Mind Over Muscle

Image from BreakingMuscle.com
The article "Dream It, Do It" in the October 2014 issue of Women's Health Magazine really got me thinking. The author Jen Ator writes about when she was presented with the challenge of doing an Ironman:
"In [Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In], she notes: 'We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in. We lower our expectations of what we can achieve.' I could dress up my excuses with 'logical' and 'legitimate' explanations, but the truth was pretty plain: The only thing really holding me back was a voice in the back of my head saying, But what if you fail?"

The article goes on to say, "While athletic ability is often measured by how well our muscles, heart, and lungs function, what's above the neck (a.k.a. our brain) may play a bigger role in both propelling and limiting performance. 'Fear and doubt can either make us assume we aren't capable of doing something or trick us into thinking we don't really want it,' says Carrie Cheadle, author of On Top of Your Game. Why? 'It can feel very vulnerable putting everything you have on the line and finding out it's still not enough--so we hold back,' she says. 'We unconsciously set an easier goal to protect our ego.' These insecurities can spike when you're two miles into a five-mile run and you simply Can't. Take. One. More. Step. 'Your brain is designed to play it safe,' says Timothy Noakes, M.D., a professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. 'You may never know your true limit because your brain is that good at deceiving you into thinking that you can't possibly go any faster, harder, or longer.'

The good news, the article says, is that "That biological braking mechanism (meant to protect your body) can be powerfully swayed by our attitudes and expectations of our future performance."

When the author crossed the finish line of her first half-Ironman, she talks about the "indescribably surge of pride" she felt. "I had been so worried about failing that I never considered the alternative: I might succeed beyond my wildest dreams."

What if I fail? Does that sound familiar? It does to me. I wrote last Friday about how I don't like races. I was so ready and excited for my first half-marathon last September. But I hadn't really followed a training program and made every mistake in the book related to fueling and hydration the night before, morning of, and during the race. Consequently, I got extremely nauseated and had to walk from mile 11 until the end. I had put all of my hopes and dreams on that race...and, in my mind, I failed. It's an awful feeling. I wrote in my post about the anxiety and pressure related to races, and I think it all comes down to fearing I'll fail.

Then I think about the above quote from Noakes. I may never know what I'm truly capable if I let my mind hold me back. This really drives home to me the importance of preparing myself mentally for my goal race next month, doing positive mental training, and accepting new challenges.

But that's hard to do when my brain remembers all my failures. In grade school, I was one of few kids who couldn't run one mile for a fitness test. In high school, I was the only girl to (kindly) be asked to leave the volleyball team because I sucked so bad (kindly because they really didn't cut kids from teams). When I tried running years later in my 20s, I couldn't go more than five minutes and gave up. And then, I start running a few years ago, gain a lot of confidence, set a big goal of running a half marathon, tell all my family and friends...and fail. I can't blame my mind for thinking, "I can't."

I have a lot of work to do to train my brain to think otherwise. But I'm making baby steps, and I'm gaining confidence. In the March 5K race where I missed my time goal by 7 seconds, I was actually really proud that I was that close in a race with a big hill. In the one-mile race I did this summer, I was proud and excited to learn I could run a mile one minute faster than I thought I'd be able to. And I'm proud that I'm running more, smarter, and better than I ever have before.

I've read a lot that making improvements with running can be a slow process. It seems the same is true for training the brain to be positive. But I'm committed to working on it as much as I am the physical aspect of running.

Have you ever struggled with negative thinking? Do you have any resources with training your mind to be more positive? I'm reading Mind Gym: An Athlete's Guide to Inner Excellence but would love other resources that might help.