Want to be faster? It’s all in your head - Women's Running

Want to be faster? It’s all in your head

Author: Women's Running Magazine

Read Time:   |  October 16, 2014

Chrissie Wellington: It’s all in your head Want to run faster? When it comes to any sporting achievement, success is a combination of many different training facets as well as other ‘life’ balls we juggle like work, studying and family. It’s a case of trying to fit the pieces together into the best running jigsaw possible.

Of all the body parts we train, none is more important than the head. There’s a culture in endurance sports for logbooks and data: tangible indicators of how far we’ve gone or how hard we’ve pushed. People think that if their logbook is in order then their preparation must be too. Then they hit 30km in a marathon and their bodies are racked with pain and fatigue – that’s when they need a mind that’s as powerful as their quadriceps.

Yes, some of us are born self-motivated, optimistic and disciplined. Characteristics that stand you in good stead for success, but there are also tools and strategies that you can develop and use to ensure strength of mind. I believe that any athlete should invest time in training the brain to enable them to fulfil their potential.

Put yourself under the microscope

There’s a lot of repetition and ‘alone-time’ when running and you need to learn to handle this. It’s no use believing you’ll miraculously develop that focus on race day, so maintain the same level of concentration in training as in a competition. Break the session or race down into manageable chunks – I always think of the marathon as 4x10K and a bit. It’s vital to stay in the moment, because if your mind wanders, so does your body. Don’t think too far ahead, and constantly ask yourself questions. Are my arms and face relaxed? Am I working as hard as I can? Am I breathing deeply into my diaphragm? If you neglect that self-assessment, your face and shoulders could tense, your fists may clench or you may hold your breath or gasp unnecessarily.

Visualisation is an important ‘mental’ tool

Find somewhere quiet and then picture yourself as strong and successful – internalising those uplifting sensations. It’s also essential to have a mantra and motivational material. I carry a dog-eared copy of ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling everywhere I go. I even write its words on all of my water bottles before a race – strengthening my mind with the words that encourage fortitude, level-headedness and tenacity. In addition, I have a memory bank of reassuring thoughts and images – of difficult training sessions, of previous races, of family and friends, of beautiful landscapes or even of finish line pizzas! For me, smiling is also crucial – physically and psychologically. It relaxes my face and gives me a lift and also shows how much I love competing.

Make your goals tangible

It’s also important to recall your goals and motivations, and make them tangible – writing them on post-it notes or making sure that a certain photo is your screen saver. These motivations are so individual: that little voice inside that urges you to fulfil your potential, the challenge, the chance to test yourself, to visit new places, to compete against others, to honour a loved one’s memory or race for a cause. Having them at the fore of your mind will ensure you retain focus.

Embrace the possibility of failing

Many people want to try something new – to run your first 5K, to step up from a half to a full marathon, to do a PB, but many are too scared to listen to the voice. This fear is immobilising, but it is also our own personal construct. Of course there are times when its important to be conservative – especially if it’s the pain associated with injury – but you also need to teach your brain to accept each new level of exertion as something that can be endured safely. Remembering the discomfort of sessions or races in which we have emerged successful gives us the confidence to go through it again and the evidence to present to the brain that we are capable of handling it. That way, the next time we hit 30K in the marathon and want to stop, we know that a) we have been here before and b) our exhaustion can be overcome.

Intuition vs. spreadsheets

There’s a temptation to base sessions on what heart monitors or stopwatches are saying. The danger then is that we start to judge our limits by these devices rather than by the one that matters: the brain. I do use some quantifiable indicators in my training, such as speed/gradient on a treadmill or pace using a GPS watch – but not for all sessions.   Tangible measures can be useful – especially if someone from a distance is coaching you ­– but they are not as valuable an indicator as perceived effort. You might learn to fear exceeding a predetermined level; or you might train too hard when you’re not feeling 100 per cent in order to reach that level. In both cases you would be better served listening to yourself, and having that ability and strength to read, and react to, your own signs and signals. The other problem with obsessing over numbers is that it detracts from the ‘rawness’ of sport. We should never lose the ability to read our bodies, but we should never, ever lose the joy of the wind in our face.

Bank strength training Another essential non-running training component is strength and conditioning. Targeted S&C exercises which focused on strengthening my areas of weakness (glutes, hamstrings and core) were crucial in enabling me to hold my form and pace in the latter stages of the marathon. The final word is saved for one of the most important aspects of training – rest and recovery. This was personally hard for me to say, and even harder to put into practice. For me, sitting still was tantamount to weakness. Why spend an hour relaxing when I could be beasting myself on the road?

However, I realised it is not the actual run sessions that make us fitter, it’s the periods spent recovering when adaption, regeneration and strengthening take place. As a professional, that’s why I said I trained 24/7 – recovery is training. In fact, it’s the most important part of it, and therein is one of most important silver bullets of all.

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