If you have a goal, there is a good chance that you are going to have to improve some skills in order to achieve it. You have to practice something to get better at it, often repetitively, in the case of both mental and physical skills. If I want to improve my times in running, I can work on both my physical conditioning and my form and technique. If I want to get better at racing, working on these skills, and my tactics, will definitely move me in the right direction. However there is a possibility that I may also need to improve my relationship with training and competition, and this requires me to work on my emotional and mental skill. The trick is working out what exactly you need to practice and is this practice actually moving you in the right direction. Many athletes have this vague awareness that their mental skills may need improvement, but put they continue to direct energy into physical training instead, hoping for a better result that never seems to arrive.
The paradox in training, is that while you have these future oriented goals, the biggest gains can be made when you can train yourself to remain unconditionally kind to yourself in the present moment no matter what is happening. This is one of the hardest things for athletes to do – to remain kind to ourselves when we perceive that our future goal is at stake. The bad news is that our western culture is set up to help us feel badly about ourselves – we live in a culture that promotes happiness as a by-product of achievement – I will be happy when I run a sub 45 minute 10k, or lose 20 pounds, or have a great job, house, teeth, car or clothes. Sport is often presented dramatically in social media as well, because drama is more entertaining. The good news is that we can practice being aware of these forces and choose a different story.
Our task is to choose practices that move us in the direction of our goal and to be realistic about what goals really are. Simply, goals are ways we help set action to improvement. Most runners focus on an extrinsic goal, like getting faster, improving health, or running with better form. These are valid goals and if we practice well we will generally get better, and be healthier. The problem arises when these goals are based on a sense that right now, in this moment, we are not good enough, and we are always training with an eye to the future and the way we wish we could be. Over time, training can become a kind of addiction to this drama of chasing the ideal thing that never quite happens. (We become addicted to betterment, which is the inherent flaw of the self-help movement and perfectionism). The trick is to train with our goals in mind AND to be very present and at peace with what is happening right now. This requires not a practice of drills, longer runs or fast intervals, but to be unconditionally kind to yourself and whatever is happening in each training session. You can strive for excellence and still be fully okay in the present moment, no matter what is happening.
I’ll illustrate this with one of the more interesting conversations I have with athletes, and one that I never tire of talking through. We will be discussing the way a training session has gone. These can often be all or nothing conversations, especially in young athletes or new runners. As I listen to them tell me about the session, I ask them to be aware that they are telling me their perceptions of what happened: a story, if you will. “I ran for 40 minutes and it was a really hard day, I was so tired I might be over training or not training enough, and felt so awful and the rain was cold and I might be doing this all wrong and I wish I felt better.” We love the stories that we tell ourselves, even when we are suffering! Our stories back up our claims that we have already made about who we are. They support our belief that we aren’t good enough right now, and we need to constantly prove that we are good enough, by referring to some future ideal. Mind boggling, but true. I still do it. Wanting to get better at a skill is very different from rating your worth as a person.
The training session has gone ‘well’ if they have hit markers that indicate concrete data that shows they are on track to their goals (most athletes have some sort of wearable tracker technology now). A good session is equated with all being good with the world. If the data shows they missed these markers, there’s a good chance that the athlete will perceive the workout as a failure on some level. Added to that judgement of failure is the next part, which I find so interesting. We then start to makes all kinds of interpretations or stories about ourselves and our lives based on this judgement. “I am a failure, I’ll never make it or get better, and I’m slow, weak, and nonathletic”. On a really bad day, the story keeps getting worse until they ask themselves why they continue to bother and maybe they should give up.
So, if you have a goal, and let’s say it’s an extrinsic goal like completing a marathon, or running a PB or winning your age group at the local 10K, I encourage you to look at little closer at what that goal looks like as far as your day to day practice and enjoyment of sport and life. Keep choosing to practice things that will improve your skill and move you towards your goal, and don’t get so caught up in the future that you miss out on the really beautiful parts of sport – which are the ups and downs, the good and the bad days and cultivating a calm mindset no matter what is happening. Over and over again, I give runners these 3 simple tips – practice these things over and over, with every session and see if you find improvement in your mindset and enjoyment of running.
1. Show up prepared for success.
2. Then, give yourself permission to be successful no matter what the data says.
3. Take away one good thing with every session (unconditional kindness).
Because I am a runner and a run coach, I often use long distance running as my frame of reference, but really, running is just a metaphor for all of life.
Run For Joy !
A year ago, early in the pandemic, my sister, who works for a very large global organization, sent along a helpful article. I feel lucky, because of the scope of her job, and how there are teams of people managing other teams of people, she filters out and sends a lot of useful articles my way. This one advised, quite sagely, to treat the pandemic as a marathon, not a sprint. We have all heard that expression so many times in our life: we are in it for the long haul, so pace yourself accordingly. It’s going to take 3 hours, not 15 seconds so you’re best to parcel out your energy and take the long view. In the case of the pandemic, it was hard to imagine we were in it for months on end, not merely weeks. A year later, and I see exhausted people everywhere. They are not only exhausted, but also stressed out and anxious and sleepless because their batteries are never able to recharge. They have been doing a series of sprints for months now, never really recovering from the first big sprint in April, when they were so busy pivoting they were gassed before the pandemic was even into its second month.
Recently I started thinking specifically about marathons and life. The Covid vaccines are here, but I am not about to start my sprint finish just yet. If the pandemic is a marathon not a sprint, it feels like we are still at mile 20. And I don’t know this course. With only six miles to go in the marathon, I can usually start feeling the pull of the home stretch and start dreaming of the finish line and the beautiful relief of stopping, but the reality is that anything can happen in those last six miles. In almost every marathon I ever ran, that last 6 miles were a mixed bag of excruciating pain, incredible elation, joy, despair, anticipation, disappointment, confidence and cool out of body experiences. Pace wise, that final stretch had the potential to be all over the place. One minute I would be running, and the next I would be walking, or limping; a minute later, and I was back to running, literally willing myself towards the end.
I am a distance runner. Most twelve year olds can sprint faster than me. I have run over 10 marathons, completed 3 Ironmans, countless half marathons and half ironmans and a handful of longer trail runs. As soon as I read that article, I could relate and I took it to heart. It was as if I had this clear vison and recognition of what a marathon is and even though I had no idea what was happening, marathons and endurance are my wheelhouse.
This has been like a marathon in all kinds of ways. Marathons are not easy. Marathons are hard, maybe the hardest kind of race I have ever done. Most of us, even those of us with good genetics, need a lot of patience and a lot of resilience to take one on. I think that is why people do marathons and the Ironman – they want to see what they are made of, without the risk of Himalayan mountaineering. The marathon at the end of the Ironman might be one of the most difficult, especially if you are not having a great day. You hit the pavement at about two in the afternoon, usually during a 30 C hot summer or tropical day, after having been up since 4:30 AM, having swum four kilometres and having been riding your bike nonstop and hard for six hours. Your legs are like jelly, or worse, like wood, your guts hurt from all the sugary gels you’ve been eating, and yet, somehow, off you go, mile after mile, working through physical discomfort and every emotion you’ve ever known (and a few you suppress most of the time such as anger and self-loathing). You want to stop so badly, but you don’t want to be a quitter, you make bets with yourself about how if you finish this you never ever have to do another one. (Similar to the negotiations that mothers make with the universe while in labour during a drug free birth when they swear that if they get through this, they will never have another baby, ever.)
It occurred to me today, that all my marathon training has really come in handy during this pandemic. Marathons are hard for sure so you learn over time that there are ways to successfully train for and approach a marathon. The more you do, the better you get at them as well, as you refine your planning and training, your nutrition, your mental skills and your overall strength. Of all the distances I trained for, marathons also took the most patience and forgiveness and acceptance. If a 10k didn’t go well, you lost maybe a week of training and you were good to go. When a marathon didn’t go well, it was a much larger cost because the investment was so great. Each marathon was about a 12-16 week focussed commitment but this was only after I had already been training and building for over a decade. During that training build, I would not race that much and every single moment of my day was spent thinking, preparing, or resting for the next training session. It is a pretty boring lifestyle by many standards, but I liked it. I spent a lot of time with the same people and had a very limited social life. I did a lot of training on my own. Training was tiring, often exhausting and consisted of one or two runs a day on a tired body, fighting through self-doubt at times, but mostly just on a mission to get through every training session like it was a rung in a ladder, moving towards my goal. That’s why the planning was also so important. Without a plan, it is very hard to train for a marathon. I trusted myself and my coaches and maybe that’s why I trust Dr Bonnie Henry and the government. It may not be perfect, but it’s at least a plan.
Like the pandemic, with our face masks, line ups and restrictions to living life, marathon training comes with all kinds of obstacles. It is never a straight shot from the beginning of the training plan to the start line. Training needs to be adjusted weekly, if not daily, and you are always making the best possible decisions based on where you are right now and where you want to be. Some of the obstacles, like injuries, take some re framing: acknowledgment of the setback, while continuing to find meaning, or a way ahead. Dealing with weather, life and work schedules and children, all became opportunities to grow awareness and evolve the way I was relating to the experiences of life. This curiosity has become my personal theme over the last year. Where can I find meaning in all this?
As I alluded to earlier, one of the reasons that marathons are hard, is that they can be such a roller coaster of emotions. Within one three hour race, I would often go from elation to despair within minutes. One minute I would be sailing along on pace, smooth and rhythmical, feeling confident and strong and the next minute out of the blue I would be cramping in my hip flexor, or my hamstrings, or mysteriously crashing from lack of energy. Over time, I learned to find some middle ground between the highs and the lows, to not get so worked up all the time. Marathoners get good at suffering. I am not saying that this is a good thing, but being good at negotiating through discomfort has had its benefit as the pandemic life drags on and on.
There is, however, one way in which running a marathon is nothing like this pandemic. Can you imagine a scenario, in which you are running along in the middle of a marathon and you are counting the kilometre or mile markers one by one, and every one brings you closer to the finish, your goal? As you reach the 25 mile marker you can almost feel the relief and joy at being able to stop. And then a race official suddenly jumps off the curb in front of you, with a big sign that says “10 miles to go!” Just when you thought you were done, there is another hour and a half! Or, as you approach the finish line, legs screaming with pain, the people holding the finish line tape start running away from you! In the real marathon, the finish line is a concrete thing. It is a huge visual in the distance: a massive gantry with a clock, and sponsor signs, usually a thousand colourful balloons, crowds of people cheering, and lots of loud music. It does not keep moving. For all of us in the pandemic, it is very unclear where the finish line is, what it looks like and when we are going to get there. I understand how this is a hard concept to live with. In the meantime, we have to keep on exercising our patience, our resilience, supporting each other and using all we can from this experience to be better humans.
Writing about the art of moving well and the lived experience of a life in sport.