Thursday, September 10, 2009

Let's Get Mental!

You should know that I decided to go all serious today at the last minute. I had some wonderful prose already created comparing the different parts of a marathon to the various Peanuts characters. The rant about Pig Pen was a knee slapping howler. You would have laughed. Trust me.

Instead, last night’s intervals – combined with reading Running and Living’s successful half marathon race report earlier in the day – got me thinking about the mental side of running and racing. There is a mental side to running. You’ll have to trust me, again, on this. I know it didn’t occur to many of you what with all the bright light bulbs to stare at. Pretty, I’m sure.

As runners, we talk about distances, paces, pulled hamstrings, energy chews, cross training exercises, and, occasionally, sphincter related topics. All physical. Hell, I like to get physical as much as the next guy. I spent grades 3rd-5th with a moderate to severe Olivia Newton-John crush after all. (Matching head and wrist bands with a leotard? Yes, please! Let’s get physical…physical...)

But what attention do we pay to the mental? Won’t anyone think of the mental? How do you train your brain for a race? How do you prepare to push through The Wall – a mental barrier – when the time comes? How do you practice pushing yourself harder and farther when the legs are burning and your lungs are ready to explode. When the physical starts to fail, the right mental approach can still keep you moving down the road. At least, that’s what I strongly believe.

Case in point: Last night’s intervals. I’m simultaneously training for a 5k, 10k and 21k (the SOS2 rolls on!) so I’ve kept my 800’s in the 5-7 interval range to work on different distances during other parts of the week. Yesterday was a planned 6x800 @ 2:50 pace. This is usually a challenge for me. Last time out, you’ll remember that I mindf*cked myself into a 2:57 pace right from the beginning. (See? Mental!) This time out, I was determined to not pre-determine my pace. Sure, I was shooting for 2:50 but I generally go with the flow of how I feel that day and not worry if I’m a few seconds off either way. I don’t want to run to an exact number. I judge myself based on perceived effort – for 800’s, RUN UNCOMFORTABLY HARD - and the pace just kinda happens.

This time, I settled in at a 2:52 pace. Pretty close to the goal. I was working hard. My first four intervals were all right at about 2:52 on the nose. The 5th gained a few seconds as some exhaustion kicked in. On my last recovery lap, the Doubt Demons started creeping in. Physically, I was tired. But completely exhausted? No. Not if I’m being honest and understanding the difference between energy depleted EXHAUSTION and just REALLY TIRED. Still, the Doubt Demons were telling me that I couldn’t do this last interval anywhere near 2:52. I’d be lucky if I got under 3:00.

I listened to these little bastards all the way around my recovery 400m, swatted them to the side and started my last 800. But I still heard them shooting poison darts into my brain during the entire first lap. After 400m of the last 800, I stopped. Garmin (p.b.t.n.) read 1:30. I was disappointed for giving in. I stood there for about 10 seconds or so with my hands on my hips breathing deeply. I was tired. Really tired. But exhausted? Nah. I had convinced myself that I was exhausted. I was mindf*cking myself again. I still had more to give.

So I wiped my brow with my one Newton-Johnesque sweatband, flexed for a moment as someone was running by on the track (I usually lose 2-3 seconds per interval flexing and preening for people as I run by anyhow), and took off for the last 400m.

With restored confidence - with the mental side now buttressing the physical – I knocked out the last 400m in 1:22.

This is an area I still need to work on. This is an area I think most runners need to work on. I need to sharpen my understanding of how my mental side works with/sometimes against the physical. What is exhaustion versus just really tired? What is the difference between giving all as opposed to giving most? When you get really tired and the Doubt Demons spring up, can you successfully conquer them and actually increase your pace? When the physical energy fades a bit, you need to count on the mental to push you along.

Last night was a small case study that I’ll be thinking about for awhile. I need to tune in to what is going on between the ears as much as I do with what my Garmin (p.b.t.n.) reads. I know that in 5k’s, in which you pretty much run all out the entire time, I’ve pulled back periodically convincing myself that I needed to save something for the last ½ mile. And then, when the race is over and the first quick wave of chest heaving tired washes over and recedes, I’ve found myself questioning why I let up during mile two. Why did I give in a bit? Mind games! Mindf*cked!

I need to get Mental. Hell, let’s all wear sweatbands and spandex and get mental! Practice pushing yourself a bit further and faster periodically. Don’t think you can do one more lap? I bet you can. You just need to convince your brain to take the lead especially when the physical side wants to give in. If you are like me (and why wouldn’t you at least want to be?), this is the challenge. Don’t let the mental drag down the physical. In fact, the mental should back-up and carry the physical.

I guess what I’m saying in all these words, was already captured more poetically and concisely in C.W. Longenecker’s poem:

The Victor by C.W. Longenecker

If you think you are beaten, you are,
If you think you dare not, you don’t.
If you like to win, but you think you can’t
It is almost certain you won’t

If you think you’ll lose, you’re lost,
For out in the world we find,
Success begins with a fellow’s will.
It’s all in the state of mind.

If you think you are outclassed, you are,
You’ve got to think high to rise,
You’ve got to be sure of yourself before
You can ever win a prize.

Life’s battles don’t always go
To the stronger or faster man.
But soon or late the man who wins,
Is the man who thinks he can.

But that’s if you prefer snooty poets. I prefer ONJ.

A place where nobody dared to go
The love that we came to know
They call it Xanadu

Okay, okay, I know it doesn’t really have anything to do with this topic but still catchy no?

Let’s all go out and find our mental Xanadu. (See how I tied that neatly together?)

Happy trails.


Jen Feeny said...

I totally rock sweat and wrist bands... where once I felt nerdy I now feel like a running goddess!

Thanks for sharing the poems... they are going up on my motivation wall next to my Chicago Marathon race route.

Alright now it's time to get Negative Nancy out of your system and get back to your usual running god self...

B.o.B. said...

Good post and very true. However, I thought you were already mental but I'll go ahead and join you as soon as this ankle gets better.

Mental is big during injuries as well. It's even more tricky in aqua jogging.

Now I have Xanadu stuck in my head. Gee thanks.

B. Kramer said...

From here on out, it's all mental for me. On a similar note, I have dubbed Don't Stop Believing as my marathon theme. How could I not? The final words are "don't stop."

Kevin said...

Whenever I start to questioning if I can continue, I usually do a quick systems check in my head. Do my legs really hurt? Do my feet really hurt? Knees OK? Can you still breath OK? So is there anything wrong? The answer to all is usually, no! At that point I tell myself to STFU and quit complaing and get back to racing. Not complicated but it seems to help erase or fix the mental issues.

Aileen said...

That was strangely inspiring...thanks! I worry a lot about exactly what you mentioned, whether I gave all or just most? It's a good thing to think about. Or it'll drive you crazy...perhaps we'll find out at the next race!

ShutUpandRun said...

Great tribute to that mental part of running and to ONJ who still rocks by the way.

X-Country2 said...

Hey I wear a sweat band on my arm and spandex shorty short quite seriously, thank you very much!

Although good post. I find myself getting bored and looking for excuses to stop long before I get exhausted on long runs. Bad habit. Must stop.

Jess said...

Man I think I would have preferred the Peanuts...

No just kidding. Great post and I know just what you mean. I wonder how much in my last race was just metal exhaustion as opposed to physical.

saundra said...

Great post!! I have a 5k today, and I really needed this. I will definitely be rocking my sweatband and armbands today.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what's worse. That you give off the vibe where I would totally believe you rocked a leotard and sweat bands or that I tried to get a mental picture.

I think I need help.

Marlene said...

Really good post and good timing for my track workout tonight.

I've done pretty well this summer pushing myself beyond the point where I say 'OK, I think we've done enough for today' - but a reminder is always good!

Unknown said...

I have a strong hate/hate relationship with the Doubt Demons.

Thanks for the poem. Good motivation.

Spike said...

well said. and never, never, never give up.

Running and living said...

Matt Fitzegerald talks about racing with the goal of "suffering" rather than a time goal. You may enjoy his book "Brain training for runners" the only one that I heard of that deals with the "mental". Great post! Ana-Maria

David said...

Look for Vanilla to use the Peanuts character idea in a future post on his blog. If you've got the material, you'd better publish quick.

joyRuN said...

So true.

The mental part, not so much the spandex crap. Although the sweatbands might've helped the sweat from dripping into my eyes and buuuuurning them during today's run.

I'm a mental wuss when it comes to running. When you figure out how to fix that nonsense, lemme know.

Unknown said...

Is it always important to push the mental part of running during work outs? If so, why? I have found that at certain times in my training cycle, I need the mental strength and other times, I just have to respect my body for what it can do that day. Maybe that's because I'm older, going on 44 years old. Our coach often says, "Run relaxed, run fast." I find that my mind lets go of the demons when I remember to relax...and I don't always feel that tired during the hardest work outs.

Jeri said...

Great post. No doubt this will be running through my head the last 3-4 miles of my half on Sunday. And hopefully it'll be running through my head in a good way. :)

Aron said...

totally love this post... and its SO true. i definitely have mental problems when running and let myself give up too early. MUST GET MENTAL, i have 23 days in fact. maybe i should sport the sweat band for the next 3 weeks :)

sRod said...

I've been thinking the same thing about traing for the NYCM: I'm doing a lot for the physical side, but how the hell do I prepare the mental side? It's one thing to tell yourself to think positive thoughts but a totally different one to actually think those positive thoughts.

The Boring Runner said...

You have mental demons, I have injury gremlins. Blah.

I think more than we even know is mental.