Resilience is something you build through experience. It’s not about bouncing back so much as it is about recovering from challenges and setbacks, adapting to life, and moving forward. It is about building confidence in knowing you can recover when things are hard, challenging or difficult. I talk a lot about developing positive habits in training as a way to build resiliency to the inevitable discomforts and failures of sport. Resiliency becomes a skill and a choice: will I be resilient in this moment?
Here’s how to build resiliency in training. I’m going to use the example of running near threshold – which is both mentally and physically challenging. It’s physically challenging simply because physiologically you are at or near the edge of what your body is capable of. It’s mentally challenging because the mind doesn’t stick to facts much when it’s under duress – it likes to make up lots of stories about what’s going on, and what might happen. These stories basically run along the same three themes of:
Doubt: “I am not sure I can keep this up, it’s so hard!”
Fear: “I have to keep this up or else I’m just slow as a runner; I’m never going to run as fast as I want to!"
Despair: “I’m having such a bad day!”
We get so overwhelmed by the sharpness of both our physical and mental discomfort that we lose our ability to focus on what’s necessary in that moment. We need absolutely, good self-coaching, which is just another name for self-compassion.
In these moments, we need to train ourselves instantly to recognize what’s happening, and we need to stop that behaviour, or our thoughts from taking control of the ship. We need to focus on the process of running: what are our arms doing, our feet, are our hips loose and fluid, are we tall, and relaxed in the face and jaw and shoulders. We need to draw power, strength and love for what we are doing from anywhere in these moments. Maybe it’s how beautiful the day is, an encouraging word from a coach or a fan or a team mate, or telling ourselves ‘I am so strong!’ and doing this repeatedly until it sticks.
When I am watching races, I often yell out specific cues to people in the race – I can’t help myself. I can instantly tell which athletes are practicing resilience, because they smile, get taller, relax or do something positive with my encouragement. Athletes who are stuck in their pain (and their head) often grimace and grunt or throw out an excuse for why their day is going poorly.
Resilient athletes are ones that are using whatever positive energy they can to deal with discomfort, recover, adapt and learn. This is practice. It’s not innate, you aren’t born with it, and you learn it. It is why practicing steady state, tempo and fast intervals in training is more than just teaching your body to run fast. The reason that you do these sessions, are that they demand you run fast (which is fun, by the way), and they demand that you are mentally sharp. How you reacted to, adapt and face the discomfort in these sessions is a critical part of training as an athlete and translates directly into how well you will race when the stakes were high.
Of course, the bonus is that you develop confidence and resilience for life.
Run For Joy!
To run at a steady sustained effort, you’ll have about two hours of stored energy, before your legs turn to jelly and you hit the wall. If you haven’t replaced any carbohydrates during this time, this is the point at which your body turns to its fat stores and you have to begin the slow and painful hike to finish. Finish you will, albeit slower than you wanted, and probably with some emotional turmoil over your efforts. You can mitigate this physical and emotional distress by planning out a hydration and nutrition schedule for yourself. Like always, it’s all about practicing good habits and setting yourself up to succeed.
By the time you hit the half way mark in a long distance race (anything over 3 hours), you will have gone past what your body has stored as readily available fuel. Nutrition planning is a lot about taking care of the last half of the race, when you are fatigued and any major calorie deficit is going to make the day really hard. When you start going into calorie deficit, you are more prone to being emotional, irrational and not coping well with your fatigue. Keep on top of calories, and the late stages of the race will be much more comfortable, your brain will be sharp (better for negotiating tough terrain), and you’ll finish tired, but in one piece.
The energy sources your body will use for racing long distance will come from the glycogen stored in your muscles, and fat. This glycogen is formed when the body breaks down carbohydrates into sugars for energy. Even with the best carbohydrate preparation, your body only has about enough stored glycogen for ninety minutes to two hours. You will then be using your fat stores as energy, a process that is much slower and which requires you to reduce pace considerably. You must constantly ingest carbohydrates and fluids during an event in order to maintain a steady stream of sugar to your muscles and to handle the optimal pace of racing.
You should note that your caloric intake and heart rate are inversely related. As you start to exercise, blood is diverted from your stomach to your working muscles and skin to sweat and help cool you. As your heart rate rises, you are less able to digest the calories you ingest. The food will sit in your digestive system instead of being used: this causes discomfort and gastro-intestinal stress for athletes. Your race day nutrition plan is intimately bound to your racing heart rate.
Fuelling properly means maintaining (as much as possible) your balance in caloric deficit and constantly refilling depleted glycogen stores. Eating or ingesting calories from the beginning is critical. If you wait until you are tired and hungry, you will never catch up.
What to eat and how much to eat is a strategy that each athlete has to work out for themselves. Your training should include a method to work out what your race day nutrition plan should be. Every long training session should include a plan for nutrition and hydration, including how many calories, what specific foods and fluids to take and when to take them. You will have to try out your plan many times in training in order to figure out what works for you. Note that fuelling well in training is not just about planning for race day: eating properly on training runs means you optimize your output for that day and you ensure a proper recovery, both aspects to progressive improvement in fitness.
As a coach, I have seen many training sessions derailed and failed due to one totally avoidable factor: not planning nutrition and hydration.
Quick overview on nutrition
Formulating your personal nutrition plan – the numbers here are not set in stone but guidelines only, and I would have someone start formulating their plan months in advance. If you don’t have months, you’ll have to use some powers of recollection and deduction based on what you have done in training.
There are some athletes who prefer real food – dried fruit, bananas, sandwiches – for endurance events. While I avoid packaged food and eat simple, nutritious whole food in my daily life of training and living, I always stick with sport specific nutrition during races. Packaged bars and gels are easy to carry, easy to consume, have little fibre (way easier on the stomach), and is more precise and efficient when determining calories.
Once again, plan for success, and the success is more likely to happen. Long distance running is one of the coolest things you can do, so take care of the details and enjoy the trails!
Run For Joy!
You only get to do something for the first time once. A lot of those firsts come when we are really young – like our first breath of air when we are born. Or the first time you roll over, crawl, walk, and say a word when you are a baby. These are somewhat involuntary ‘firsts’, as you develop as a human, and later there are all kinds of firsts that are simply part of the process of growing up – first time you brush your teeth on your own, tie your shoe laces, ride a bike.
But the firsts don’t ever have to end when you are an adult, and they can become pretty cool moments to re learn the way you processed the world with such expansive freedom and lack of expectation as a young kid, before self-consciousness and anxiety took over. Choosing to do something you’ve never done before, as an adult, is a significant act of courage. You need to open up to failure, imperfection and simply getting out of your own way and expectations so you can just have a great time and use the event as a catalyst for learning.
I am not talking about chasing grand adventure or challenge of epic proportions, like running the Grand Canyon, or rowing across the Pacific, but the everyday mindfulness of noticing and loving the moment of trying something new. Doing something for the first time, especially as an adult, makes you feel brave and alive and is a moment to cherish.
Because you only get to do that new thing once!
I’ll never run a footrace for the first time ever again. I did that when I was 10 and so it’s done. I might run a certain type of race for the first time – like when I signed up for Finlayson Arm 28k and really had no idea how that would go, but I had enough of an idea of training and racing that I did train pretty well and knew what to do on race morning, and knew how to mentally and emotionally tackle endurance running. So I focussed on what I knew what to do, and embraced the uncertainty of the rest of it.
When I meet people who are running in an event for the first, I feel so happy for them, for this is a special moment in their lives. And I while I try to offer lots of guidance and support and help with logistics, only they can experience the event, on their own terms and however they choose to do so. And I hope they choose to do it wide eyed, with a sense of wonder and a little bit of humour.
Last year, I entered a deadlifting competition at the Forge, a local gym. I had started deadlifting in March, and the competition was in September, so I had only been training for five months. When I signed up I did that thing they always show in movies. I registered on-line and when I got to the page with the green box to hit send, I paused for a moment, my finger poised above the keyboard. I hesitated, not with fear, but to appreciate that this was a first time thing for me.
On the day of the competition, every single thing was new. I had never been in any type of strength competition and I was pretty stoked by the adventure of it all. I had never even set foot in the Forge before! I was learning moment to moment, observing what the other competitors were doing, listening to the judges talk, trying to figure out when to warm up for my lifts, feeling so darn ‘new’. I felt acutely aware of being ‘the runner’, being 51, feeling a bit on the small and not so strong side of the field. Then I realized that I had to lift in front of an audience because it was a fundraiser. In the competition, in which I had three lifts, I made a lot of mistakes. I hadn’t trained enough for my technique to be flawless under pressure, and I failed at a max lift I had achieved several times in training. I learned a lot. On my second try at 205 pounds, I couldn't even budge that thing off the floor, and I just laughed out loud at myself. It was an amazing day and I’ll never have that experience again, of being new, a rookie, of not really knowing what to expect.
So, if you have signed up for something and it’s your first time doing such a thing? I am full of joy for you. Don’t be scared: be amazed, curious, lighthearted and proud of yourself. You only get to do this for the first time once. Open yourself to the experience, be yourself, laugh at yourself and have a great time doing this thing for the first time. It’s not a dress rehearsal.
Run For Joy
Imagine you are a runner standing and waiting for a race to start.
In each hand you hold heavy rocks. In your left hand you hold a big rock that represents all your fears of what could happen.
You’re afraid of not running fast enough, of getting tired, of being passed by competitors or coming last.
When I was a young track and field athlete I used to have this recurring dream. I would be trying my hardest to run as fast as I could but going nowhere. My legs were impossibly heavy and they wouldn’t turn over fast enough for the race, no matter how much effort I put in. It was a dream, much like the way our fears are dreams.
Most of our fears don’t come to fruition, and in our worry, we miss what’s right in front of us.
In the other hand the heavy stone represents your past regrets. The training you didn’t complete, the failed session where you didn’t make your splits, the race you started too fast and blew up, the people who beat you when you gave up too soon before the finish. These events are past. They are done and you can’t worry about them because they aren’t going to change.
All you can do about the past is learn. You can reflect and have intention to improve your errors and be a better version of yourself.
Running while holding onto these stones will be difficult. Far more difficult than it needs to be. You will feel burdened and heavy and they will slow you down.
Can you see yourself setting these stones down. Can you let the heavy stone of fear just drop to the ground. How about you uncurl your fingers from the heavy stone of past regret and disappointment. Let it fall.
And now, unburdened by a past you can’t change, and future that is a dream, step up lightly to the start line. Pretend to hold feathers in your hands. These feathers are light, soft, and represent freedom, strength, and courage. To hold them you must be relaxed and calm.
Step to the start line and feel free, happy to be right here in the moment, working with what you’ve got.
Run For Joy
insight into what sustains personal excellence and motivates us to achieve