As I went along I started feeling pretty amped up and confident this was going to be a good one for me.
I made it back to my car to change into my flats and pin on my number. I headed over to the start area and did some strides before lining up at the front since it was a smallish local race. I was nervous, but I calmed myself by focusing on little things like the bright green blades of grass or the colors and shape of the other runners racing flats. When the gun went off I strode away feeling light and free and faaaaast.
And without much effort at all I hit the first mile in 5:50, faster than I had ever run a first mile of a 5k before. My stride remained fluid and I had no problem at all maintaining a sub-6:00 for the second mile despite a more boring isolated stretch of the course. As I began my last mile I checked in, “self, what do you have left?” A lot I decided and I picked it up a little and a little and as I entered the parking lot near the finish line I knew I was on pace for a huge p.r. and I hammered. When I made the last turn and saw the clock it said 17:59 and I watched it tick down the seconds until I crossed in 18:14–a 35 second p.r.!
Why is that in italics? Because that all happened in my imagination. What really happened was I ran an 18:15 on a slightly different out and back course (course was changed since I last ran the race) with a 5:52 first mile, but everything else happened exactly as I imagined the night before the race. That my friends is the power of visualization.
When we visualize something we stimulate the same brain regions that we stimulate when we actually do the same action. How cool is that? When we visualize running a relaxed p.r. we actually train our brain to run a relaxed p.r. That’s critical when you have a brain like mine that often likes to undermine your performances. By visualizing performing a relaxed p.r. race before that great 5k I told my brain that relaxed and focused is normal rather than the constant loop of negative thoughts and anxiety that my brain was accustomed to performing during races.
Visualization is more than just a mental dress rehearsal, although that may be it’s most powerful use for us as runners. It can be used to help aid in relaxation, overcoming injury and so much more. It’s an essential tool in your mental training arsenal.
Like any skill, visualization takes practice. It will take most people several weeks of practice before being able to visualize an entire race morning. It will likely take several tries at a visualization exercise before being able to complete it without your mind wandering or becoming distracted. Below is an exercise to get you started.
Simple Visualization Exercise for Runners
1. Perform a relaxation exercise and achieve a nice relaxed state.
2. Picture standing at the start of a familiar route. See all the sights and hear the sounds of that place. Picture as many details as you can.
3. Picture yourself starting your watch and starting to run.
4. Feel the road or trail under your feet. Hear your easy breath and the wind on your cheeks. Picture yourself feeling better on the run than you ever have before.
5. Now picture yourself returning to the start with the run finished. Picture yourself feeling refreshed, destressed and so appreciative for the gift of fitness.
6. The exercise is over. Practice it each day until you are able to get through the entire exercise without becoming distracted.
When you think of relaxing you might think about reading a good book in a comfy chair, a warm bubble bath or laying on the beach. You might not think that relaxation is critical to your race performances, but it is. Think about it. When we are tense our muscles tighten and our minds race. When we are relaxed our muscles are fluid and our minds are at ease. Does it sound better to race tense or relaxed?
I discovered how detrimental to race performance tension can be a few years ago. After months of picture-perfect training I lined up for my third marathon. Even though I knew I was reeeeeeeeeally nervous for the two weeks leading up to the race I did nothing about it and stood there waiting for the gun to go off more or less petrified. I felt stiff and out of control from go. Nevertheless, I made it close to on-pace through 17 miles. Mile 18 had a hill and my split was 20 seconds slower than my goal pace and I started beating myself up about it and panicking. By mile 19 I had a stitch so bad I could hardly breathe. I had to walk much of the last 7 miles as I cursed and cried. I still ran a big p.r. If I would have gone with the flow and been relaxed who knows what I could have run that day.
You see, what happens when we are too tense is that the rational parts of our brains more or less shut off and our limbic system takes over. The limbic system is the part of the brain that handles primitive survival instincts. It’s what handles that old fight or flight state of being. When the limbic system is overstimulated by stress we forget our mantras, are unable to stop the negative thoughts flooding our brains and are unable to relax no matter how loudly we yell at ourselves to do so. We end up in a spiral of tension, negative thoughts and well, less than ideal performances.
It’s easy to see now how I ended up freaking out over a slow split and then freaked out over freaking out and then ended up with a stitch that left me totally freaking out some more. Classic case of limbic system overdrive. After some time mulling that third marathon performance and other disappointing performances over I’ve come to realize that a real weak point for me is my mind. Up until this past year I spent zero time training my brain and unless I just happened to have a good mental moment, my mind got in the way of my best performances almost every time. Of course, some of us are blessed with the natural ability to relax under pressure. Not me!
But there is hope for me and others like me. We can teach ourselves to achieve relaxation even in inherently stressful situations like key races. To get there, we must first learn how to relax on command. We must start learning to relax outside of our time running. Below is a key relaxation exercise. This exercise will be the base for many other mental training exercises and I will point you back here often.
BASIC RELAXATION EXERCISE
Perform this exercise during a quiet time at home, but not when you’re half asleep.
- Sit in a comfy chair in a quiet room.
- Fold your hands and gently rest them on your lap.
- Now inhale very deeply using your diaphragm and hold it for 3 seconds.
- Exhale completely.
- Wait 2 seconds and inhale again.
Repeat this breathing exercise 10 times and notice how relaxed and clear headed you feel. If you are particularly stressed out it may take more than 10 repetitions to slow your mind and achieve a fully relaxed state. Experiment with it and see what works best for you. Relax!
Every other Tuesday Salty Running will feature a post on training basics. Below are the basic training concepts that will be discussed in these posts with a definition of each. We will add to this glossary as new topics arise, so check back if you’re unsure what something means.
Intervals: Intervals are multiple stretches of running broken up with rest or easier running. Intervals are usually measured by distance. An example of an interval workout is 8 x 400 meters fast with 200 meter jogged rest in between.
Fartlek: (pronounced fart-lik) A fartlek is any run in which the pace varies throughout the run. Many runners define a fartlek as an interval workout in which the intervals are measured in time instead of distance. So an example of this would be 8 x 2:00 (two minutes) hard with 1:00 (one minute) jogged rest. However, a fartlek does not have to be measured at all–just a switch in tempo throughout a run.
Strides: Strides are short intervals (typically 20-30 seconds or about 80-150 meters) of controlled hard running with a longer break in-between. Strides are meant to prime them for harder workouts later in a training cycle. They may also be included in a training plan to loosen legs after a harder session the day before. They are also commonly used as part of a warm-up before a race or a hard run.
Tempo: Everyone seems to have their own definition of tempo run, but it almost always means a longer controlled continuous stretch of faster than easy running. Many training plans seem to favor half-marathon pace as tempo pace, but it can be anywhere from 10k-marathon pace. A typical tempo workout might be something like 20 minutes at current half-marathon pace within an hour run.
Progression Run: A progression run is easy to understand: it starts slow and ends fast, usually getting faster and faster as the run goes on. A sample progression run would be starting at easy pace and dropping the pace ten seconds a mile for 8 miles.
Long Run: A long run is, well, a long run! The actual length of a long run will depend on what you’re training for. For a veteran marathoner, a long run might be anything over 16. For a novice 5k runner, a long might be anything over 8. Long runs might sound pretty boring, but there is a lot of potential for excitement within a long run! They don’t have to be run at one pace and they can contain elements of the other types of training runs within them.
Easy Run: These are the bread and butter of most training weeks. These are the runs when you just go and run a nice conversational pace and finish feeling fresh (unless you’re in the throes of marathon training in August, but I digress).
Recovery Run: Recovery runs are usually pretty short and run, if not shuffled at a very easy pace.
Mental training is a critical part of running your best and is an oft overlooked aspect of training. Today’s post I will highlight the basics of mental training.
The four main skills of mental training are:
Relaxation: This sounds obvious, but for many of us, running while relaxed is a hard skill to come by and will take lots of practice. There will be many posts outlining the benefits of relaxation and exercises to do to become a zen master on the run.
Visualization: This is the hardest to master of the mental skills I’ve outlined, but it’s a critical one. We must dream it to achieve it! We will post tutorials and exercises so by race day you’ll have already pictured yourself running every step to achieving your goal.
Affirmation: With our posts on affirmation we will teach you to become your own best cheerleader. Don’t fear being silly and Stuart-Smalley-esque, affirming your greatness is a must to achieving your potential.
Concentration: Running your best takes focus and that’s not always easy when there’s smack-talking or guys dressed in cow costumes passing you up Heartbreak Hill (true story!) Our posts on concentration will help you have the laser-like focus you need to run your best.
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