Friday, March 23, 2012

The Mental Game

"There are people who have no bodies, only heads. And many athletes have no heads, only bodies. A champion is a man who has trained his body and his mind, who has learned to conquer pain for his own purposes. A great athlete is at peace with himself and at peace with the world; he has fulfilled himself. He envies nobody."
 Coach Sam Dee The Olympian
In my 16 years as a runner I think that it would be safe to say that I've had my fair share of peaks and valleys with the sport. There were times when I felt unstoppable, courageous enough to push through even the most challenging of races to valiantly dance across the finish. Yet for every moment of glory and flawless execution there have been countless moments of self defeat where the unwelcome acknowledgement that I simply wasn't capable of achieving the goals that my heart had set out to hunt down seemed to overtake me soiling my mind with toxic thoughts.

As runners, as athletes, we spend so much time perfecting the physical aspect of our sport. We put our faith in our muscles, toning and building strength for months before competition to insure that come the big day our body will know what to do. Learning the right movements, picking the right shoe, foam rolling out all the aches and pains, and diligently pressing forward. But even with all of the blood, sweat, and tears that are shed during training, the most important muscles that can make or break competition often becomes an after thought. That crucially vital muscle is the mind.

Years ago I was a mess with my running. I was a champ at putting in hours upon hours of great mileage, threshold workouts, speed sessions, long runs, tempos, strength sessions, you name it I did it. I thought the physical would be enough to over power over the lack of mental edge I had. It wasn't, and sadly many races in my past have brought the tough reality that mental preparations can make or break you. 

In the past year I have been focusing a lot of my efforts on turning the minds eye into the hearts center. Learning to find peace with the work that I've put forth and putting faith in myself has been one of the most challenging lessons for me. It has taken practice, focus, and just as much careful preparation as the physical. While it sounds silly that I have to consciously pause to remind myself that I am strong and powerful, I know that I am not alone in my self-destructive behaviors. Human instinct is to take the easy way out, to fill the mind with excuses and let that little voice in all of our heads begin to take over and push away all of that positivity that our hearts lust after.

In my final few days before Sunday's race when butterflies seem to be frolicking in my stomach, it's time to channel that energy and turn it into one kick a$$ race that will quench my thirst for life making want to continue to press harder and farther. Here are few ways that I've been mentally preparing for my race:

These short phrases have had great power in my life. When the going gets tough during a race and my mind begins to focus on how my legs are burning and my lungs seem to be gasping for air, the distraction of a few silly words that may have little to no significance to others somehow generate this amazing power for my mind. They provide focus and somehow allow my mind to travel to a place where I suddenly feel like Jessie Owens and that I can fly like the wind.

Taking a step back for a few days before any race to replay all of the hard workouts that have been put in to get me to that point is always a humbling experience for me. It's in the gritty sweat of the late morning hours when my breath is heavy and heart is dauntless that the athlete in me is made. While I may not make money from my sport and I may not win the race, I am a strong and courageous athlete that can push beyond the impossible.


Letting the numbers go
Racing tends to be mainly about numbers, we all long for those tasty PR's and quicker splits. But really, they are just numbers that hold little significance in life. Races are merely tests of our fitness level on one day for one moment in time, they don't define the character of the athlete. The time that I cross the line is really irrelevant, all that matters is that I run from the heart and give the race all that I've got.

Surrounding myself with reinforcement of my character is key for me. I like to put post it's with key phrases or mantras around my house so that I can constantly remember that this is my quest that I have set out to conquer.

Running is my hobby. It's something I do for myself to keep my mind and body sound. Smiles from ear to ear should be on my face every step of the way because this is my time to feel free and unchained from the adversity of life. Picturing myself on that race course in the few days beforehand enjoying life and content with myself keeps me at ease. I like to close my eyes imaging myself trotting down the course gallantry, feeling light on my feet and in control of my running destiny. Telling myself how I want to feel come race day makes me feel relaxed and ready to tackle whatever may come my way.

Shamrock Shuffle 8k 2011
"The purpose of a race isn't to see who wins, it's to test the limits of the human heart."
Steve Prefontaine 
While there are few things that we all can control in life, the one thing we can control is our attitude and outlook on situations. I choose to feel prepared and pressure free about my races because they really aren't that serious. I'm not going to find the cure to HIV or end world hunger with one race, but I am going to allow myself the chance to live outside the safety net of my comfort zone in life for a few brief moments of time...and I'm going to enjoy every step of the way.


  1. Love that pic of you from last year's shuffle - you look so happy!

    I think I struggle mentally more than anything else. And that's the hardest part to "train." Good luck Sunday!

  2. This is such a great post. I find the mental training so much more complex than the physical training, and negativity can be very commanding.

    I really appreciate the part about letting the numbers go, too. I'm a slow runner and I am embarrassed when I post my times. Therefore, it's really nice to have the reminder that we are not defined by our numbers.

  3. my mental training is absolutely as important as the physical!! i loved this post, lots of great ideas

  4. This was a perfect post for me to read a week before my race. It is important to be at peace with myself and where I am with my training. I stopped running for a few years because there were so many expectations and pressure attached to running. This made it frustration more than fun. I am getting back into running and this time it is for me and not the times I put up. I am running free.

    Thanks for the reminder about having a mantra for race day!

  5. So very true and you posted it in exactly right time. I am running my first big race of this season next week :) You will ROCK the Sunday race!

  6. Love this post and the reminders! Wouldn't it be cool to shadow an elite for a season and see what kind of mentral training they have? I struggle hugely with the mental aspect. Mantras help me too. And the reminder that it is just one moment and time and does not say anything about our character. Love that!

  7. Love this post, it is true for running and also for LIFE!! Good luck this weekend!

  8. Running is SUCH a mental discipline and I really struggle with that side of things. You sound like you've got some great ways to override any unruly thoughts.

  9. This post is full of greatness. Having a strong mental game is SO key! The competition isn't up against you and the other runners, it's you vs. you.

  10. I LOVE everything about what you wrote here, and I love the quote at the beginning. You are going to kill this race, and you sound prepared. I can't wait to see how you do! rest up:)

  11. I am new here to your blog, an am insprired already! I can't wait to keep up with all you are doing! xoxo!

  12. Your posts are always so well written. :)

    Have fun out there tomorrow and kick some arse!

  13. Well said. Success in sports (and really anything) is sooo mental. I grew up competitive figure skating, and I used to get so nervous before my programs. You would literally train all year for a 4 minute opportunity to prove yourself. Doesn't matter how much you trained and how well you had been doing leading up to the second of doubt...a missed jump...boom, your season is potentially down the drain. It gives me chills just thinking about it. I had to learn to discipline and train my mind, just like I did with my body.

    Good luck tomorrow! You will do great!

  14. Britt-I'm such a huge fail in blog world these days but I've never read a post of yours that I haven't enjoyed or that hasn't provoked thought in me. WISE woman you are and I've learned MUCH from you behind the scenes.

    I am hoping you are out there enjoying your little step out of your safety net this morning. Smiling and riding the edge:)

  15. That last paragraph pretty much sums it all up. The risk of failure is not enough to suppress the desire to triumph and succeed. I hope your race this morning went well. Great post on the mental side of it all. : )