There is a good chance that you will feel nervous before a big effort, or a race. Don’t waste your energy trying to make this nervousness go away. Say hello to the fact that it exists in you, and accept that it is a part of you. That’s it. Then get on with the event that you have been training for. Focus on what you can do, and trust that you are as ready as you can be. Nerves exist because you are excited about an event going well, and should be seen as a friend, a way that you are getting activated for the event. If this is something totally new for you, there may be some fear of the unknown and this is where courage and fear co-exist. Be afraid and do it anyway. Give it your best effort, the one you have been preparing for weeks for.
I get asked a lot about how to deal with pre-race nerves and anxiousness. I feel that while nervousness and anxiousness sound the same, they are essentially a little bit different. Being nervous is a physical sensation caused by thinking about an event. The nervousness can actually be excitement and anticipation, and a sense of agitation that occurs as you get ready for a race – where you know you are going to be asking more from yourself. Performance anxiety feels more rooted in how you are thinking about the future event, and a sense that things may not go well, or as well as you hope. A sense of unease and apprehension best describes that feeling. Performance anxiety can be linked to a sense of worth, as if who we are is on the line, not just how we do.
Nervousness feels like agitation, higher heart rate, a sense that you can’t stay calm, jittery. I was always nervous before big events – the bigger the event, the bigger the nerves, and I learned to manage the nerves by breathing exercises, being positive about the nerves (this means I am excited and that I care about what I am about to do!), and by finding space to be by myself in order to calm down and maintain a good balance between being overly stimulated and being asleep. Some athletes listen to music in the hours leading up to a race, and others follow strong pre-race rituals, which allows them to stay just calm enough to function to their potential.
Performance anxiety, on the other hand is more deeply rooted in fear-based thinking of ‘what can go wrong’ and ‘am I good enough?’. In these cases, people are using their wonderful brains, to actively imagine the worst things that can happen, instead of the best. There are many reasons that people do this, but one of these is simply habit and this is where the visualization exercises during training, comes into play. Give yourself permission to visualize the best possible outcome. You are not taking anything away from anyone by performing to your best, you are simply adding to the awesome energy of the event. It may take several tries to consciously start imagining all the positive things that can happen, and it may feel forced at first, but it works. We are strongly biased to have a negativity bias, and for many people, the feeling that they don’t deserve greatness runs very deep. But this is the power of sport, you can practice slowly changing your mindset through the very practice of training for and performing even a 5 KM event!
Fear is Normal
After being in sport for 40 years, watching athletes every day, racing with them, training with them, travelling with them and coaching them, I can tell you that fear cannot be made to simply disappear. Fear is part of being human, even if the fear is no longer valid for basic survival. Overcoming fear is not about denial and avoidance, it is about awareness and developing skills that work for you. Pretending that fear doesn’t exist means it sits there simmering and when push comes to shove, it will come out roaring with the power of being not only ignored, but neglected. If fear is preventing you from enjoying what you know you can enjoy, then it’s totally worthwhile doing something about it. Facing your fears of performing, or racing is a good start.
Fear and Joy
Pretending your goals and dreams are less than they are, or meaningless (in order to side track fear into taking a back seat) takes away the joy you will receive when you achieve those wonderful goals. To receive the joy, you have to acknowledge the great height of your feeling, and fear is right there with you! My fear came as voices, and taunts, and doubts. ‘You won’t make it.’ ‘Other people are great.’ ‘You’ll never be good enough.’ ‘You should probably get a real job soon.’ ‘Who are you to want so much for yourself?’ I was nervous about racing often, because I was so invested, but the single largest fear was simply feeling like an imposter in a world full of the ‘real deal.’
So, how did I stay in sport so long if I had such negative voices to deal with, such fear running alongside me during every training run, taking the plane with me on every trip to Europe? I learned to work with my fear. I learned that it was going to be there no matter what and I could not make it go away. I took fear with me, but I did not let fear step in and ruin my party. I loved to run! Loved the thrill of racing, the excitement and the endorphins. I loved everything about training and racing, except for the fear. So, I learned to embrace the joy, because while fear could get in the way of my dreams and my plans, and my goals for myself, fear stood NO chance against my joy. Joy made fear retreat to a corner and sit there silent. Fear never really went away, but as long as I felt joy in what I was doing, it stopped being so annoying. My whole website creativity around the running life and now, my clinics, are built around this premise: run for joy. Run for fear only when you are crossing the road and a truck is coming, or if something dangerous is in your path. The rest of the darn time, run for joy. It is intrinsic, it is not about what you achieve or what you win: it is who and what you believe in.
My favourite quote about fear is by Elizabeth Gilbert: “Let fear come for the road trip, but it has to sit in the back seat and doesn’t get to touch the radio dial, and it certainly cannot drive the car!” (Big Magic)
So, learning to deal with your fear in sports is not about being fearless. It’s not about defeating your fear. It’s about knowing your fear (knowing yourself!) and having the courage and tenacity to go for it anyway, because your gut feeling is right. It is what you want.
Facing fear, then, is about being brave! Having courage is about knowing fear and being ready to endure it. The repetition of being brave, small acts of personal bravery and courage build resilience and self-esteem. Every time you show up to practice and events, even though you are a little scared, this is what builds character.
To remind yourself of your ability to put fear in the backseat, hold firmly onto the idea of trust.
I have trust in my integrity, my training and my ability; I have confidence in what I have done so far.
Read those lines over and over and take that with you into your last weeks of training and definitely onto the start line. I believe the moment of truth for a lot of people –that place somewhere in the late stages of a race when the discomfort is calling so clearly – is a lot about trust. Suddenly, in a flash, our belief in our ability to finish strong falters and then so does our stride. In your most flawless races, you bring massive trust of your own ability. You must trust that your body will perform, trust your confidence will not falter, and trust that it will simply all work out.
Run For Joy – Lucy Smith
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.
While I don’t actually know exactly what makes YOU happy, I have been coaching long enough to have learned a few things about happiness, satisfaction and success in sport. Several decades in and the positive psychology movement has shown us that focussing on happiness as the end goal is probably the wrong question. Happiness comes and goes and as Mark Manson so cleverly states, …’instead, focus on meaning—finding meaningful activities and building meaningful relationships. If you nail those two, happiness takes care of itself’.
From my own experience in sport, things our culture likes to promote as happiness-inducing, like nailing large sponsorship contracts, prize money and winning the Olympics, isn’t the magic formula to happiness in running. The other thing you see promoted as the key to lasting happiness is the perfect thin, lean and sculpted body you will get if only you try hard enough. And of course, none of us can ever try hard enough, but the diet and supplement industry is making gazillions from our efforts.
In fact, I was giving a talk once, back when I could give in-person talks, reflecting on mistakes I had made in sport, mistakes that caused me to lose. I was remembering a time when I pretty much ruined my World Student Games 10 000m because I went and ran a hard 10 miles with my idol, the current Canadian 10 000m champion - 2 days prior to the event. As I told the story, with this huge smile, I suddenly paused - because the memory of that run, which took place through 10 miles of gorgeous British countryside - was such a happy memory, and whatever failure I had processed was now a positive thing. It was moments like these that created connection, joy and meaning in my life.
Now I am retired, it is clear as day how much gratitude I have for the whole career - the ups and the downs. I have been observing athletes young and old learn sport skills, and find sport success for over three decades and during that time I have been able to see how meaning and connection are so related to happiness and enjoyment. While we are all motivated by different things in life, I have found some fairly common themes of why people stick with training, stay in sport and what makes them feel satisfied. It’s all about the meaning we make, and I call this intrinsic joy.
This being the beginning of a new year, but a year without precedent, I guess the logical place to begin is with anything you think you should be doing (like New Year’s Resolutions that are shame based). Throw those shoulds away, is my advice. Should is so loaded with unmet expectations and pressure to be better or different than you are now, my recommendation is to begin with simply where you are right now.
Take stock of what you have at the moment and start building a foundation of emotional strength that will keep you wanting to train, and take you through this year. Look at your training during the pandemic, especially, as a meaningful way to stay healthy, to support your mental health and as a tool for building your emotional fortitude and your sense of confidence in your ability to thrive - your resilience.
Whatever your training or chosen movement is - running, walking, strength training, yoga, triathlon - one of the most helpful skills you can build is the practice of positive thinking every time you train. If you want to ensure that you will stick with your training, as motivation and energy ebbs and flows, and as life (and the pandemic) tries it’s hardest to get in the way, you want to strengthen your practice by associating your fitness with meaning. Then, happiness takes care of itself. As the season of uncertainty continues to progress you want to have a solid foundation of good habits. Things that keep you on the course, generally going in the right direction and not getting lost in the trees over and over again. Taking on this challenge gives you the opportunity to become a better emotional athlete.
Before I outline a few skills of positive practice, let’s take a brief look at happiness and clear up some myths that are over exposed in popular culture. In the field of positive psychology, positive practice is not about being blissfully happy or on cloud nine about life all the time. This isn’t realistic and it’s also exhausting. I’m talking about the baseline of happiness, wherever that is for you, that takes into account that messy feelings happen and some days sort of suck.
Positive practice is the expectation that things can and will go well and you have the power to make them so. So you are content about your path, not putting ‘happiness’ on hold until you have a positive outcome. Positive practice is about making a decision: you show up ready and happy to train. You don’t need a great training day to ensure your happiness. You also acknowledge that some days are harder than others, but the general feeling is of an upward trend or at least a steady one. I drew a picture once that illustrated this. (See below)
Please note that I understand ‘happiness’ is just a word. It is a word I use to describe a calm emotional state, akin to peace, contentment and acceptance. It is not the sort of overzealous manic state that is overcompensating for a lack of confidence, self worth or inner peace. Positive is also just a word. A Positive (noun) is a constructive quality. Positive as an adjective refers to the presence of something (rather than the absence). Nor do I have this all figured out – inner peace and training and how they contribute to a meaningful life are works in progress for each person.
How does this play out in your training? Show up Happy
Happy to be there, grateful for the opportunity to move, happy for anything that you love about sport. And by happy, I mean authentically positive. Bring the presence of something that adds, do not leave it out. Be prepared. Put some thought into how you will be ready, how you will succeed. Be present and know that showing up and being ready is often enough to create a positive emotional state.
Here are 3 of my favourite doable, positive practices:
1. Plan your rest, recovery and nutrition around all sessions, especially key sessions in the week. This is positive practice.
2. Visualize beforehand your optimal mental state: calm, energized, happy, relaxed. Meditate. This is positive practice.
3. Be mindful of your whole journey through fitness and sport and know that this right now, this road we are all on, is the reward. It's OK right now. Don’t wait to be happy.
“How does this positive practice play out for those days when I just can’t motivate myself to train, especially during the pandemic when I don’t have my run group, or my friends to meet”.
One of the best ways to prepare for the inevitable ups and downs is to practice positive skills consistently during training and also, not to expect perfection, or your version of perfection, for every session. Practicing good habits on the days when things are going well and feel smooth creates an opportunity to bring this forth on the not so great days.
As a young athlete in my early 20’s, I wanted to ‘shoot the lights out’ with every session. I approached every training session like it was the world championships, or a test of my worth as an athlete. There was a roller coaster of emotion attached to this style of training. It took a lot of energy to get ‘up’ for all the sessions, and an elated feeling every time I smashed a PB for a loop in a training. There was also frequent crushing disappointment and despair when I wasn’t having a good day, when my body simply would not perform. I used to have stress dreams where I was trying my hardest to run around the track, but it was like I was running through molasses and nothing in my power could make my legs turn over faster. Over time, lots of time, I had to evolve into a more mature athlete, and my focus became more about how I was executing the session, what skills I was practicing, and allowing for imperfection. This made me a friendlier athlete to both myself and my team mates, which made for more connection and meaning, and the happiness (intrinsic joy) looked after itself. Despite hundreds of sub par (on paper) training sessions, I continued to enjoy running, and still do to this day.
Writing about the art of moving well and the lived experience of a life in sport.