Train Your Brain, Win Your Race
The mind needs as much training as your body does
By Alix J. Shutello
When I went to the gym tonight I knew I’d run 8 miles. Why did I know this? Because I was 100 percent committed. Why was I 100 percent committed? Because that is what training for a race is all about. It’s about committment and that committment is met by training both physically and mentally for the race you are about to run.
Myfirst race of the season is a 10-miler that I am running with one of my best friends. What’s scary is that if I don’t get my head in the right spot I will hyper focus on how she’s running instead of how I am running – that alone can ruin a runner’s pace and hence, their race.
So why is the mental part of running so challenging? Let’s face it – you are out there, often alone, and then some thought jumps into your head. It can be anything, like how you forgot to feed the cat to how you forgot to call back your top client. The next thing you know you’ve stopped running because you are so preoccupied with what just happened or didn’t happen. You didn’t finish your run and now you feel even worse.
I was almost side-tracked by a somewhat comical incident that occurred while I was training tonight but the consequences could have been dire for I could have stopped running. At a point where I need to condition my body to run 8 miles until I move up in two weeks to 9 miles, my runs need to be focused on getting through almost an hour and twenty minutes. That in and of itself can be daunting if you don’t mentally prepare.
Mental Preparation: How To Do It.
For any run really it’s all about attitude. Sure you can put on your running clothes and run out the door but I always run with a plan. For every run I do I have a goal and how I achieve that goal is largely dependent on how I feel mentally and physcially. If I am tired I work on keeping a consistent pace. If I feel good I’ll push the pace only to the point of mild discomfort. It’s too easy to go overboard and over train. Running is about control and that control comes from mental training.
Phraseology and visualization work best for most runners. For example, when I was pregnant and preparing to give birth naturally my doula instructed me to do visualization exercises. I actually visualized myself giving birth (and boy was I successful at giving birth naturally; I didn’t even make it to the hospital). If you watch the olympics, skiers were often shown doing their visualization exercises before taking to the slopes. While it looked wierd to watch them I had complete respect for what they were doing. Visualization is crucial for mental preparation. The idea is to visualize your run and preferably your race.
Visualization, however, must be coupled with physical preparation. No amount of visualization will help you through a 10 mile run if you’ve only trained to five miles. Your body only knows 5 miles. How can you visualize and internalize how you will feel as you run 10 miles if you’ve never run that far?
Visualization and training go hand-in-hand. It’s important to note that your training runs, while they help you become more fit, they also enable your visualization techniques. If you know you are going to embark on a long distance run that is 7 miles visualize how completing 7 miles will be like. You learn what it is like by doing it several times before upping your distance to 8 miles. The experience to visualize the 8 mile distance comes from repetitive runs of that same distance as. So this week was my second week running 8 miles. Today, I would visualize running 8 miles.
Race Preparation is Strengthened By Testing Things on Your Training Runs
So for today’s exercise I was going to try to eat two Gus during my training runs. The first I would eat at 3 miles; the second at 6 because I wanted to bank that experience mentally and physically. I got on the treadmill with two plans – my training plan, and my backup plan. The back up plan would be used if I had trouble digesting one of the Gus or if I was feeling pain during my run. While these plans were not thought up completely, if my stomach freaked out from one of the Gus (hi-octane mocha) or if my left hamstring or right knee gave me trouble, my back up plan was simple. Get off the treadmill.
So I embarked on my real training plan – increase running speed by 10 seconds or so per mile every two miles. Finish 6 miles in 58 minutes; finish miles 6-8 at 9:30 pace. I plugged in my Iphone, set up my water and two Gus and off I went. I felt good at mile one so I upped my 10 minute pace to 9:50. At mile two I felt good so I upped my pace from 9:50 to 9:40 where I told myself to hold for the next 2 to 4 miles.
At mile 3 I opened my supersonic blaster mocha Gu and popped it down in two gulps and waited. I pretended that I had just taken some sort of special drug and soon I could feel my body respond to the sugar and caffeine. So far so good; no urge to run to the bathroom or any feeling relating to spazing out from the sugar rush. I had not prepared however, for the crash…..
At mile 4.5 I felt it – the crash. Sugar high went up, body crashed. As I teased myself by thinking of flashing lights as I said “system failure!” to myself I thought, crap, I am going to bonk. My mind started to wonder to that awful feeling of doubt. Would I make it to the next mile? Mile 5 came and went; I upped my pace to a 9:30 mile and kept going and breezed past mile 6 at a 57:30 – ahead of pace. That increased my resolve until …. well until Chocolate-Gate.
Chocolate-Gate; the Event that Almost Ruined My Run
It was time for the next Gu. Mind you by this time I am sweating profusely in the gym as it’s HOT. I fumbled with the controls to turn the fans to high on my treadmill. I reached down to grab my chocolate gu and feel a wet sensation. My mocha Gu from mile 3 had leaked all over the treadmill dish where my Iphone was housed. I now was sticky and chocolate-laden. I could not get the Gu open and am desperately gnawing on the packaging. As chocolate leaked all over my hands I felt gross and now my pace is being jeapoardized by chocolate of all things. I poured a little Gatorade on my hands to wash of the stickiness which helped but not completely. On top of this my nose is running and I am blowing my nose into my hand and whipping that on my shorts. Oh it was hot baby. My mind was now flailing because the stupid sticky Gu got me off track mentally and doubt started to creep in. At 6.5 miles I upped my pace to a 9:22 mile; hoping the speed would motivate me but all I heard was, STOP. I was getting antsy. My mind was going all over the place and my sticky, snotty hands and shorts were just grossing me out and therefore, my focus waned. I resorted to my secret weapon – the key word, Go. Go I said; just keep running; move, breathe, go.
“Go I said; just keep running; move, breathe, go.”
I kept going; I couldn’t breath as well any more not because I was not running too fast but my heart was being conditioned. When your heart is being conditioned you feel sluggish and like you cannot take in enough air or rather, you feel like you cannot fill your lungs (even though you are). I had to fight my heart and my head for every tick of the clock and every single inch I ran. Finally, with feelings of great satisfaction, I won the war of my head and despite the fact that I was now a sweaty, snotty, chocolatey mess, I finished my distance and warmed down before completely disinfecting the treadmill for the poor bastard who had to run after me on the treadmill.
So as you can see, running any distance can be a challenge but you need to carry your arsenal of tricks. A positive mental attitude coupled with a running plan, key words you can use to motivate you and visualization techniques can really help you get through your toughest challenges.
I’d love to hear your challenging stories!