I signed up for my first Half Ironman – that’s a 1.8km swim, 90km bike ride and 21km run. The biggest event I’d done before this was the City to Surf, a measly little run up a hill in comparison to what I’d gotten myself into! Training was quite a big undertaking.
For the first time in my life, I started looking at structured training programmes and decided to overhaul my nutrition. I saw a nutritionist, the lovely Claire Montgomery from New Medicine ( email@example.com) who took me under her wing with great and practical advice and started chatting to friends who were personal trainers, exercise physiologists and lifestyle coaches, on a daily basis. Despite having a respiratory tract infection for several weeks, taking antibiotics and not having done a triathlon before, I finished my Half Ironman in a good time and even managed to squeeze in an unplanned trail marathon two weeks prior.
During my training and after the events, I had some real highs and lows. I was lucky to be surrounded by so many highly skilled and educated people but it was often confusing to filter one person’s advice from another. The main thing I found was that there are a whole lot of opinions out there, quite often conflicting.
Let’s get to the point of what you’ll find in my blogs. I’ll be sharing some of the advice that I was given, the tips and tools people equipped me with and that I’ve tested for you and tell you what
worked for me. Consider me your real life crash test dummy. Currently I am signed up to do my first ultra marathon and ironman – with a clubfoot, injured shoulder and a whole lot of doubt at times. But more about that later…
Let’s start with my first piece of advice:
#1 Sort out your head and heart.
When I signed up for the Half Ironman I had no idea if I could possibly do the distance. I’d never done over five hours of exercise – which is how long it took me to finish the race. And when I got asked to run the Outback Marathon, I was injured, had two weeks before the event and serious doubts I’d be able to do the two events in quick succession. I was a novice marathon runner and novice triathlete. The fact that I managed to finish and in fairly good times just goes to show that mental preparation and endurance should not be under estimated. It doesn’t matter if it’s just to step up your running or to compete in an event, get your head and heart ready.
The book Inside Sports Psychology (Karageorghis/ Terry) draws up the image of a performance pie – consisting of physical conditioning, skill level and psychological readiness. Often we spend a lot of time pounding the pavement improving our physical conditioning and perhaps we may read up on how to do things or get someone to show us… But the ‘why’ and ‘how’ we will psychologically do something doesn’t even factor in. Over the past two years, I’ve improved my psychological endurance and motivation to the point of being able to deal with setbacks that would have stopped me dead in my tracks before. How did I do it? By practising. Taking setbacks in my stride and quite often, feeling as if I was beating my head against a wall. Trying to change habits and thought patterns. I kept practising, pretty much daily.
I went back to yoga and started meditation for personal reasons and it had amazing flow-on effects in my running, training and ultimately, life. On the bike or during long training runs, I’d challenge negative thought patterns. It was me, my head, my body and the road. There was no getting away. A lack of motivation shows when you get past a certain point, you get sluggish, stop enjoying yourself and, really, just want to stop and cry. Initially, I kept challenging myself by force, but as time progressed, I learned – with the help of amazing yoga teachers and other holistic practitioners – to gently nudge myself in the right direction. Allow myself to respond rather than react. Come out of my mind and into my being instead. Let the head be calm and the heart full of motivation. Enjoy my time on the road. As time progressed, it became easier to change and adapt. Before, negative thoughts were able to dominate my thinking or even drive me to push myself too hard, beyond what was right for my body. I was one of those people who would easily flog themselves to death. I was now able to just step back, respond calmer and perhaps even laugh. More like a dancer or martial arts warrior going with the flow and responding to what’s happening than a weightlifter hammering away at a sore spot in my mind.
I was responding, not reacting. And so here’s one thing most athletes apparently do: they associate. What does that mean? Well, it’s the opposite to dissociating from your body, i.e. distracting yourself,
stepping out of your body, listening to music or chatting away to a friend. Don’t get me wrong, dissociating can be okay and friends and music are great things to motivate you… but one of the first steps in finding a sustainable motivation that’s truly coming from the heart, is to be in your body. Listen and feel. Bring your mind and soul straight back into the body and feel everything; the pressure of the shoes under your feet, the rhythm of your legs, the sound of your breath, the wind in your hair.
Not only is it an amazing experience and a feeling of being utterly present, almost like meditating, but it’s also a state of mind from which you can look after your mind and body well. You can assess any problems, like a developing blister, negative thought pattern or lack of water – and respond. If you are not present while running for instance, you may notice too late, when the problem has escalated and the sudden sharp pain of a bad blister may overwhelm you, unprepared. Or a bad thought might stew and gain momentum until it comes into your awareness and makes you want to stop right away. So hone in on your senses. Next time you go for a run, start noticing the little things: the clothes on your body, wind, sounds, rhythm, colours, light…
Even when not running, you can prep your mind. I like to read inspiring stories, figure out my thought patterns, do yoga or other mindful awareness exercise and become aware of what I do and why. Did I need to respond that way? Could I serve myself better by responding in a different way? Observing what you do and not judging it allows you to come up with contingency plans.
Chris McCormack, one of the world’s top ironmen, writes in his biography, I’m Here to Win, that he makes up folders inside his brain, like folders on a desktop. He fills those with thoughts to help him
when the pain becomes unbearable or his motivation is taking a nose dive. It doesn’t matter if you’re ‘just’ running around the neighbourhood or competing in the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii, like Chris, a bank of good thoughts help. It’s saving good thoughts for bad times.
Know yourself and know what works. For me, it’s the memory of a similarly difficult hill or run I have done before. I know I can do it. Or it could be the thought of how I’d feel if I stopped (not so
happy is generally the answer). The thought of taking it one step at a time, one breath at a time, as they teach in yoga, will make it all easy. There’s no point worrying about the full length of the
run because I am here now and not 10km ahead of myself. Or the thought that it doesn’t matter what I did yesterday. I can run now. And doesn’t it feel good to run?
Enjoy your next one and please feel free to share any thoughts with me.
P.S.: I’ve recently come up against a road block that felt unsurmountable at first: a bone bruise in my right foot due to some new shoes. When the doctor told me (with only 11 weeks until my first
ultra marathon) that I wouldn’t be able to run, walk or stand for the next 3-6 weeks I was in initial shock. After it passed and my initial pig-headed “but I WILL run my ultra marathon” response had passed, I got on with it. For the last week, any energy I had to spare went into my right foot. Massaging, healing, eating calcium, going on the Powerplate for rehab, reformer work and lots and lots of cycling. Basically I spent the last week in a constant state of pain and an inner sense of defiance. Then my foot got worse. I must’ve triggered a nerve or something and the pain has been making me feel as if I’m about to pass out. I again reacted with disbelief and frustration, allowed myself 24hrs of moping and feeling a little sorry for myself, “poor me, poor foot”, to get back on track, I started looking after everything else.
Positive re-enforcement of what I want to do and why. Looking at my life’s goals, working out my proposed training plan and making sure I add time for healing in there. And time to get back on track with meditation. It’s all too easy to let it slide but it’s in times of duress or pain that we can prove ourselves, better our responses. While I’m injured, I have so much more time to focus on maintaining my mental state, general endurance, muscle balance and preparing myself for 89km of running. There, I said it. I will think about the race, watch videos, read race reports and dream run the course, and if I only start on the day with very limited physical conditioning, I will know my mental readiness and skill level might pull me through.
Great books to get you inspired: Inside Sports Psychology, I’m Here to Win, The Lore of Running, Born to Run, It’s Not About the Bike, Spirit of The Dancing Warrior, Mental Resilience
For more blog posts on Women’s Running Australia’s website, click here.