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.