All in the Mind

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Acclaimed
sports coach Matt Fitzgerald has a simple motto, “Train the brain and the rest
will follow.” And we’ve all heard the Comrades experts say that the race is 40%
physical and 60% mental, and that your physical training will only get you to
the 60km mark – after that, your mind has to take you the rest of the way. But
is the mind really that important when it comes to running? The answer is a
definite yes. In his book
Psycho-Cybernetics,
Maxwell Maltz writes about the power of our self-image and how we limit and
restrict ourselves based on our self-image. The truth is that most us achieve
far less than we are capable of, simply because our self-image doesn’t allow us
to.

 

I realised
for the first time the power of the mind in October 2011, when I took part in
the Munich Marathon. I lined up at the start aiming for a PB, but instead ended
up tearing my Soleus muscle around the 14km mark. By the 16km mark I was ready
to throw in the towel, because every step was excruciating, but at that moment
I learnt an invaluable life and running lesson, about the power of the mind. I
said to myself, “I have not come all this way to feel pain.” I literally
switched off the pain and continued to run at the best possible pace I could
manage. I ended up missing my PB, but still managed to cross the line in 2:57:29
– at which point the pain flooded my calf and I could hardly walk.

 

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR BRAIN

The
training we do is not purely about the physical aspect, but also has a huge
impact on our mental state. For example, every time we drag ourselves out of
bed and head out the door to train, despite not wanting to, it makes us that
much stronger mentally. Every time we push through a tough session, despite our
bodies begging us to stop, makes us stronger mentally. While it is important to
listen to our bodies and not overdo it, we need to learn when it’s our body
calling for a time-out and warning us of looming injury, or when it’s just our
mind giving in and wanting us to quit. When it’s the mind, never give in. You
can conquer it, and if you’ve done so once, you can conquer it again. The
bottom line is that if we quit in training, we will quit at one point or
another in the race.

 

Another
aspect of training your brain is mentally preparing ourselves for our next big
goal. This process is called visualisation and should not be underestimated.
There’s a true story about a prisoner of war who was locked up in solitary
confinement for seven years. To stop himself from going insane, he would
visually play a full round of golf every day in his mind. He would see himself
lining up the ball, feel the club swinging through the air and making contact
with the ball, then see the ball landing on the fairway and ultimately putting
it into the hole. Before being locked up he was a very average golfer, shooting
in the mid 90’s, but after he was released from prison he shot a 74 on his
first round.

 

When
building up to a race, visualise it in your mind. Feel your nerves as you line
up at the start. See the start banner, hear the gun as your heart rate jumps a
notch. Feel your feet hitting the ground and your lungs expanding with every
breath. In your mind, run the route as you plan to run it on race day, then see
yourself crossing the finish line and feel the emotions of achieving your goal.
If we spend a few minutes each day for one to two weeks before race day
visualising our race in this way, we will find that on race day we are mentally
prepared for what’s coming. We’ve already ‘run’ up Polly Shortts. We’ve already
conquered the route. We’ve already crossed the line.

 

SET YOURSELF GOALS

Lastly, set
yourself challenging and achievable goals, ones that you really want. If you
don’t really desire that Bill Rowan, or you don’t really want that sub-80 half
marathon, or you’re not really sure why you’re tackling 160km, then it’s going
to be very hard to achieve your goal. Part of the mental battle is already won
if you’ll do almost anything to achieve what you’re aiming for. And always
remember, it’s all in the mind!

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