Embrace the Mental Side of Running

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Running is a very simplistic, raw sport. It places you at the absolute extreme of your physical abilities, and it pushes your mind to places of pain, doubt, and fear that you either succumb to or choose to breakthrough. I’m far from an expert in these matters, but I’ve had a lot of practice working on my mental game the last several years, and I’ve shared some of my thoughts below.

Control the things you can, and don’t stress about the rest.

The number one thing that comes to mind that you can’t control is your competitors. I can’t control how much anyone else is training, what their race plan is, or what their abilities are. While it’s important to be aware of your competitors and their abilities, concern about them cannot consume you because it will take away focus on yourself and your strengths.

So what things can you control? You can control how hard you work in your training, how much time and effort, both mental and physical, you put into being the best possible athlete. You can eat well, get plenty of rest, focus on recovery, and give yourself a mental break from running, whether you’re a “Netflix and Chill” kind of person or a social butterfly. And even when you do all that you can to prepare and plan ahead, some things will inevitably come up and disrupt your plans, like a canceled flight, twisting your ankle on the warm-up, or 50 mph winds and rain on race day. You just have to learn to shake those things off because stress will only take away from your positive mental energy.

Focus on the task at hand.

This is one of my go-to mantras for tough workouts. The whole workout can sometimes seem overwhelming, so I break it down to small, achievable steps. Say I’m running 15 x 200 @ 31 seconds. I tell myself the task at hand is to run a single 200 m at 31 seconds. That’s all I think about, and that’s a very doable step. This works great for me in tempo workouts too, which are the most taxing mental workouts for me. A 4-mile tempo seems to drag on for ages, so I tell myself that all I have to do is focus on running a 42-second 200. (You can tell my focus is best for less than a minute). A 42-second 200 is basically a jog, so I just tell myself to run that one at a time instead of focusing on maintaining a 5:30ish pace for 4 miles.

This works for looking ahead in training too. At the start of the season, and particularly after injury, you often feel out of shape and struggle to complete runs at what was once an easy jogging pace. Your first workout is laughable, and you can’t imagine how you will ever get back to your peak. Instead, focus only on what that day’s objective is, and focus on being just the slightest bit better than the day before. Taking it one day at a time helps break down a seemingly impossible goal into manageable steps.

Self-confidence. Believe in yourself more than anyone else believes in you.

Most starting lines I step on these days I’m not the best runner. I’m not the most talented, I don’t have the best credentials or PRs, and I probably don’t run as much. But that doesn’t stop me from believing 100% that I have the ability to win the race. I definitely don’t win every race, but I put myself in a mental mindset ready to do what it takes to win. To me, self-confidence means setting high goals and having an unbreakable belief in your ability to go after those goals. You will have setbacks and injuries, and it may take much longer to reach your goals than you wanted, but you keep striving relentlessly towards them, knowing you have what it takes. You have no doubts of what you are capable of.

Visualization.

The best way I’ve found to prep for future races is through visualization. I begin by imagining the start line, which is the scariest part for me. I focus on how I will feel strong, confident, like a coiled spring ready to explode. I imagine several different race scenarios, from a sit-and-kick race where I close in sub-60 to front-running in a PR. I like to be ready for anything, and by imaging any possible race scenario in my head I can practice how I will respond in a real race.

I try to go further than just seeing different race scenarios in my head; I imagine how I’ll feel at different points in the race. I imagine how it may feel too fast at halfway, but I’ll be able to hold on. I think about the burning that will already be starting when I hit the bell, but how I’ll be able to sprint even faster off of that pace. I especially focus on that final move, somewhere in the last 150, where I hit my absolute top gear and how from that point I won’t let anyone past me. And of course, in my visualizations, I always win 🙂

 

Learn to cope with bad workouts.

Everyone has bad workouts. They’re a natural part of training! If you never have a bad workout, you probably aren’t trying hard enough. I’ve had my share of horrendous workouts (I once ran 4 x mile in 6:27, 6:30, 6:46, 7:06 when I was supposed to run 6:30, 6:20, 6:10, 6:00. My running log says “Worst workout time-wise in my life. Moving on, gotta have one horrible workout a season and now mine’s out of the way”).

The key to bad workouts is how you bounce back. I usually run through a brief check-list in my head (Were the weather conditions bad? How was my eating/hydration/sleep? Was this workout too ambitious or was I not mentally engaged?) Sometimes I see a pattern and have something tangible to fix, but other times there’s really no explanation, and you have to have a short-term memory about those bad days. One bad workout, or even a few in a row, does not indicate that your season is done or that you can’t continue to improve. Take bad workouts in stride, accept that no one is perfect, and move on with a fresh attitude for the next one.

Learn to be happy with your best, even if you wanted better.

So many times I’ve walked away from a race where I didn’t quite hit my goal time or just missed out on the win or my goal place. I feel frustrated and anxious for the next time out on the track to prove to myself that I’m better than that. Sometimes I even ran a PR in these races or beat people I’ve never beaten before!

The problem with this reaction is that my goal time or place is an arbitrary number. A time doesn’t determine your effort, just as a loss doesn’t mean you didn’t try. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have  time or place goals; these are essential to keep focused on improving and being competitive. Instead, consider your physical effort and mental engagement during the race. Did I really do everything I could to respond to moves and tactics, get the most effort out of myself, and kick with everything I had at the end? If the answer is yes, then you have to accept that you gave everything you had and be proud of the achievement.

Never set limits on yourself.

It’s easy to watch people way faster than you and think “I’ll never be able to do that. How do people even run that fast?” I felt like this when I first went to college and my coach told me her 5k PR was 16:40. I didn’t even know women could do that! And when I learned that women in my event, the mile, were running in the 4:30’s, that blew my mind. I just wanted to break 5 minutes. But every time you take a step forward, the next step becomes a bit more realistic. Once I broke 5 in the mile, the next goal was to run a little faster to qualify for nationals. After finishing 5th as a Junior, my new goal was to win the following year. And even this year, when I ran 4:26 at Boston, a time I once thought inconceivable, I felt GOOD. So good that 4:20 no longer seems unattainable, just maybe a few years down the road.

The point is, no one knows exactly how good they’ll get one day. So don’t set boundaries on yourself before you have a chance to break them. As Albert Einstein once said, “Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them”.

 

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You do You and I’ll do Me

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The Importance of Individualized Training

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over my years of running, it’s to listen to my body and train in a way that suits me, not just how the best or greatest runners train.

There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to running. In fact, an individualized approach is more often the best approach for optimal performance. Everyone reacts differently to different training stimuli, and one of the greatest ways to improve performance is to discover what works for you as an individual.

For me, the key is moderation. Despite my wishes, my body does not handle high mileage that well. But I’ve found ways to work around this, particularly through cross-training and eliminating any junk miles. I have been aiming for about 45-55 miles a week since November, which includes a run on the Alter-G once a week. I only run 6 days a week, generally in singles, and add in about 3-4 hours of cross-training (aqua jogging, ElliptiGo, spin bike) to simulate 70-75 total miles for the week. I try to keep my training well rounded, with lifting, core work, strides, drills, recovery, and lots and lots of PT. One of my biggest strengths from this type of training is that I generally feel fresh, recovered, and ready to tackle the next challenge. The fact that I’ve been injured so many times has actually allowed me to discover how I train best and made me a much stronger athlete in general.

Focusing on what you can do as an individual to become the best possible athlete can also take away some of the fear of competition. When I begin to think about all my competitors and how hard they train, what their PRs are, how in the world can I hope to beat them, it becomes straight up terrifying. Instead, I think about what I can do each and every day to get the best out of myself. I prepare mentally and physically so that when I get on the line, I have complete confidence in my training. It doesn’t matter what anyone else has done; I know I’m ready to perform my best.

Don’t get me wrong, I love reading about other athlete’s training. It’s so interesting to me to see how runners structure their training, what types of workouts they run, etc. Different training works for different athletes, and as I hope to be a coach myself someday, I scour the internet for anything and everything I can find about running. And while I occasionally find some tips or new ideas to implement in my training, the training of others doesn’t change what I do as an athlete. I stick with what I know best and rely on how I feel, letting my body tell me when we’re training just hard enough and when to back off.

These past few weeks of racing have given me renewed confidence that what I’m doing is working. We haven’t done anything crazy or extreme this year; it’s just the result of being healthy for the past 13 months, continued training, and natural progression. Each year I try to train a little bit harder, a little bit smarter, and a little bit more focused. I stay focused on the positive and enjoy every moment because it’s not that often that you can live your dream!

 

So What Do I Do All Day?

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October 16, 2015

Being a professional runner is about more than just running fast. The little things day in and day out, such as eating right, getting enough rest, working to build strength and prevent injury, and recovering properly, all go into becoming the best athlete possible. The training varies day to day, but every day has a purpose to help me reach my goals. Here’s a look into how I trained and spent my day this past Monday:

7:00 AM Wake up, typical breakfast of steel-cut oatmeal, granola, and honey. I spend some time reading emails and checking on the latest running news.

8:15 ElliptiGo. 30 min. My mileage isn’t too high, so I generally do a second session of cross-training several days a week. I love the ElliptiGo because I can get a great aerobic effort without all the pounding.

8:45 Weight lifting/Strength training/Core work

10:00 Recovery snack. Apple and peanut butter.

10:30 Work. I work as a scientific editor. Essentially I proofread and revise scientific articles to get them ready for publication. This is the ideal job as a runner because it’s incredibly flexible, allows me to work from home, and it can be done while relaxing on the couch 🙂 I usually work 20-25 hours a week.

12:30 Lunch. Turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread, cucumbers with dill dip, crackers.

1:00 Grocery shopping.

2:15 Work. More editing.

3:30 Snack. Nature Valley granola bar.

3:40 Household chores. Fold laundry, wash dishes, tidy up the house.

4:20 Hip mobility routine. Includes strengthening and flexibility exercises. Also some general stretching/running prep.

5:00 Fartlek run. Went to the Radrick golf course with my husband. This was my first harder effort of the season, so it wasn’t too crazy. After some warm up drills, I started out with 10 minutes of easy running and then went straight into 8 sets of 2 minutes hard, 2 minutes easy, followed by about 8-9 minutes easy to end up at 7.5 miles total. The hard segments were about 5:30-5:50 pace with the easy segments at 6:30-7:00 pace. This was a good aerobic effort for me and a nice transition to the harder strength workouts that will come later. Did some stretching and rolling out once I got home.

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7:30 Dinner. Garlic chicken with orzo and spinach with a side of zucchini, broccoli, and cauliflower sauteed in olive oil, oregano, and Parmesan  cheese. Followed by dessert (Coco Marshmallow cereal. I always need something sweet).

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8:15 Relax. Waste a little time browsing online and log my training for the day; then I generally read for the last hour before bed to wind down. I’m a big fan of Victorian literature (I’m currently reading Vanity Fair).

10:00 Sleep! I aim for 8-9 hours of sleep a night, sometimes more when I’m really tired.

An Unexpected Season

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September 19, 2015

My first full year out of college felt pretty successful. I made the finals at USA Outdoors and finished 10th, dropped my mile PR by 7 seconds to 4:30 and dropped my 1500m PR to 4:08. All things considered, I was on a roll and ready to keep improving.

But as in life, things in running seldom happen as we expect. I ended my summer season last year on a stress injury in my lower tibia. After 4 weeks in a boot, I started out on the Alter-G with a few easy miles every few days. I spent a few weeks just on the Alter-G, then slowly started to add in land miles. I felt like I was progressing, but several weeks later it was apparent that I wasn’t fully healed. I was managing around 10-15 miles a week outside with another 10 or so on the Alter-G but couldn’t progress any further without feeling some pain. Finally, after 12 weeks of frustration, I decided to take another break.

I felt pretty lost after deciding to take a break in December. This shin injury had been present for 2.5 years, and with the lack of healing, I was worried I had done permanent damage. I had taken time off and been cautious about returning to training, but I wasn’t healed and didn’t know how to proceed. How much time should I take off? How do I make sure I get healthy this time? I didn’t know if I would race much at all this year, and without a sponsor or any hope of one in the foreseeable future, I started thinking seriously about whether running professionally was realistic.

I gave myself a worst-case time frame. (I didn’t want to be disappointed again). I told my coach I needed somewhere between 1 and several months off, and that I had no idea when I would be ready again. At least I would be ready to start training for the Olympic year. I stopped worrying about getting a sponsor, I placed no expectations on myself, and I just focused on getting myself 100% healthy for the first time in a long time.

It’s funny how God has a way of speaking to us when we finally relax and stop trying to control every aspect of our lives. I took a step back and stopped worrying, and slowly He took care of my concerns. I was promoted in my job and my husband began working full-time in his job, and we felt financially more secure. I took advantage of my extra time by coaching a local high school team, and I had a blast seeing them grow throughout the season. I began going to PT in the winter, and after a mere 5 weeks my physical therapist encouraged me to try running again. It was such a relief to have someone else tell me to try because I was too scared to make that call.

And so January 19 I started running again. My first week consisted of a grand total of 3.25 miles on the Alter-G at 70%. But it was something. This time I was even more conservative in my return to running. That first month was a total of 26 miles, only 10 of which were outside. I finally hit 30 miles a week on land in early April and maintained around 35-40 miles a week outside (plus 5-7 on the Alter-G) for the rest of the season.

I had outlined a plan back in January to be ready to compete at the Outdoor Championships. I had the qualifier from last August, so it was just a matter of feeling fit enough to be competitive. Using a conservative running plan combined with loads of cross-training and some good workouts, we were optimistic. My first few races went well. I finished 3rd at the USA Road Mile Champs, and my first 1500 on the track was a 4:15 wire-to-wire run in May. I thought I’d run 4:07 by USAs. I even dropped a few really good workouts in between. USAs came, I ran my hardest, and my 4:13 in the prelim made me the fastest loser. It’s easy to get into shape, but it’s hard to get into PR shape. But I was happy to have made it to the starting line and held my own. I decided the rest of the season would be getting into as many races as I could and learning from every situation.

If you don’t go to Europe, there’s really not many competitive track opportunities available. I ended up running 4 road miles in a row after USAs, mostly in Michigan. I enjoy road miles, and they definitely allow the opportunity for pure competition, but it’s hard to tell how you are progressing without the track. Finally the Sir Walter Mile arrived, and I had my chance. I thought sub 4:30 was possible, but I also thought I could fall out the back in this race and run 4:40. I ended up feeling amazing and finally running a PR of 4:29.06.

One month later I was on the starting line for the Hoka One One Long Island Mile. Unlike Sir Walter, where I was still running a little scared, I finally had my confidence back that had carried me through college. I had nerves, but the good kind where I was excited to see what I was capable of, not worried that I would fail. I was mentally engaged and focused every step. I ran confidently and executed what might have been my best race ever, staying patient the entire race and unleashing a kick at the perfect moment for the win. I finally felt like I belonged at the professional level, which I have struggled with believing since I graduated. It always felt like all the professional runners were over there, and here I was, unnoticed and just trying to hang on. I capped off my season with a 9th place finish at the 5th Ave mile, and while I would have liked to finish higher, I gave it my all and was proud to compete in such an elite field.

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I never expected to finish this season feeling more confident and inspired than ever. I had written it off long ago and was basically treating this year as a chance for some moderate training before gearing up for the Olympic year. It’s crazy how a few moments can completely change your outlook. Sir Walter and the Long Island Mile were the most fun I have had on the track in years, and maybe that’s what I needed to remember why I compete. For me this sport is about those few and far between perfect moments of racing, where all the training and hard work and dreaming come together on the track. I don’t know what the future will hold for me in running, but I do know that if I put God in charge, things will work out, sometimes in the most unexpected ways. So here’s to starting a brand new year and all the possibilities that come with it!

Grassroots Racing

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August 12, 2015

One of my favorite parts of racing is the crowd. I love racing in front of huge stands full of people; the excitement and energy is contagious. Racing in front of a crowd turns a race into more of a performance, and for me, opens up that extra gear that’s missing in practice.

This past weekend I got to experience a truly incredible meet atmosphere at the Sir Walter Mile. There may not have been tens of thousands of people, but coming down that home stretch on the final lap sure seemed like a filled stadium. I was sprinting before I realized it, fueled on by the rows of fans packed so close on the track it was like running through a screaming tunnel.

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I know I’m a little biased about this race since I ran the best mile of my life, but it’s clear that something special happened on the track that night. It was more than just a track meet; it was a chance for the community and runners to connect through a mutual interest in track and field, and it’s really what our sport is all about. Over the weeks and months leading up to the race, the Sir Walter Mile spread the word, posted bios of the athletes, and shared stories of last year’s event. Consequently, the athletes were more than just numbers; we had stories and histories to our names.

These types of grassroots community track events are perfect to increase interest in track and field. They’re exciting, short, entertaining, and can lead to some breakthrough performances. Last Friday added two more men to the sub 4:00 club and three more women to the sub 4:30. Breaking 4:30 was an incredibly satisfying moment, but getting to celebrate it on the track with the American flag and cheering fans and running up and down the homestretch is one of my favorite running memories to date.

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There are not many opportunities for Americans to run track races in the States during the summer. This makes it difficult for runners like me who chose not to/were unable to race in Europe to find many chances to run fast times. My last four races prior to Sir Walter were road miles, and while I love road miles and the raw racing they display, our sport is on the track. For me, Sir Walter was essentially my one shot at a fast track race all summer, and I couldn’t have asked for any more.

My hope is that with the success of events such as the Sir Walter Mile, Flotrack Throwdown, and the Michigan Track Classic, track and field meets will continue popping up all over the country in a way that allows the community to experience world class races and the athletes to have high-caliber races in the States. In fact, Hoka One One is creating a similar event, the Long Island Mile, than I’m excited to participate in for its inaugural year on September 9th. With a little luck and community support cheering me on, I’m hoping for another sub-4:30 to end my year.

The First Step is the Hardest

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July 28, 2015

It’s taken me far too long to set up my first blog post, mainly because I have no idea where to start. Do I talk about my training? Why I love running? My favorite food? (The last one might take too long…)

I guess I’ll start by explaining why I’m creating a website. I’m hoping this will allow my family and friends to better follow my running career and stay connected throughout my journey. And I’m also hoping that I can share some of my thoughts and the things I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) over the years.

It’s been a long and winding journey to this point, but I’ve come to love this sport and the community I’ve gotten to know through it. The support from the community, and most importantly from my amazing family, helps keep me centered and motivated during the long hours, days, and months of training. Hopefully I can share some of that support through this blog!

So without further ado, welcome to my website!