Thursday, June 4, 2015

Your Strongest Muscle - 5 Tips for Mental Toughness

My body got me through my first half Marathon. My brain got me through my 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 8th.

The same goes for the marathon. I got to the finish line on the first one because I trained my legs, lungs, muscles, and bones to run that far. My second one I trained my brain to know I could run that far.
The more I train the more mental running and triathlon are for me. This is particularly true as I tackle the bike because I can't listen to music. I have to rely one hundred percent on my brain to not only occupy the free time but to avoid negativity setting in. So how do you train your brain?

1. Visualizations
I've been using these since I was swimming in AAU meets as a 12&Under. Essentially you run through your event in your head, executing everything perfectly. I find this particularly helpful for pre-race anxiety. If you're like me and have trouble sleeping before races, try closing your eyes and running your race in your head. What will the start line feel like? The first mile? The first water stop? Feel yourself taking each perfect step, enjoying every moment. I did this the night before TriFest and I really think it helped me during the race. It felt like I'd already done it!

It can also help you during the race if you start feeling the negative vibes attacking. During the 2012 DerbyFest Marathon I hit the wall big time at mile 20. I started imagining myself not at mile 20 but at mile 25.5, taking effortless strides along the finish chute, seeing my dad, my mom and Hubz waiting for me. It helped take me out of the bad moment I was in and put me in a good one.

2. Have a Mantra
This is a big one for me. One of my biggest challenges in this training cycle has been negative vibes/words on the bike. I can't help but think, "what happens if I fall?" etc. I can't just have empty headspace, so I have to fill it with something. During TriFest I just kept repeating, "Head down and pedal," and "up, Up, UP" on the hills. It doesn't have to be catchy and it doesn't have to make sense to anyone but you. For some people it's the name of the person they're racing for, or a song lyric.

My mantra for Muncie: How do you eat an elephant?
3. Inspiration Wall/Space
Sometimes the mental hurdle isn't during the workout, it's just getting to the workout. Set aside some space for yourself to post inspirational quotes, pictures, or images that will motivate you. I put mine in my closet. Ads from Runnersworld and Triathlete Magazine, photos from past races. Whenever I get up in the morning I see them and it instantly makes me feel strong and ready for the workout. Back when I was getting in shape for the wedding I kept a picture of my wedding dress (with the beautiful, thin, elegant model in it) above my TV. I started that chick down while I did my insanity workouts. She stared back at me whenever I tried to sit on the couch eating ice cream. It worked. If you're training for a big race set aside some wall space or a shelf for your medal as a reminder of whats to come.

4. Carry a token
Running and training can be so emotional for me. I haven't quite figured out why, but there's a connection I feel with myself and my body that I only get running. In 2011 the Chicago Half Marathon was on September 11. The Hubz gave me his Combat Action Badge, a medal he earned during his service in the Army in Iraq, to carry with me. It was immensely helpful to know that he was there with me. More than that, anytime I had doubts or felt like I was slipping I could run my fingers over that badge. I knew that if he had the strength to go to war, I could finish the race. I plan to have it on my bike at Muncie. I've seen people run with pictures of themselves 100lbs/etc. heavier in their spi belt. I've seen people write the names of those they're running for on their hands or arms. Sometimes we need something bigger than us to keep us going!

5. Breathing
If you can't get your mind together, then just ignore it entirely. Incorporating some of the breath work from yoga into my running has been hands down the biggest improvement in my running. In a recent article for Runnersworld, Coach Jenny Hadfield tells us that breath is "both a release valve and a trigger for your nervous system." So basically when you breathe like a panting dog, you send your body into panic mode. Conversely, "when you breathe in through your nose, deeply into your belly, and out through your mouth, this has a calming effect on the body and mind." She's right. During periods of stress or pain if I take a second to just focus on slowing down my breathing I feel worlds better. It's shown in my heart rate training too. Focus on breathing when heart rate gets too high has helped me to calm, slow, and get back into the zone.

So there you have it, Five things I've found helpful to get my sometimes ill-trained, under achieving self to the finish line. These aren't any substitute for actual training, of course, but hopefully they can help improve your training. After all, you have to practice how you race. So start practicing them during your daily routines. Above all, don't let your strongest muscle go untrained!

Happy Running!

How do you stay mentally tough? Any other tips to share?

*Also I'm aware the brain isn't an actual muscle. Writers license, geez!

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