Distance Running Is 90% Mental, The Rest Is In Your Head.

“Mental toughness is the capacity to reliably perform at your best regardless of external conditions, distractions, or internal emotions.”- Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter

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I love this definition. Mental toughness is key for racing any distance from 5km to 160km. A 5 km requires the ability to redline for a significant amount of time. Alex Hutckison, author of Endure, describes it like holding your finger over a flame. It takes focus and resilience to stay there, right where it hurts. In the long races, it’s battling the bodies desire to quit when you’ve got hours behind you and hours ahead of you. Whether you’re trying to hit a new distance or a new speed, being mentally tough can be the difference between reaching your goal or not. 
 
Here are my 5 best tips for improving mental toughness in training and racing. 
 

  1. Learn about the Central Governor Theory, and then beat it

This theory by Tim Naokes is based on the idea that the mind will try and shut your body down before it does damage to itself, so we feel fatigue. We know it as the edge of our comfort zone. It’s usually the time we stop and walk, but in reality, we can push far past that long before we hurt ourselves. 
 
North Americans generally work to make life as cozy as we can. The second we feel discomfort, we change it. A small chill we put on a sweater, a little bit hungry, there is food on any corner. Rarely are we in a situation where we are at our limit. When translated into running, this means that when we get to the point where it starts to hurt we tend to want to slow down or stop to walk immediately. We want to get comfortable again. 
 
Being mentally tough means recognizing this, and deciding you don’t have to listen. This takes practice. You have to get to a place in training where you really hurt. When you get there, try thinking about it objectively. It’s just pain, it’s just fatigue, it’s just in your head. Maybe you don’t need to stop yet, you can push past the discomfort. 
 
You can practice playing with your limits in the sauna and cold showers. Wait until that moment when you really want to jump out of the freezing water and just hold on. Even for 5 seconds. Push past that boundary, and eventually you’ll expand your comfort zone. 

2.   Visualize

Visualization is a common performance tool in athletics. We are told to mentally see ourselves running well, feeling strong, and having the race of our lives. The key, however, is to also practice the worst parts. See yourself at mile 20 of a marathon, when the pain really starts to set in and you know you have a reasonable distance left. Think about suffering up a hill, and see yourself pushing past that and keeping the pace. Use this visualization to teach yourself that no matter what you face, you keep on going—even when the going gets tough. Make it a habit. 

3.   Make the race smaller 

 
Being tough also means being smart. There are ways to hack your thoughts so you can better control your emotions. Making the race smaller is key. If I toed the line of a 50mile and thought about the full day ahead of me, it would be impossible not to feel overwhelmed. The race has to be broken down. One aid station to the next. Sometimes just the next tree. Whatever your brain can handle, run that race.  

4.   Positive thoughts and self- talk  

 
When I was preparing for my longest run to date (100miles), the most common question I got was, “what are the chances you don’t make it”?
 
I never knew how to answer. That thought had never crossed my mind. Not once. 
 
I knew I was physically capable and the rest would be mental. It’s an old cliché but it’s bang on, “whether you think you can or you can't, you’re right.”
 
Don’t just think that you can, know that you can. 
 
Once the race starts, keep up the positivity. Speak to yourself positively. It’s that simple. 

5.   Smile 

 
It sounds a little ridiculous, I know, but it works. Pain, fatigue, the desire to stop, these are all due to the mind’s perception of what you are feeling. If you force yourself to smile, your mind suddenly thinks you’re having FUN, and then your perception of how hard you’re working lessens. Once you trick your mind, you’ll feel the physical benefits and it will actually be easier to run. Less pain and easier strides equal faster runners. 
 
Master your mind and you’ll your most outlandish goals become reachable. The best part is that having an unstoppable mindset translates into your entire life.

Define Your Why: My Story

I remember the first time I signed up for a race that scared me to the core. I was sitting on a ferry with a knot in my stomach that had been there since the day I left my fiancé, just two months before our wedding.

On this day I had an overwhelming feeling that I needed a challenge. I needed something to work towards and focus on.

I needed to feel like I was strong, and that I could get through anything I put my mind to. 
I opened my computer to get some work done and randomly saw an ad for an Ironman triathlon. I signed up on the spot. I didn’t know what the distances were, how triathlon worked, or if I could still swim. I was immediately excited. Then I thought I’d throw up.

This would mark the beginning of an 8 month journey that would forever change my perspective on fitness, mindset, and accomplishment. 

Calling off my wedding was the single hardest thing I had done to date. There is the obvious heart break that goes along with the break up, but it’s amplified by the loss of what could have been. Deciding to forgo your big day in hopes of finding something better is both sad and scary. What if this is the person I am supposed to marry and I just have cold feet? I was so sure at one point, am I wrong again?

I had hoped that once I made the decision things would start to get easier. Ultimatley I decided that when I got married it would be with someone I had no doubts with. I made the choice, I called it off, but the pain didn’t stop as abruptly as I’d hoped.

The problem with having planned a wedding is you can’t just forget about the person. You have to spend time explaining the change to your guests. You have to call the caterers, the DJ, the venue. Worst of all, you have to try and get some money back for your cancelled honeymoon. As much as you want to just move on, logistically you can’t start the process yet.

I knew I needed something else to focus my energy on. The allure of the Ironman was a perfect.

The first thing I did was get a coach. I knew I was in over my head and needed guidance. He set me up with a plan and I began my journey to become an Ironman. 

Each day I had a workout to focus on. In the evenings I spent time researching outfits, race strategies, bike gear, running gear, swim technique, the list goes on.

Having a race that was so daunting rejuvenated me. Each day I was able to prove to myself that I had courage, strength, and the ability to do whatever I put my mind to. It was a constant reminder that life has unlimited gifts to offer. 

After 8 months of training I was ready for the race. My goal was 13 hours, and I crossed the finish line in 12 hours and 59 minutes. It was absolutely one of the most magical, tough, and life changing days of my life. 

Nearly four years later I’m still reaping the benefits. I no longer live in fear of change or unworthiness. I feel ready for whatever the world might throw in my direction. I know I’m strong, and I’ll never forget that because I proved it to myself.

Motivation Continued

Training, specifically the occasional really tough session, strengthens your mindset in a way that transfers to your entire life. In those difficult physical moments you can train your brain to react with a certain mental toughness that can not only get you through races, competitions, and training, but also through work, relationships and any curve ball life throws at you. You can train your brain and create better habits. 

What is mental toughness?  Let’s break it down. 

Quitting in the middle of a work out or eating foods we know make us sick are not physical limitations, they are situations in which we listened to the little voice in our head that said:
"I can’t”
“I'm not good enough”
"I'm tired"
Mental Toughness is having the ability to work through these moments and push your limitations instead of listening to this voice. It's the ability to stay motivated to make healthy choices day to day. It  means having positivity and not giving up when something goes wrong. 

How do we change it?
It’s pretty simple actually, we just teach that little voice to be on our side. 

Step One: Bringing awareness to your everyday self talk

Ever hear yourself saying things like "I'll just eat the cookie, I already blew it anyways! God, I look awful in this shirt". Would you ever talk to your best friend like that? I hope not! So why do we think it's okay  to speak ourselves that way? Start by noticing your inner voice when it tries to bring you down. Simply acknowledge the feeling and keep going. You don’t have to act on any of those thoughts, or believe them for that matter. Instead of immediately reaching for the chips, think, "interesting, my brain wants me to eat those chips, but in reality I want to feel good, so I don't them". You'll be surprised at how calling out your cravings and thoughts actually starts to change  your mindset. Every time you stop and don't act on the thought, you are breaking that habit and rewiring your brain to make better decisions. 

Step Two: The 3rd Person

3rd person self talk is a tool for in the heat of the moment when you start to struggle. 

For many years I thought my self talk meant I was crazy. Since I can remember I’ve referred to myself as ‘Hil’ any time I was doing any difficult like sprinting up a trail, “common Hil, you can do this”  or “just get through the next 30 seconds, you can do anything for 30 seconds”.
 
The main thing I noticed is I am 100% more positive when I’m thinking like this.
As it turns out, according to Psychology Today the top performers in business and athletics all consistently refer to themselves in the 3rd person. The science behind it? “Essentially, we think referring to yourself in the third person leads people to think about themselves more similar to how they think about others, and you can see evidence for this in the brain. That helps people gain a tiny bit of psychological distance from their experiences, which can often be useful for regulating emotions.” -  Jason Moser, http://msutoday.msu.edu

Next time you feel like quitting, give it a try! Maybe even practice it when you're face to face with those chips. Nobody will hear you so why not right? 

With these two tools you can train your brain to be a positive influence, break through your limits, and stay motivated