It’s Not the Legs or the Lungs; It’s the Brain

Running hurts.  That is the main reason most people don’t do it.  Sure, if you start slowly, incrementally increase your pace and distance, and choose to only run when it’s sunny and cool, you can avoid all but minor discomfort.  But if you want to achieve something meaningful, you are going to have to push beyond what’s comfortable.

So you train your legs and lungs with a steady diet of easy runs, long runs, and speedwork.  And you throw in a decent strength training session a couple times a week.  But how do you strength train your brain?  You can be in the best shape of your life physically, but if you neglect to actively work on your mental fitness, you cannot reach your full potential, both as an athlete and as a human being.

At the ZAP running retreat I attended last weekend, Sarah Crouch led a powerful class on mental strength and what it takes to push past your perceived limits.  Sarah is a 2:32 marathoner sponsored by Reebok who was the second female American finisher in the 2016 Boston Marathon.  She knows what it means to be mentally strong.

Each athlete has a different mental outlook and most fall somewhere on a spectrum of acceptance and avoidance.  Accepters understand on the starting line that pain is coming and they will find ways to push themselves through it.  Avoiders tell themselves that everything is great, they are strong and capable and all will go well.  Neither style, Sarah said, is better than the other and most of us have elements of both.  Knowing which side of the scale you spend more time on is very helpful in finding effective techniques to override the brain’s pleas to slow down.

For me, I have elements of both, but probably lean towards avoidance.  I always toe the line feeling like a badass ready to conquer the world.  I use positive mantras to keep myself even and on pace.  When things feel tough, I repeat things in my head like “calm,” “deep breath,” “you are light.”  Near the end of a race, I lock on a runner in front of me and pretend he or she is my prey that I am reeling in.

But I don’t always feel like this. Negative thoughts creep in that seem perfectly reasonable at the time.  “You can just stop, you know.”  Or, “No one cares how fast you run this.  It’s okay to slow down.”  Or, “you are going as fast as you can and you are still not going to get your goal.  Give up, already!”  The tough part is that all of these statements may actually be true and logical.  But they are sabotage to my race or workout.

So to combat these thoughts, I have given them an identity and her name is Nancy.  (It’s like the opposite of Beyonce’s stage alter ego, Sascha Fierce.)  I know that negative Nancy and all of her baggage are coming with me on the run (acceptance!).  She will show up at the worst time and gently tell me that everything is okay and it’s perfectly reasonable and smart to slow down.  She’ll remind me that I can get a ride back to the start at anytime or that I could even pretend to fall and end up in the medical tent.  Nancy is sweet and kind to me and she means well.  But she is pure evil.  When she comes, I can say hello and then shut the door in her face.

There are as many exercises for your brain as there are for your legs and I plan to continue working on them and writing about them.  We learned several more in Sarah’s session that I will definitely practice as I continue to get stronger.

At the end of class, Sarah asked about our goals and I got called on.  My A goal, as many of you know, if the stars are aligned and the weather is good and everything is perfect, is a 2:59:59 marathon.  Sarah looked at me, knowing my strengths and my progress over the last two years, said, “that should be your B goal.” My jaw dropped and I think I forgot to breathe for a moment.  To have someone of her caliber believe in me like that is something I will always hold with me.

Which means I have a new mantra:  “B goal.”

What about you?  Any mental strength tips that get you through the tough times?  Let me know!

6 Replies to “It’s Not the Legs or the Lungs; It’s the Brain”

  1. Claire, wonderful post. This was my favorite session of the camp for sure. I found that my biggest take away from Sarah's lecture was: Wow. I would never think about or speak to anyone else the way I think about or speak to myself. Your Nancy, I thought, was a brilliant way to separate that little nasty voice. I will have to come up with a name for my inner voice. Its amazing to me that we have all probably thought the same things in a race or when we are pushing ourselves. "no one cares if you do this or not" is something that gets me all the time! It's interesting that you you fall into that avoidance category. Coach Sarah said she was in that category as well. When I saw your face on the fast finish long run on Saturday, you were clearly in the pain cave. If we really want to destroy our boundaries and set new limits for ourselves, we all need to visit that place. This is one of the most fascinating things about running to me. How we deal with it when we get there will depend on what mental strategies we use. I have found that positive mantras just haven't really been helpful to me when I am there. I usually find the most success when I accept the pain and even tell myself it is just going to get worse in a few miles. That helps me deal with the pain that is present and almost be thankful that it isn't as bad as it's going to get. Sometimes I just have to zone out on my breathing. Sometimes something repetitive, like The Peanut Butter Jelly Time song will get me through a tough patch.
    1. Thanks for sharing, Rebecca. I love hearing what's in everyone's head and how each person deals with it. You never know what's going to work at what time so having every tool available really helps!
  2. So well written!! Don't we all have a Nancy constantly on our shoulder?!? would we be human if we didn't or didn't admit we did? I think you hit the nail on the head, Nancy will always be there, we can say hello and close that door but hang out with Sasha Fierce the rest of the time....just need to come up with our own super hero alter ego :-)
    1. I would love to hear what everyone's naming their Nancies!
  3. Laurie Householder says: Reply
    Oh, boy... the "no one cares" thing gets me. "No one cares what my time is. No one even knows what a good time IS for me." I told Sarah afterwards in my coaching session, that I CARE! And that needs to be my focus. I repeat "PROUD" in my head when this voice gets loud, because at the end of the day, I want to finish a race feeling proud of myself and that won't happen if I cave to the negative voice. (I love the saying on their mugs!! So very true!) And you are right- to have someone of Sarah's caliber tell me I'm aiming too low- WOW! Funny how it takes that external validation to open ourselves up to the possibility of expecting more for ourselves.
    1. So true! Getting an outside perspective makes a huge difference. As runners we are so stuck in our own heads sometimes that it's hard to look at ourselves objectively. That's why coaching matters so much!

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