This blog talks about mental training for distance runners
Time to try something new?
With travel and movement restrictions now in place around the world people are looking for new and innovative ways to stay in shape and get their daily dose of exercise. Lets face it, as runners all we really want to do is run. Anything else, such as conditioning, stretching, weights or core stability are used mainly as a means to ensure that we are healthy enough to be able to get the running done. That is no bad thing, but I wonder if now is the right time for runners world wide to start paying serious attention to another form of training.
A form of training that is often spoken about, especially in relation to top performing elite runners (think Eliud Kipchoge in particular) but less frequently utilised. It is also a form of training which no matter what restrictions are put in place on your movements outside the home is still going to be available to you.
You don’t need any equipment, just a small space where you can sit or lie down and be relatively sure of few distractions.
If you haven’t guessed already I’m talking about mental skills training. Or psychology, or ‘mindset’ or whatever other name you wish to use.
To those who are immediately thinking ‘Hmm – you obviously don’t have the kids at home from school if you are asking me to find a quiet and undisturbed place in the house’ Well that’s true – it’s me, my wife and our Whippet Yego here at KE HQ. But I would say that there is also no better time than now to get the youngsters working on this as well; “Team work makes the dreamwork” as Myles, founder of our charity partner Gathimba Edwards is fond of saying.
Many of you have probably thought about mental skills training over the years. Some may even have dabbled with it but wherever you currently are in this area, the current situation provides the perfect platform to take it to the next level.
What’s more, the cross over of mental skills training to your non sporting life is tremendous. In these uncertain times, developing an increased ability to focus, stay calm, and face adversity with control could be just what you need and perhaps more beneficial than the sporting objectives.
Lessons learnt the hard way:
I recently learnt that my Dad commented to my wife a few years back (in reference to my own running career) “He’s always had the physical talent, but he just doesn’t have it in the head”. This refers to a fairly obvious physical ability as a distance runner but a tendency to under perform on race day where nerves would simply get the better of me.
In hindsight, I can see that observation was correct. Since my teenage years I’ve ruined many a race before it even began. I was simply unable to control my emotional state before and during a race and therefore whatever physical attributes I had were unable to manifest.
However, I do wish that someone had confronted me with this fact long before I became aware of it myself in my early 30s. I guess the people around me either thought they were protecting me from insult/offence, or else simply didn’t realise that this is an area of life and sport which can be influenced and controlled through training, just like the physical side.
Psychologist for the Seattle Seahawks, (and many other high performing teams and individuals across many domains) Dr Michael Gervais says: “As humans there are three things we can train: Our Body, Our Craft, and our Mind.” As runners, our craft and our body are somewhat entwined, although it could be argued that our craft is the running and our body is the conditioning and ancillary training. These rightly form the vast majority of our training time.
But what about that third variable?
How many are currently training their minds?
I’m not going to delve into the science or the theory here. I’m neither qualified to do so, nor do I feel I have a good enough grasp on it myself anyway. What I do have is personal experience based on my own practice and my own research and that personal experience has led me to believe that there isn’t anyone among us who couldn’t improve their sport or their daily life through some concentrated mental skills work.
Among the benefits I have seen, which all translate directly into more enjoyable (and better) running are: Reduced anxiety (or an ability to confront and control anxiety when it does occur), improved self confidence, reduction in distractions and an increased ability to focus on the task at hand whatever that may be. Not to mention a noticeable increase in positivity and optimism and reduction in irritability. Most importantly (because it underpins all the other benefits) is an ability to live ‘here and now’. To spend more time in the present moment and less worrying about the future or wishing I’d done something different in past. Less time worrying about how others might assess my actions or what opinions they might form of me if I do X Y or Z, and more time focused on my present experience.
Dr Gervais also reminds us that “all high performance takes place in the present moment”. Now that might sound obvious, no one ever broke the world record tomorrow – they did it at the time they did it, in the present. But, if you spend most of your own time in the past or the future then that is all time where you cannot be in the present and therefore cannot be performing at a high level.
Granted we are not all trying to hit PB’s all the time. But if you are able to piece together more and more in the present performing all the small tasks with excellence over and over, that leads to the great race results down the line.
What’s more, a large part of ‘bad’ experiences in peoples lives are actually worries about potential bad experiences in the future. What’s going to happen at work tomorrow… Or more specifically to running ‘I’m going to feel so bad in a few miles time’. Often times, your current experience right now is actually OK! Don’t think about what mile 20 is going to feel like when your in mile 10! Stay in mile 10.
The phrase “Process over Outcome” has become rather popular in recent times. So much so that I wonder if some of the runners using it actually believe in it or just think it’s the trendy thing to say at the moment. If you have seen this phrase and/or if you like it, but wonder how to actually implement it, then this is for you.
Focusing on the process is exactly what we are talking about here. Train yourself to spend more time in the present moment and you will be living the phrase ‘Process over Outcome’ in your daily life.
Although this idea is based on the premise that the journey is better than the destination, it doesn’t necessarily mean you disregard the outcome altogether. A somewhat ironic aspect focusing on the process is that if you do so then you will ultimately have the best possible outcome anyway.
Focus on the process enough times over and over and over again and the outcome may well be just what you wanted it to be anyway!
I’m summarising a fairly huge discipline in a short blog, so although I may not be scientifically accurate, hopefully I am at least giving an idea of why you might want to consider this area of training if you aren’t already.
So what precisely am I talking about?
Again, I am not qualified to give specific or precise information but from personal experience this is what has helped me:
Mindfulness meditation underpins all the mental skills and makes up the majority of the training I undertake. There are many forms and types of meditation and you will likely find a style or a teacher who suits you. I predominantly use awareness training through breath work.
I suggest an app. I use 10% Happier and it’s a few pounds a month very well spent.
Although awareness of breath forms a large part of many mindfulness meditation practices, I tend to do additional breath work separately, after I have followed a guided meditation on the app. 10 Deep Breaths & 10 focused breaths. I learned these simple but powerful practices on a training course called ‘Compete2Create’ run by Dr Michael Gervais and Coach Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks.
10 deep breaths trains calm. 10 focused breaths trains focus.
There’s more to it than that! But this is far from the comprehensive guide.
Once I’ve been through the above, I will then spend a few minutes at most simply concentrating on one thing. It’s usually a flower or a plant that just happens to be in my field of vision when I open my eyes.
The above 3 form a nice little 15-20minute ‘practice’ which can also be very nicely condensed to use right before a hard training session or a race.
Morning Mindfulness Routine
This is the very first thing I do every single morning without fail and is again taken directly from Dr Gervais and Coach Carroll’s course.
As soon as you wake up you go through the following routine which takes about 60seconds:
- 1 focused deep breath (direct your focus)
- 1 thought of gratitude (anything/anyone you are pleased is part of your life)
- Set an intention for the day (this is how you want to be, not what you want to do)
- Place your feet firm on the ground and repeat to yourself the following phrase “Life is where your feet are. Life is what’s happening right now”
Daily Gratitude Practice
At the end of the day write down (or just think about) 3 things you are grateful for in your life. Simple but powerful. Use people you love, friends and pets, all the way to seemingly innocuous things which you usually take for granted, but that make life better, clean running water for example!
3 Great Things
Like the above, write down or think about 3 great things that happened in the day, no matter how small.
This is the training Gervais and Carroll prescribe for optimism! The more you remind yourself that positive things already happen the more you will expect positive outcomes in the future.
Another mental skills training practice which is common amongst athletes is visualisation
This probably needs a longer explanation and I am in the very early days of trying to learn and utilise this skill in any case. Coach Hugo, our Head Coach on The Kenya Experience camps is a big proponent of visualisation so maybe we will turn to him in the future for additional information on this one.
There’s more of course, but the above are ones that I practice regularly myself and have found helpful.
If you’re interested then explore for yourself…
I recommend the Podcast ‘Finding Mastery’ with Dr Michael Gervais. He interviews high performers across a broad spectrum of industries and pursuits (including athletes and coaches) and delves into their mindsets and mental approaches to high performance. Take a look at some meditation apps – most have a free trial period. Don’t dismiss it if you don’t like the one you first choose, it may just be the style of the teacher and the next one might be better for you.
The difficult bit
Give it all a try and see how you feel.
The hard part, at least in the early days, is that it is somewhat hard to objectively measure progress. How do you measure something like mood and emotions?
If you go to the gym and do bicep curls, there are obvious ways to measure progress. Less so with mental skills training. You can’t see it, but you will feel it and that’s the measure we are looking for.
Start small, especially with meditation, don’t try and sit down for an hour following your breath in and out. Try to set aside 5 minutes daily and see how you get on.
Good luck and thanks for reading,
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About the Author:
Gavin Smith is the Co-Founder of The Kenya Experience, a distance runner and formerly a coach to some of Kenya’s most decorated athletes. He graduated from Loughborough University in 2007 and lived in Iten Kenya from 2010 – 2014 where he was Assistant Coach to Renato Canova one of the worlds most celebrated distance running coaches.