"Just remember to stay focused and you should be fine" Chuck repeated to himself like a mantra. When he first read this advice in a self-help book, it made sense to him, but as he worked his way through the throngs of runners to the start of a 13.1 mile race, he began to feel uneasy. It dawned on him that he had no clue what it meant to "stay focused."
Chuck ran the first two miles faster than he expected, but his pace slowed midway through the race. Chuck began to question himself, "Should I go faster? Should I ease up and save it for the end?" But as he second guessed himself, his body began to tense, and Chuck’s legs began to feel heavy. "Just stay focused," Chuck told himself, but the questions in Chuck’s head mushroomed and his half marathon experienced worsened with each step. He wondered "What should I focus on? Catching the runner in the blue shirt ahead of me? The length of my stride? My breathing? The beauty of the city streets, or that dull pain in my right calf?"
Chuck was able to finish the race, slower than he had hoped. "The second half was torturous. I just couldn’t get it together." Chuck felt an overwhelming sense of disappointment, and threw up his hands in frustration as he lamented his months of training that he felt had gone to waste. "Physically, I was in excellent condition. I know I should have done better. I was so confused and pissed off with myself. "
Sure, he recounted to me later, as he shared his disappointment with his first half marathon experience, "In theory I get it when people tell me to focus. However, as I waited for the race to get started all that went out the window. My anxiety began to peak as my mind raced trying to figure out - what should I be focusing on?"
Chuck learned the hard way that despite logging more mile than he could remember and hours spent strengthen his legs with squats and lunges, not to mention the endless number of hill repeats, he had neglected to develop the most important muscle of all, his mind.
Despite the discipline and commitment, Chuck demonstrated over months of training, like most athletes he spent little time learning the mental skills that would help him push past the psychological road blocks and barriers he might encounter. For example, at the start of the race Chuck could have used a deep breathing or "belly" breathing technique combined with positive self-talk to reminded himself of his race plan to reduce his anxiety and calm his worries.
As a sport psychologist, marathon coach, and runner I teach athletes how to integrate skills such as deep breathing, positive self talk, goal setting, mental practice, confidence building, and of course Chuck’s concern, focus, into their daily runs and cross training sessions.
Believe it or not developing these mental skills is easier then you might think. I am a firm believer that just as everyone has biceps, triceps and quadriceps, we all have mental muscles; just some of us have developed those mental muscles more than others. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that you are already using many of the same mental skills elite athletes use without even knowing it!
My goal with this blog is to help you uncover your mental skills and share with you some tips and techniques to strengthen your mental skills, just as you would meet with a personal trainer to learn the proper exercises to build up your biceps and triceps.
To help you learn the mental skills of to build your confidence, rebound from setbacks, focus your attention, set goals, and visualize yourself to success let’s start with a "running experiment." I like to use "running experiments" with the athletes I work with as they allow you to test drive mental skills by putting them into action and figuring out what works and does not work for you. Additionally, a "running experiment" will provide you with the vital feedback necessary for you to shape these skills to your specific needs and make them your own, as opposed to repeating a mantra that, like Chuck did, that someone else found useful. For this week’s "running experiment" go for a run!
However, unlike your other runs during this run I want you to make a conscious effort to tune into what your mind is doing while you are running. What do you think about while you are running? Are you thinking about the runners in front of you? Are you enjoying the scenery? Do you talk to yourself, if so what are you saying? Is it positive or negative?
Are you thinking about all the things you have to do at home to work once you finish your run? Are you focused on physical sensations in your legs? Are you visualizing air going in and out of your lungs or your feet turning over?
In essence, the goal of this "running experiment" is to figure what you are thinking about while you are running and what mental skills you are already using during your runs. This is the first step toward harnessing the power of your mind and turning your mind into the best running partner you ever had.