Wednesday 13 October 2010

"Half of this Sport is 90% Mental"; August and September Ps OM

When Yogi Berra infamously quipped that "half of (baseball) is 90% mental", he wasn't looking for a roundabout way of saying that the success in the sport was 45% dependent on the mind; he was trying, in his unique way, to say the that the mind was a really important in baseball! And, if he was right about baseball-- a sport requiring merely freakish hand-eye coordination and very flexible shoulder ligaments-- imagine the importance of the mind in a sport such as distance running, in which athletes compete head-to-head, under the influence of mild hypoxia, with heart rates pushing 200bpm. It could be that up to 90% of running success is 90% mental!

I tried to address the mental side of racing and training in a much earlier post (on so-called "mental toughness"), in which I suggested that the most important kind of psychological wherewithal in this sport is simply that which is required to get one's sometimes reluctant ass out the door on a daily basis! With another racing season now upon us, however, I thought I'd offer a few specific ideas on how to ensure that the mind stays out of the body's way, so to speak, during the heat of competitive battle.

For the most part, the mental side of racing really is a matter of simply keeping our various cognitions-- usually a mix of mental wanderings ("Gee, that's a funny looking dog over there"), frets about insignificant details ("I should have tucked my shirt in. I always tuck my shirt in!) and much deeper insecurities ("Who do I think I am trying to run this fast and beat these other runners? I really suck, have always sucked, and will always suck.")-- from interfering with what we have trained our bodies to do. Distance running being among the purest of all physiological tests, the body will tend to perform very close to its potential on a given day once the simple signal "run!" has been sent from the brain. All other things being equal, therefore, the difference between a decent performance and an outstanding performance resides in our ability, in the early going, to keep our anxiety low and our focus very diffuse, and, in the later going, to calmly resist our perfectly understandable desire to "make it all stop!" If an athlete can also retain his competitive drive, and keep in mind his goals going into the race-- instead of, for instance, dissolving in self-pity-- then so much the better.

Reflecting on/Trusting Our Training:

A good mental approach therefore starts with reminding ourselves that our bodies can and will do, more or less, what we are about to ask of them (provided we are realistic to begin with in formulating our racing goals-- a whole other subject). I call this stage of mental preparation that of "reviewing/trusting our training". If you care to ask, you will find that most successful racers think most about their training, including specific moments in key workouts, in the final days and hours before they toe the line. This is, in fact, how good racers determine when they will race and what they're racing goals will be on a particular day. The specific content of these reflections is usually how they felt running a particular pace in training, or how they may have surprised themselves with their strength at the end of a particularly challenging session. These kinds of thoughts produce the kind of instant calm and focus that good racers display as they approach the line, and in the early stages of races. The situation is, of course, completely different if an athlete knows he/she is not properly prepared, but has chosen to race anyway. These instances call for a whole different and exceptional set of mental strategies that I don't intend to discuss here.

Clearing the Mind:

Very early on in my racing career, I recognized that there was inevitably a moment-- usually only seconds before I was called to my mark-- when my mind would go blank and I would become completely and calmly resigned to what I was about to put myself through on the race course. This was the moment when all of the fussing, speculation, and doubt would suddenly cease and I would begin direct my attention strictly to the moment at hand. For me, this was a spontaneous occurrence, and my ability to make it happen without trying probably explains much of my early racing success. As I matured, however, I gradually learned to induce this moment of resignation hours rather than seconds before the starting gun. Learning to clear my mind of it nervous fretting and fussing was never easy, nor could I always achieve it, but attempting to do so would become an indispensable part of my pre-race routine. Even today, when I am far less nervous than I was as an open athlete, running for prize money or national titles, I still practice the drill of mind-clearing in the hours before competition. In practical terms, the start of the process can be as simple as recognizing that I am fretting and fussing about details that are very unlikely to affect the outcome of my race (Is my number pinned on the way I like it? Does one of my racing socks have a hole in it? Did I remember to bring my hat?), and cutting myself off. The trick here is to remind myself that I am prepared to race in all of the most important ways-- that I have trained effectively-- and that I will be able to handle the difficult moments of the race when they come. I will also often force myself to recall times when all of the details about which I'm fussing went awry, or when I felt physically terrible warming up for a race (or even during the race itself) and still managed to run well.

Messing with Routines:

Many athletes see their strict, and sometimes even ritualized, pre-race routines--routines that dictate everything from what they eat for breakfast to exactly how many leg swings they perform in their warm-up-- as essential to "getting into the zone" for racing. More often than not, however, such strict routines, because they inevitably prove impossible to follow in every circumstance, become a source of unnecessary pre-race stress rather than a way of coping with it. Most runners eventually learn from experience that their pre-race routines hold no special power when it comes to racing success-- most often when circumstances conspire to forcibly interrupt these observances (who has not heard of an athlete accidentally getting to the race site 20mins before start time, yet going on to run his/her best race of the season?) My advice to those runners who like to steel their mental armour by following very precise pre-race routines is to experiment with deliberately interrupting these routines and learning to cope without the comfort they provide. Watching my junior runners fret endlessly about insignificant pre-race details has made me consider deliberately messing with their routines at less important events by, for instance: telling them an incorrect starting time for their event (forcing them to run to the line without a proper warm-up--something that occasionally happens anyway!); or, deliberately arriving at the race site later than planned, so that they learn to cope with the stress of both knowing they will be late and having to improvise a warm-up routine on short notice. I have never done this (at least not on purpose!) and will never do it; but, I have sometimes welcomed situations in which athletes have been forced to cope with a sudden change in their normal pre-race routine, and have often encouraged them not become attached to a particular set of pre-race rituals that they may have learned to associate with a good performance. We always, of course, hope to have control our final pre-race preparations; but, we need to understand that there are many equally effective ways to approach those last few hours or minutes before a race. We also need to be reminded that our race day performance, whether good or bad, is almost always affected far more by the big variables-- things such as the day-to-day quality of our training, and our adherence to good support routines in the weeks and months before a race-- than it is by the details of our last minute preparation. Not keeping this fact in mind can lead to loss of mid-race focus and the collapse of our resolve at the moment of greatest difficulty, as our fevered brains, searching for an escape route from the discomfort and anxiety about possibly failing to reach our goals, recalls all of the little lapses in our pre-race routine, meaningless though they almost always are, and turns them into excuses to give up. Even where these lapses are more significant-- such as when, for instance, we time our pre-racing feeding inaccurately-- it does little good to fret about them beforehand, because little worries will tend to become magnified a hundred-fold in the moments of great distress and self-doubt that beset us in the latter half of races.

Searching out the Familiar:

When we seek the comfort of a special, personal pre-race set of rituals, what we are attempting to do is recreate the familiar as a means of coping with uncertainty-- and what could be more uncertain than the challenge of racing, and the question of how we will ultimately face up to it? There are, however, more and less constructive ways of connecting with the familiar as we prepare to confront the unknown of a race yet to be run. A strict, ritualized routine may turn out to be a prison-house that ultimately prevents us from achieving an optimal performance. Recalling that we have trained long, hard and effectively in preparation to race, however, is a way of conjuring up the familiar ("it's just running, and I know how to run") that can be both comforting and liberating. During the race itself, things like recalling the feel of our training on specific days, sharing pacing with a training partner, keying off a runner with whom we have battled before, or simply remembering from what it feels like to have to work hard for x-number of minutes (and reminding ourselves that we do it all the time), can evoke the familiar in ways that reinforce our emotional control and mental focus. Our ability to draw on the familiar begins, as much of the above suggests, with the success of our training in actually reproducing the mental and physical demands of racing (without, that is, the full weight or racing's stress). A well designed training plan (and, just as importantly, a well designed planned that is properly adhered to in all its detail) thus prepares both body and mind together for the rigours of racing. In short, the more successfully our training places us in race-like situations-- by, i.e. accurately reproducing the physical sensations of a properly run race-- the more familiar, and thereby stress-free, racing becomes, and the less we need to rely on superhuman feats of mental focus and emotional control in order to achieve our racing goals. When I hear athletes at all levels describe successful racing experiences, the theme is invariably that of familiarity and relative emotional calm. Typical comments are: "It felt just like my last long tempo session"; "I knew when I had 2k to go that I'd be fine, because I felt exactly like I did in x training session."; "I was a little fast a 1k, but I knew based on x workout that I'd be fine, so I just relaxed and kept it rolling." What emerges quite clearly from these reports is that athletes draw in very important ways on familiar images and sensations from their training (and also from other successful races) in order to get their minds and emotions out of the way of their bodies in race situations.

As I tried to explain in my early post on "mental toughness", good mental preparation and execution is far more a matter of good, long term physical preparation-- or rather, perhaps, that the physical and the mental are a totality in the training process-- when it comes to preparing to race. I've tried to suggest a few specific strategies for coping with the mental and emotional demands of racing; but, in order to reduce the premium on having special mental or emotional attributes when it comes to racing (and only a few runners have these naturally, I have found), or to avoid the need to resort to mental tricks, runners need to ensure that their training is sound, and they need to reflect on the bigger, longer term determinants of racing success as they prepare to toe the line. It is no surprise, after all, that the most successful racers also appear to be the "toughest" (i.e. they appear less stressed when racing, are able to come back strongly in the latter stages of races, etc.). The truth of the matter is, the most successful racers have often succeeded in reducing the mental and emotional dimension of racing to a minimum, thereby enabling their bodies to do what they have been trained to do, and to so as routinely as possible.

P-K Ps OM for August and Sept:

The demands of taking over coaching duties at Queen's have prevented me from getting to the important matter of recognizing top performances by P-K members for the past two months, so here goes.

The contenders for August honours are: Rick Minichiello, for his outstanding track 5k P.B. of 15:07, set while soundly, and in very un-masterly fashion, out-kicking junior P-K standout Rob Asselstine; Emily Tallen, for her hard-closing and close runner-up finish to NYC-based Ethiopian Alemtsehay Misganaw in the Edmonton Half Marathon; and, junior Clara Langely, who battled her way back to form late in the summer to record a 5 second personal best over 3k, becoming in the process the fastest grade 10 performer over the distance in the province. And POM honours for August go to Rick Minichiello, who continues a remarkable season that has seen him cut massive chunks from his personal bests (from a minute or so over 5k to several minutes over HM), becoming the top masters distance runner in the province this season in the process. Stay tuned for what I hope will be a battle royale between Rick and me at this year's national masters X-C championships (if I can manage to uphold my end of the bargain, that is!)

The choice for September honouree is an absolute no-brainer. In fact, in spite of the usual run of solid performances by group members during the month, there is really no need to consider other nominees. The winning performance can be none other than Chris Mercier's 6 minute marathon personal best in Berlin on the 26th. Chris prepared brilliantly through the hottest months of one of the hottest summers in many years, negotiated the tran-continental jet lag, paced his first half brilliantly, and overcame some acute gut problems in the 2nd half to run 2:24:54. With this performance, Chris has now revised his P.B.s for every distance from 5k to marathon since April-- and this at 37 years of age! If I were holding a contest for P-K performer of the year, and not just for individual performance, it would be very hard to ignore what Chris has done this season-- and he is not through yet. Pending a successful recovery, Chris will take aim at his 10k best, and consider lining up for Nats X-C in late November. Big congrats, Chris!