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Training with Mac: The Mental Aspect to Training

Bell Wealth ManagementA huge part of running is how to make yourself go when you just don’t feel like it. In this regard, you could say that half of our sport is mental. In other words the mind is what makes you get up and go and helps you run your run best when you need it. To begin with, just donning the shoes and stepping out the door is a huge part of getting in the run for the day. Then, take a few steps down the road and you mentally are good to go. A body in motion tends to stay in motion. Don’t stress about a pace or certain distance in the beginning, as your body will warm up and ease into the workout just fine.

I know on some days this is easier said than done. You are tired from work, you didn’t get any sleep, your legs are heavy, it’s too hot and humid, it’s too cold and rainy, etc., etc. That’s why it helps to put running in your routine. For certain days of the week at certain times you have an appointment to run, and barring unforeseen circumstances you will make that appointment. In fact, once it is in your routine, you probably will feel like something is amiss if you don’t do the run. It is amazing how the mind can control the body this way.

Everyone is different about running with people. Some like the solitude of a run, as it is a time you get to enjoy by yourself away from people. Yet, sometimes running with a group or a friend is a way to do a workout when you might not otherwise do it. Having a scheduled meeting time and place where others are counting on you being there could be the impetus you need to get in the run. Again, the main thing is to get the run started, as once you are into it you remember why you like doing this sport in the first place.

Sports psychologists talk about getting in the zone where your performance seems effortless. For runners we sometimes refer to it as hitting a groove. Your legs seem to flow without even trying. How to get to this point is the key, as we’d all like to be there every day and every race. It takes confidence to hit the groove, and you get confidence from training to a high level of fitness and practicing your pace dozens of times. But then, just about everything else must fall into place as well: good nutrition and proper use of energy supplements, plenty of rest and controlling stress in your life, good weather conditions, etc.

When you hit the groove, it’s wonderful. It’s as though you could do no wrong. You have picked the proper pace, and you are holding it without too much trouble. You are tremendously focused on the moment, and you just need to remind yourself to hold pace without falling into the trap of going faster. It’s an almost outer body experience when you are really on, so simply let it happen and don’t screw it up. The problem for runners is that these moments are few and far between, unfortunately, as most of the time we hit a bad patch at some point in the run and have to deal with it.

Thus, another aspect to the mental part of training speaks to how you continue at pace when you tire during a workout or race, when you hit the bad patch. It’s another version of when the going gets tough, the tough get going. A lot of people refer to it as the left brain vs. right brain mentality. The left brain is analyzing the situation and telling you this doesn’t make sense, you should quit. On the other hand, the right brain is being creative, saying let’s find a way to work through this and keep going. At some point the left brain becomes the more attractive option. So, how do you respond?

One way to respond is to anticipate the fatigue or tough patch, and say to yourself this is the way it is supposed to be. You are supposed to get tired at some point in the run. That way you don’t stress over it when it happens. We must have the positive attitude to count on a second wind, and sometimes a third and fourth wind to get through the run. Also, in the whole scheme of things, the hard part of the run is usually only a small part of the entire run, so you know the challenge will only be for a relatively short while. There are some things you can do to meet this challenge, which involves overcoming anything from a feeling of discomfort up to a degree of pain.

I like to get my mind off the pain. Think of something else. I will start counting steps to not only work on my turnover but also put my mind to work. It’s funny how sometimes when you think about something else, the pain momentarily goes away. You can tell yourself to keep going for a minute, then take a break, or keep going to the next corner and take a break. When you get there, renegotiate with yourself and go to the next corner.

Terry Fox, the famous athlete who ran a marathon a day fundraising for cancer research, nearly made it across Canada by dividing into small segments his painful journey on a prosthetic leg. He would literally focus on a landmark on the horizon and run to it. When he got there, he would pick out his next landmark, whether it be a gas station or light pole or whatever, and run to it. So forth and so on until he wasn’t running a marathon a day in his mind, just going to the next landmark. He had a tremendous amount of pain to work through, as this was in the 80’s prior to any advancement in prosthetic devices. He found a way to make it where the goal wasn’t mentally overwhelming.

Similarly, you can turn a longer race into several shorter races. At Boston you run through seven towns to the finish line. One year there was a billboard in one of the towns that said “Welcome to Natick” and had a big checkmark by the word Natick. Check it off in your mind and move on to the next goal, the town of Wellesley. By doing this, the entire event is not as daunting, and you reach the goals quicker which keeps you fresh mentally.

You can use others around you during the run to help you, even though they don’t know you are using them. Think about hanging with the person next to you, attached at the hips, or use someone up ahead to pull you along like you are attached to them by a big rubber band. You can even use fear in a good way by pushing yourself in fear of someone catching you from behind. Anything for a momentary shot of adrenaline, so picture the dog you see on the course chasing you.

Suffice it to say there are a lot of games you can play in your mind to help you hold pace, including believing the fans when they yell at you that you are looking great when you are in the midst of what seems to be a life and death struggle. Try to make the most of the adverse circumstances. The headwind in your face is really oxygen being forced down your lungs. The heat and humidity is affecting everyone, not just me, as we are all one heroic band of soldiers working together. The cold and rain are necessary, as they will keep you from overheating. On the hills, what goes up must come down. And, in the worst case, as Olympian Bob Kennedy said about a cross-country race on a 19 degree day in icy conditions, embrace the conditions like you were a kid and have fun with it.

Sometimes the mental games work, but sometimes they don’t. Some days it simply just is not your day. Accept it for what it is, try to learn from it and move onto thinking about the next workout or race and doing better there. Beating yourself up over a bad day isn’t going to help. Even the pros don’t have stellar performances every time they go out.

On the flip side, when you do have a good run, celebrate it. Too many times I see runners upset that they didn’t do better when, in fact, they raced well, maybe even to the point of running a personal best. Here, you can reflect upon what you did right, as far as correctly setting the early pace but also such things as pre-race nutrition and the taper strategy that got you to the good day. That way you can try to replicate the good performance in the future. Enjoy the positive moments, whether it’s in a hard workout, race, or everyday run when things just felt unusually easy to you. These good moments in running make all the bad ones worthwhile.

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About Mac Allen

Mac Allen coaches Team Mac, www.teammac.co, for racing in distances from 800 meters to the ultra marathon. A top-flight masters competitor himself, Mac has over 15 years of coaching experience.