How bad do you want it? To realize your potential as an athlete, you must respond with some version of this answer: More. And then you have to prove it.
I am on mile 15 of the 2008 RNR San Diego Marathon and my pace has slowed down to the point where I knew my 3:30 goal was now out of reach, but a glimmer of hope remained for a Boston qualifier time (3:40). It was my second marathon, three years after I vowed to never run the distance again. Still a rookie, I made a couple of mistakes during the first half of the race – 1. I allowed my pace to be dictated by the pace group who had a fast start 2. Not slowing down enough to properly hydrate (Running and Drinking not my strong suit). After the half marathon mark, I started to feel the effects of my rookie mistakes. Every inch of my leg muscles ached. However, instead of focusing on the pain as hard as it was to ignore, I directed my energy where strength remained, my arms. Like a broken record, this phrase replayed in my head ‘Swing the arms and the legs will follow’. My hopeful spirit remained intact, not a moment did it falter despite the burning pain in my quads. The final mile was my slowest but the finish line was a mere minutes away. I looked at my watch, a smile beamed across my face and a burst of energy pushed me through the end. I did it – I was going to BOSTON.
This was a story of my mind’s capacity to cope while my body was in distress mode. In the book, How Bad Do You Want It?, Matt Fitzgerald introduced terms such as ‘Perception of effort’ and ‘Coping skills’ to define the new psychology of Mind over Muscle. Basically, the way to improve performance is to focus on developing coping skills to change the athlete’s relationship to perceived effort.
Perception of effort – what athletes normally describe as “how hard” exercise feels in a given moment
Coping – a person’s behavioral, emotional, and cognitive responses to discomfort and stress.
To further explore this concept, we as amateur athletes need to play the role of sports psychologist by experiencing the discomforts and stresses of endurance sports, as the author suggests, but with the knowledge of the most effective coping methods harbored by elite endurance athletes. And through his brilliant storytelling, Matt Fitzgerald reveals the trials and tribulations of elite endurance athletes as they display their method of coping skills to overcome hurdles that allowed them to achieve peak performance and win races.
The book covers 12 chapters with every chapter featuring a number of elite endurance athletes – runners, cyclists, triathletes, rowers. Each story concluded with a victorious performance but never without hardship or a struggle. I want to highlight five lessons learned I plan to apply in my own training and upcoming races:
- “Bracing yourself – always expecting your next race to be your hardest yet – is a much more mature and effective way to prepare mentally for competition.” I always approach every race with positive thoughts and affirmations. However, in reality as someone who has several races under my belt, I am familiar with the discomfort felt running a race with a PR goal in mind. It would help if I ‘brace’ myself for the challenges I know will arise usually during the final miles of a race. “The more discomfort an athlete expects, the more she can tolerate, and the more discomfort she can tolerate, the faster she can go.”
- “An athlete who believes in herself whether she succeeds or fails is able to put her goal out of mind and race in the moment, and to race in the moment – in flow – is to race better.” Flow is defined as being completely immersed in a purposeful activity. For me, it’s difficult to let go of time goals where I am more engrossed in checking my watch for pace and HR, rather than just be in the moment. Belief in yourself and in your training releases the anxiety of achieving a specific goal, therefore allowing you to relax and focus on the process rather than the outcome.
- “The coping skill that is required to avoid overtraining is self-trust. An athlete must base her decisions on whether to push or back off on the messages that she receives from her own body rather than on what other athletes are doing or on a generalized fear of resting.” I agree with Tim Noakes’ minimalist approach to training – do the least amount of work that will produce the greatest results. Of course, the minimal amount varies with every athlete. In my case, I was capable of achieving a Boston qualifying time with peak mileage of less than 50 miles/week in my training. It’s tempting to increase the volume as we think more work yields better results. Paula Newby-Fraser stated “To me the greatest lesson as an athlete and in training is just don’t get greedy…Always save a little bit. I think that’s what precluding a lot of athletes from longevity and causing a lot of injuries right now. Everybody wants more…”
- “When people work together, their brains release greater amounts of mood-lifting, discomfort-suppressing endorphins than they do when the same task is undertaken alone.” It’s the group effect and what has given me the boost to complete challenging interval workouts when I run on Tuesday nights with the San Diego Track Club. I feed off from the energy of the other runners reducing my level of perceived effort, thus helping me perform at a higher level than if I were to do the workout on my own.
- “Is it worth it? The intensity of an athlete’s motivation to achieve the best performance he or she can is determined largely by the value placed on it.” In the end, it’s a question we have to ask ourselves when we put in the time and effort training for a particular race. What do we receive in return? I discovered in every race, my ultimate goal is to perform to the best of my ability whether or not I achieve it in a specific time. To me, it’s about determining my full potential in the sport of running.
Training the mind to accomplish spectacular feats has always been an interest of mine. The book contains so many more lessons to re-read, think over, and figure out how to use it to improve my mental fitness.
In closing, I want to leave another thought-provoking quote from the book:
The path between you and the best you is unexplored territory. You are on your own, to some extent, to discover not only what motivates you to “leave it all out there” but also your special formula for maximum mental fitness. This is what it means to become your own sports psychologist.
Thanks to Wendy at Taking the Long Way Home for recommending this book for her monthly book club link-up.
If you’re interested in learning more about the phenomenon of Mind over Muscle, head over to Amazon and get a copy:
Disclosure: The links provided (both text and image) are affiliate links through the Amazon associates program. It simply means if you click on it to purchase the book, I will earn a small credit for the referral.