I love to race. I'm sure most of you that know me understand that considering I've been doing it for most of my teenager years, straight through the college years and now even in my adult life. With that said, racing brings up the element of putting yourself out there and that part requires a certain mental toolbox that is developed over time. Over the years you learn to talk to yourself in different ways depending on what you need. Some days you need a good kick in the pants because your psyche is being a baby and is whining and complaining like a school kid left out on the playground. Other times you know you need to counter each negative mental thought with a positive, supportive statement in order to turn things around. These tactics aren't necessarily ones that we are born with, they are just like any muscle. They must be exercised regularly in order to achieve the desired outcome.
Trust me when I say I have failed MISERABLE at this certain times and ended up by the side of the road cursing or losing in a 100 meter sprint to the finish due to letting my mind run wild, untamed and not reinforcing the right mantras. I'm convinced there is no other way to learn except for to get out there time after time and try it for yourself.
Two weeks ago I had a 5 miler on the schedule at the end of a rest week / testing week. For those of you who aren't knee deep in all of this sports stuff, my schedule (and the schedule I work with for most of my athletes) is a three week build, one week rest week with testing included. I had just come off a pretty significant sickness and I was still hacking up a lung in most of my workouts that week. None the less, there was testing on my schedule in all three sports, culminating in a 5 miler on Sunday.
On Wednesday, I hit the pool. I thought I might have some help from my friend Lauren, who is a former college swimmer (and therefore always pushes me), but she was sick too so I was solo. As I stood there in the pool after my warm up, my mind kept coming up with excuses about why it would be ok if this 200 / 1000 yrd test wasn't as fast as my last one. I knew it was just me and my hardest discipline and I didn't want to feel that disappointment that comes when you don't do at least as well as your last test. At some point my brain even tried to reason with the idea of using my pull buoy for part of the test. Somehow giving myself a little "break" seeing as I'd been hacking and coughing during my swims the last few days.
Then I did it. I said no. I said no to the negative thoughts. I said no to the pull buoy. I said no to all of it. There was only one way this test was going to mean anything, good or not so good. I had to do it honestly, all out and see where the chips fell. I would be doing my coach a disservice and myself a disservice if I took the easy route in any way. There was NOTHING to be afraid of here. So, I put my head down, took a deep breath and plunged in that water getting right down to business. In the end, I was 2 seconds faster per 100 than the last time I did the test. Every time I do something like that, and it goes well, I learn my lesson about doubting, fears and just how hard it can be to control your mind but that you have to PRACTICE doing it or you will never learn how.
As the week went on, I did my bike test and it hurt like a motha, but I did it none the less and didn't come up too short of the last test. Finally, it was time for the 5-miler. With my legs still a little fried from the bike, I got up on race morning optimistic. I knew I'd have Beth there to help me push the pace and being with her just makes it feel like good old times! She's a great one to have around, positive and awesome.
Just out of the house I almost biffed it due to a sheet of ice on the sidewalk. This was not good news!! I wanted to run hard!! If there was no hard running, there was no point to doing this!! As I arrived, the thoughts started to creep in again. "Was I really ready to race this hard? Was my body ready? What if I couldn't beat my time from last year or what if I didn't feel good? What if I hurt myself since the roads seemed to be not so great?? Should I just go a bit easier?? Protect myself and my two non-refundable tickets to Melbourne??"
I warmed up and hit the starting line determined to turn those thoughts around and do what I had always done - raced hard. No more thinking. I came here to do a job. It was time to do it.
Start line of the Frigid 5k (about 38, but icy)
This race is deceptive because it has some nice rolling hills in the beginning. Then you go down a HUGE hill which just wrecks your quads. Finally you head up a medium sized hill, come back down and turn up the last mother of a hill which is over half a mile long to the finish. No one likes this hill, but the hill doesn't care. It is what it is. When the gun went off, I went out HARD, like really hard. So hard that I could actually feel the lactic acid starting to pool in my legs after the first four minutes. Watching where the men would run was helping me pick better footing and I seemed to be able to avoid the icy areas. Only a couple times did my foot seem to slip when I came down on the pavement. I ended up focusing on a guy with a yellow tank top and marked him as my person. I would try to stay with him no matter what. When I finally came down the big hill I glanced up to see Beth was less than one minute behind me, which was awesome for both of us. I knew it would be a good race and she would keep my head in the game. "KEEP PUSHING" I told myself over and over. Finally, my yellow shirted mark began to slow going into the last big climb and I knew I couldn't give an inch. Shutt was coming hard and fast and it was good motivation to keep the gas on. This was going to hurt and hurt BAD, but there was no sense crying about it. With every step I dug in and grunted my way up the never ending hill.
At this moment I'm pretty sure I'm thinking "This thing is insane and I hate it! Where is that FINISH LINE!?"
I crossed in 30:54!! I was really happy (as well as sucking in air like it was my last breath). Those running races hurt so so bad!!
My tips for some mental tactics are as follows:
- Look at your training week in advance, but once you see and understand the workouts, forget them until the day you need to do them. There's no reason to sit there and dread and toil over them. TRUST YOURSELF. Know that when the time comes you WILL do your best and make what needs to happen, HAPPEN. That's part of being a good athlete. Stressing doesn't do anyone, any good. So, check them out and let it go.
- Get your mantras ready in advance. Know what you are going to stay to yourself that morning if you have something tough on the schedule. Pick something and repeat it over and over. A few of my good ones this year have been "Fight for it", "Make it hurt", "Don't think, just do", "Trust yourself". If the negative thoughts try to get their 2 cents in, then counter them with what a great opportunity this is to train your mind and work on an area of weakness. Remember, it is a gift and opportunity to get to do something hard like this. It's our choice.
- Sometimes I have something small that I change or do half way through a hard set or on my last interval. For example, if I have 12 x 1 min all out on the bike, then at 6 to go I turn my hat backward. I know it sounds a little strange, but to me that is my signal that it's time to get down to business and take it to a new level. It's where the grit and drive come out and get out the laser sharp focus. Other times on a track set I force myself to keep my shirt on until half way through and then I take it off and run in my sports bra (which I prefer) to again, signal that it's time to work. As little as these moves seem, I've done them for years and they can be a game changer for me. So, if you ever see me turn my hat backward, watch out, the fangs are coming out!
- Have a goal or number to shoot for during your swim, bike, or run, but if you aren't hitting it, don't just bag the whole deal, salvage as much as you can. Some days we are just going to be more tired than others. If I do a workout I did on my first week of the build sometimes I can't get back to those same watts on the third week, but that's just because of accumulated fatigue. Don't get down and negative during the set, keep pushing, do your best and realize that sometimes it's not just about the numbers it's about the LEVEL of effort being put forth. You're still getting PLENTY of good work in!! That's the whole point to keep going when you are tired. Stay positive and stay with whatever you are working on that day.
- Let it go. After the workout is recorded, I forget about it. Really! I don't go around dwelling on it, I just bank it for use later if I need to call on the hard parts about it or remember how I got through it in a tough place during another workout. I don't over analyze, I don't toil over it. I just move on. Next thing!!
I hope those tricks help you as you move forward this year and continue to master your mental game! I know you all have the potential to apply these to whatever you are working on so go forth and prosper!!