An exercise in motivation

Several weeks ago, on my ongoing journey to find the end of the Internet, I

Adding a few items to my running board made me feel all warm, fuzzy and motivated.

Adding a few items to my running board made me feel all warm, fuzzy and motivated.

found a fabulous post co-written by sports psychologist Alison Arnold, a “mental toughness trainer” for a host of Olympic athletes. I gushed about it at length (see my post here), and vowed to be better about getting my mind in the right place before my workouts.

I was so jazzed about the realization that I could actually affect my performance through my thinking, I pitched a story on the topic to Running Times. Fast-forward a few more weeks, and this week, I got to pick Arnold’s brain about how a regular ol’ runner like me can harness motivation like a pro.

While compiling a list of tips for the story, I decided to try the techniques myself before an everyday training run. Just to see. Here’s how it went:

1. Identify negative thoughts. Arnold says negative thoughts can be sneaky. We know better than to tell ourselves we’re about to have a crappy workout. We’re more likely to make definitive statements about our performance:  “I always get tired around this point,” or “I always get hurt in the winter,” Arnold says. Letting your mind focus on pain that might be quite real – “My knee is killing me” – counts, too.

I thought about this, hard, and discovered I really never give myself a break from a barrage of sneaky negative thoughts. Regulars in the chaotic, crowded happy-hour that is my mind: My creaky, gimpy hip will prevent me from running the Marine Corps Marathon this year. I always fall behind when I try to chase the faster pace group. I’m a spazz who should be barred from trail-running to avoid injury to myself and others.

Sheesh. Maybe we should try a different bar.

2. Substitute positive thoughts – or at least neutral ones. Arnold says not to sweat it if positive, sunny thoughts don’t ring true at first, and suggests taking “one step up on the feel-good scale.”

My positive spins: My hip problems have made me a stronger runner and overall athlete thanks to months of physical therapy, and I can always defer the MCM registration til next year if necessary, focusing on the Philadelphia Half-Marathon, or even a swim event, this year instead. As for the pace group, I know most of our group-run routes, so if I fall behind, it’s not a big deal. And trying to keep up with people who are faster than me makes me a better runner, which is why I’m training to begin with.

3. Feed the positive thought with breathing, music and continued positive self-talk.

The self-talk was great on the spazzy-trails front, and I enjoyed my run SO much more when I just focused on running it! But it did little to ease my anxiety when the guys I was running with did, in fact, pull away from me on the route’s last hill. This led to the equivalent of a bar fight in my head, as competing thoughts exchanged sucker-punches. I eventually shut them up by reverting to a mental playlist including lots of Eminem, not even realizing I was following Arnold’s advice. A bonus: I caught up to the guys at a stoplight. Sweet!

4. Channel your passion. Every runner should have a long-term goal they’re passionate about and should remind themselves of that goal often. A runner training for Race for the Cure might repeat “cure” during speed workouts. A runner training for a marathon might hang a course map on the refrigerator, tape a motivational quote to the bathroom mirror or create a billboard with inspirational magazine cutouts and photos.

I already had a little bulletin board with an ad for the MCM, a colorful little graphic from a Runner’s World story titled “Why Do You Run?” and an awesome pencil-sketch from my husband wishing me luck before the National Half-Marathon. I added a few new photos, along with an ad for the Crystal City Twilighter 5K, July 25, heeding Arnold’s advice about also having short-term goals.

4. Develop a pre-run ritual. Do the same stretches, listen to the same music and repeat the same few phrases that make you feel ready to run.  Use your breath to channel those feelings: Literally, imagine breathing them in.

How did I want to feel during my run? Powerful. Strong. Focused. In control of my thoughts. Like an awesome, uninjured, outdoorsy trail-running diva. I imagined breathing these thoughts in. Not much happened after, but maybe I just blew a fuse with the outdoorsy-diva bit.

For me, the major light-bulb moment was identifying all the sneaky negative thoughts competing for space in my mind. Picking them out and drowning them out definitely led to a happier — and faster — run.

Check out our awesome trail-run route here: Valley Trail loop through Rock Creek Park.

In other news: My appointment with my running doc this morning confirmed my suspicion that the Marine Corps Marathon might be out of the question this year. He said based on my hip’s history, I should spend the rest of July running 4 to 6 miles three or four times a week — no long runs, as my training plan calls for. Then again, he said, the MCM isn’t out of the question — I’m not benched, just questionable. In August, I can start adding long runs … and see how it goes.

The cool thing about seeing a doctor who runs: He asked if I had a time goal in mind. I said I did. He winced, and asked what it was, and what I’ve done before. I told him I wanted to come in around four hours, and said I ran a 1:49 half-marathon in March. “Oh!” he said, swatting his hand and smiling. “You should be able to come in under four hours, easy.” Thanks, doc!

Next up: the 2-mile Chris Greene Lake Cable Swim in Charlottesville, Va., tomorrow! I’ll be Tweeting from the race, and promise to have a post-race report up just as soon as we’re home — but with a planned side-trip to the Shenandoah, it might be a while. 🙂


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10 responses to “An exercise in motivation

  1. Very nice and informative post!

  2. i love these tips! i think positive thinking definitely goes a long way, especially in the long journey of running and marathon training. i need to work on my thoughts a good bit too.

    sounds like things went pretty well at the doc. missing july long runs shouldn’t hurt you that much, especially since you aren’t aiming for a crazy goal – a sub-4 sounds very reasonable and do-able!

  3. trialsoftraining

    I definitely need some sort of “pre run ritual” – especially for my early mornings! It gets me in the zoooone, and feeling more Awake and ready to go.

    Good luck on your swim!!!

  4. Keeping the negative thoughts out of your mind works for everyday life too. Honestly, what do negative thoughts accomplish anyways beside bringing us back down to reality and realizing that we are human. Who wants to think like that?!

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  8. This post is so right on for me right now. My mind has gotten the better of me when it comes to swimming because the water is so cold. I have skipped 3 weeks of swims now and have mentally beat myself up the entire time. I am definitely going to focus on the self-talk that happens.

  9. I like the idea of drowning out the negative thoughts. But I don’t want to replace them with truths I’m not quite ready for… I’ve set the bar to high!

    Developing short and long term goals is the perfect plan. Thanks for this post.

    Speaking of Happy Hour – pass the bottle!
    ; )

  10. Pingback: (Mostly) Wordless Wednesday: The inspiration board edition | Amy Reinink

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