Sunday, January 13, 2013

Training your mental core

Most people think of "mental toughness" as conscious thoughts which you can use to help control or persevere in a situation. By conscious thought I mean things like "Say to yourself you've done more than this is training, so I can do this here." And while those conscious thoughts can help you during extreme efforts, I've always found they are not enough. So how do you improve mental toughness? Consider this:

I can improve as a runner by working on my legs and other running specific activites. More miles, lifting exercises for legs, calf raises, etc... all make me more efficient. And then I take it to the trails: snowy, muddy,  soggy trails, and guess what? I get torched. My shoulders ache. My posture is poor. I'm scuffling my feet because I can't lift my legs up. Sure I can still drive them down all day long, but I can't get them up to drive them down in the first place. The problem here is despite having leg strength, if I don't have core strength eventually I will hit a situation where I cannot succeed. Where everything breaks down and goes to sh-t. The core gives you the platform from which you can use those peripheral muscles to excel.

So what's the analogy?

You need to strengthen your mental core, and for most people that means understanding and find it in the first place. My mental core is that area where I just "Know" something as opposed to "know". It's the area that seems to defy logic at times. Numbers, figures, HR, miles, any performance measure you can imagine: those are the domain of the head and the lower case "k" know. What is the upper case? Belief. I've said it before, to find your true mental strength you need to find that thing in which you have full, unquestioning belief. And this can be tricky because it can be different for everyone. In fact some people may have unwavering belief in the numbers, for others (such as myself by the way) there needs to be something else.

At work my belief, as egotistical as this may sound, is my unwavering belief that when dealing with logic based systems I can always fix anything I break, if I break it. It gives me great freedom to be creative and use my higher brain functions because worst case scenario is that I have to fix it, and I can ALWAYS fix it. A similar situation exists racing. My favorite Ironman ever was Lake Placid in 2008. I clearly recall going over my race plan and estimates with Tim before the race day. Based on all my numbers, the relative brevity of my preparation (I had focused on the Boston marathon that spring so didn't start Ironman prep until May),  he had my projected race performance at 10:50ish. I looked right at him and said, "I'm going under 10:30." I knew I would. I had no doubts. It didn't matter what the higher brain told me, what the facts and figures said, in my soul I knew I was going to bring it. On race day I went 10:22.

So how do you train the core? I can't really prescribe exercises. I don't think it works that way. Rather the challenge is identifying that core belief. That unshakable something. It might be your coach, or yourself, or your religion, whatever, but you need to find it. Maybe numbers are your religion. That is fine. It can be anything. And the way to find it is to look deep inside yourself for the thoughts that make you calm not tense. You can use race visualization here. Picture a situation. Run it through your mind over and over handling it differently each time. Find the one that brings you calm and ease. That's the one in which you truly believe. Your training races and performance numbers allow you to change or increase the number of scenarios you visualize, but it is the calming visualization that points to your mental core strength. Build towards that.

People say I'm good at pacing a race. This is why. By race day I've "raced" hundreds of time. I typically follow my own strategy, the one which leads me to a sense of calm. I'm analytical so the strategy is based in realism, e.g. if I start the swim very slowly I'll create a deficit I'll need to make up elsewhere. My visuals of race legs are relax/cruise, stalk, hunt. Because at the end of a long day I truly believe, I "Know", damn few guys my age can outlast me on foot. Doesn't matter what the numbers said. I won't break. Over my lifetime I too have been through some things, and this is nothing. I know pain and distress and can handle it. Physical pain is easy. I believe.