RISE With Your Mental Training
I read an article on a popular running website that gave advice on mental training for trail and ultra runners. Not only was I taken aback by the premise of the advice, I was horrified that many people might read this as good advice. It is the worst advice I have ever read, not only for ultra runners but for anyone who wants to perform at a high level.
The key premise in the article on mental training was that, "we must practice being miserable.” Let that sink in for a moment, “we must practice being miserable.”
That statement is in fact the antithesis of mental training. This is not meant to call out the author, so I won’t do that. What matters is that you have the information and knowledge you need to become your ultra best.
The purpose of mental training is to develop the techniques that you'll use to handle adversity. The outcome of effective mental training is that you embrace uncomfortable, high pressure, and high stakes situations without emotion or judgement so that you can address the challenges you face as part of the process and thrive within the challenge.
The practice of mental training involves four steps: recognize, identify, switch, and execute.
First, recognize the thoughts you’re having. Be aware of negative, unhelpful, and destructive thoughts. You may have been injured and you’re now angry that you're not going to have the race you’d hoped for. Maybe you're going much slower than expected and disappointed that you’re not going to make your goal time or embarrassed that so many people are passing you. The untrained mind is constantly swirling in judgements and emotional reactions to situations. In this first step you recognize that you're having counterproductive thoughts and reactions.
Second, identify the emotions you’re having: anger, disappoint, embarrassment, fear, and see them as separate from you. Emotions are very personal and internal. See the emotions, feeling, or judgments you’re having as independent from you. Imagine putting your emotions out in front of you and see them as information about your current state of mind. In this step, you're breaking the emotionally reactive cycle that occurs if we just let our minds go. Now you're in a the mindset to help yourself as if you were helping a friend. When a friend is in trouble, you have empathy but you're not personally feeling the emotions they’re having. You can see the bigger logical picture and help them move forward. Your suffering is not caused by the current situation as such but rather your emotional attachment to it, perhaps your desire for it to be different. By identifyingyour emotions instead of just feeling them, you become aware of them, which helps you to detach enough from them enough that you can be your own best friend.
Third, switch your focus from the internal to the external. Your internal reactive pattern, judgements, and emotions are detrimental. High performance takes place in the external environment. You’ve been sidetracked by your reactions to an event or circumstance and more specifically by your judgements, emotions, or negative internal dialogue. There's a quote I’ve liked for a long time and I think it’s relevant here, "Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” (from Hamlet, by William Shakespeare) This does not mean you're supposed to stop having feelings. But we want to accept them and let go of our attachment to them, and how they pull us out of the present moment. We may feel pain, we do not have to suffer. We may feel anger, it does not have to make us suffer. We may feel disappointed, we do not have to suffer. There is no misery in mastery. Embrace your emotions and accept them. We're not using the word accept to mean resignation - as in “this is how it is, get over it” or “suck it up". No, no, no - that’s not what we want. We're using the word accept like you accept a gift or a complime - you receive it as yours - you accept your emotions. They do not define you! You’re slowing down below your goal time in a race, you twist your ankle and become embarrassed or disappointed or whatever; see your emotional reactions as a reaction and not as defining you. You do not suck. What’s happening sucks but you do not. If your friend blew up in a race or twisted their ankle or came in dead last, do you think they suck? Of course not, and neither do you. Ever. See that your reactions are reactions, nothing more, and you can change them now that you see them for what they are. Switch out of the the destructive internal thought cycle and re-focus on the facts of the moment.
Fourth, execute the steps to create a better condition. There is a solution…a path for moving forward successfully…there is always a solution. It may not be perfect, it may not be a total fix, but there are always ways of managing an improvement. Focus on now, without judgement. What needs to be done? Execute.
In summary: recognizeyour thoughts, identifythe underlying emotions, switchyour focus from the internal to the external, and execute, the steps to create a better condition.
What's the context in which you practice? Begin with safe and low-stakes environments. Every day presents many opportunities. Observe your thoughts. You feel frustrated when you can’t find a parking spot, you having emotion-laden conversations with someone in your head, your cat's annoying you by cruising back and forth in front of your computer and not letting you get work done. The process is most safely practiced in all of these situations. At first, it takes a lot of conscious effort. Over time, it becomes more automatic.
You can also take this practice into your runs, especially the first three steps. Pay attention to sounds while you run. Hear your footsteps on the treadmill and the roll of it’s belt, or hear the wind in the trees and the sounds of the birds…again, non-judgmentally, only observationally. Don’t identify sounds as like/dislike…a car horn is the same as a bird chirp…just sounds. Listen to music or an audio-book if that’s your thing…or even a podcast. As your mind goes to thinking about something else, which it will do a lot, observe the thought. You may be frustrated with yourself. That’s not failure, that’s success! That’s the point. The point is not to learn to focus on sounds, it’s to provide an opportunity for your mind to go someplace you don’t intend it to, then practice the steps: recognize the thoughts, identifythe associated emotions, and non-judgmentally switchyour focus back to the concrete features of the moment. You don’t have to do this for the entirety of your run, especially not in the beginning. Try it for 10 minutes, then 15, then 20.
You’ll find yourself getting better and better, making this practice more natural. You can then start putting yourself in more uncomfortable situations whether that’s public speaking, difficult conversations, or going for a run in bad weather.
Mental training is never about becoming hard or tough. Approaches like: 'suck it up’ and 'get over it’ don't make you better for the next time and they're not a growth practice. Mental training is about growth and becoming psychologically resilient, not hard. It’s embracing your vulnerability, observing yourself without judgement, seeing the facts of present moment, separating your reaction to it, then pivoting your focus with calm and confidence, trustingyourself, and executing in the moment to the best of your abilities.
Do these things, practice them in all ways and on all days, and you’ll learn to thrive in challenging situations. If you’ve been visualizing the process, you’ve noticed that it spells the word RISE - recognize, identify, switch, execute. The next time things aren’t working out they way you planned or hoped, RISE. The next time you're knocked down, RISE.