Mental Games — Dealing with Mental Toughness in a Weakened State

running-advice-bugMy friend Coach Dean Hebert wrote a piece yesterday that resonated with me on a couple of levels. Today I am going to write the first of two pieces on topics related to it. In his piece “Breaking Comfort Zones“, Coach Dean is looking at the concept of breaking out of your comfort zones through risk taking and practice.

Breaking out of our comfort zones in training requires what we call “mental toughness”. Toughness in this sense means being able to bear some amount of physical or mental pain in order to accomplish something. Much of the mental pain may be imagined, as Dean points out, being fear-based responses to what we don’t know. We think that “this is going to hurt” but by the middle of the workout we are starting to understand that we control how hard we push, so the amount of physical pain is really in our own hands.

It is necessary to break out of our comfort zones in order to get better and faster. We only increase our performance by pushing harder or longer than we think we can. Pushing past our comfort zone is what needs to happen to get better.

As Dean writes about breaking comfort zones “…the experience is a fearful one for most. It is uncomfortable (mentally and physically) for sure. There is fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of experiencing pain/discomfort, fear of embarrassment, fear of peer reactions, and though less uncommon fear of success.”

But there is a bar that we must pass in order to break through these comfort zones, even if it is one that is subtle or maybe even subconscious. We must have the strength to submit ourselves to those fears or to that real mental and physical pain that we will encounter in pushing out of our comfort zone. At the most basic level, if we are not capable of “going there” then that’s not a place we can go.
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Mental Games — No Risk, No Reward

running-advice-bugThere have been a number of runners over the course of my career that I have wanted to call cowards. I’ve only actually done it once and it didn’t have the result that I’d hoped. It ended up with the runner crying hysterical tears and that isn’t a good thing. But there are times that I hear runners saying, “I can’t do that coach” or “I don’t know if I can” that I want to get in their faces and tell them that they are just being a wus. “Get in the game or go the fuck home,” as my dad used to tell me.

Why do we want to push people? Because in training, as in life, you will only get to new places by taking risks. There is an expression that I hate, which I know that you’ve heard: “no pain, no gain.” There is a bit of truth in that phrase. Trying new things is indeed painful. But the important phrase to unpack here is “no risk, no reward.”

Typically when I have a runner that is getting close to the coward zone, they are thinking about something that a) I know they can do and 2) they think that they can’t. It’s in those moments that we want to explain that unless we take chances, we don’t know how far we can go. We will never know the future. We don’t know what things are going to feel like until we do them. But unless we try, then we will never know. We are, in fact, safe when we don’t take risks. Because we can hide behind the safety of our self-imposed walls. Nothing can hurt you when you hunker down behind those walls. But you won’t get anywhere either.

The ugly side of risk is two-fold. First, there is the fear of the future that is inherent in risk. We don’t KNOW what is going to happen. The fear is that we anticipate the negative, the bad, or the harm that may come to us. What will it feel like when you fail? It will feel icky. But what if you succeed? The risk is in taking the chance that we will succeed or fail. We can’t know which one will happen ahead of time, so that’s where the fear comes in. As someone very important to me once wrote on a piece of paper that is now stuck to my computer, we can write F.E.A.R as an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real.
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Mental Games — Dealing With the Middle Miles

running-advice-bugThe middle miles are always the toughest. You’ll be working through a race or workout and get to the half-way point and feel a real sense of relief. And then a few minutes later you start to have this sinking feeling of despair, “I’m only half-way done!” I’ve personally always hated this feeling and I know that whether you’re an Ironman, marathon runner or even training for shorter races, it has happened to you too. Don’t worry, I can help you fix this one.

Middle MilesThe Middle Miles syndrome crops up primarily for the the same reasons that we’ve been talking all year here on the blog. Our thoughts shape our feelings. Our reactions to the physical stimuli around us are shaped by those feelings. So whether you are normally a “glass-is-half-full” type or a not, if you’re feeling dread around those middle miles you’ve moved your thoughts into the “glass-is-half-empty” zone. Once we begin to think about how far we have left to go, then everything we experience, from a little pain or a rain-shower, starts to make us feel bad.

Remember that we always craft our experience and our journey through our thought processes, so when you thought-space moves to “I have so far to go” then the natural reaction to difficulties is “I can’t go on” or “this is hard.” We need to move our thoughts back into a positive space and think “these miles are no longer than the ones I have done,” or “it’s just a little rain,” or “I’ll work through this pain in legs and feel better in a while.” We control our thoughts and thus we control the feelings that we experience.

But there are two other ways that can impact the way the Middle Miles feel in addition to moving our thoughts into a more positive space. The other two are 1) pacing and 2) nutrition. If you take all three of these items together, they form a three sided solution to that sinking feeling in that tough middle portion of the race.
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Training — Why do the Tough Get Going?

running-advice-bugWe’ve all heard the expression, “when the going get tough, the Tough get going.” I was wondering yesterday what it is that makes actually makes the tough “get going”? In other words, when the pressure and hurt is on, what makes certain people shrink away and others rise up to the challenge? I think that the answer is pretty simply put that they want something and have somewhere to go.

I’m reflecting on this because one of my athletes has really been struggling. She’s sent me messages that ask things like “why is this so hard” and “why isn’t this getting any easier?” In fact, this is one of the key themes of questions to us running coaches. And we understand that we’re dishing out hard work to people, so we aren’t surprised by the questions.

There are two things that I’d like you to think about today. The first is the value of the hard work itself and the second has to do with goals and desires. Let’s look at each in turn.

First, some portion of your running workouts are going to be hard, with hard here meaning that they push you to your limits and perhaps beyond them. One expression that you may have heard is that if your workouts aren’t hard then perhaps you aren’t getting much out of them. I think there is nugget of truth in that street wisdom. By pushing the body to our its limits and beyond, we force the body to activate our recovery and compensation pathways, leading us to greater heights and achievements for future performances. By pushing a little further, we are able to push even further the next time.
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