How and when should we train our mind?

While there are a lot of people that run for the pure joy of it, many of us train to test our limits. Generally, we do this by racing and by doing several workouts that prepare us for that moment.

Preparation for a race is key. While there are some adventurous people that will join a race without having trained for it (I have done that and it hurt. A lot) the truth is that we spend a good amount of our life training, eating, sleeping and trying to get ready for that moment of performance. For showtime.

Take the Boston marathon for example. “The father of all marathons”. I know people whose life purpose has become to qualify for it and some others that have already done it. They spend months training for it. They spend a good amount of money getting there. They spend a good amount of money as well in their nutrition, their gear, even in their training (coach, fees to gyms, etc). But when it comes to the actual race most of the time the mistakes we make, the results we don’t get are not because of a lack of physical preparation but rather because of a lack of mental training. Nerves, stress, anxiety, lack of confidence in one’s abilities, lack of trust in our training. Or because our mind is not trained for the moment when it hurts, when we are tired, when we want to back off.

When I ask people how much time they spend training their bodies the result is always a big number. When I ask how much time they spend training their minds the result is almost always zero. Ironic that we train our body and it’s our mind the one that needs to be trained for the actual moment of performing. After all, It is mental strength what differentiates the good performers from the excellent ones.

How and when should we train our mind?
Always. Every time we are training. Every time we are thinking about our sport is a good opportunity to train our mind.
There are several ways to do this. I will enumerate here the ones that I consider key:

1 Goal Setting :
Setting challenging yet realistic goals is the key to keep your motivation up. If you don’t know where you are going you will never get there. The problem with goal setting is that most of the time we set goals in a way that instead of helping us can get in the way of our performance. For this is very important setting performance and process goals (things that are under your control) instead of setting only outcome goals (results, time or place which are out of your control). Set positive goals and set goals for each workout (things you want to improve or focus on) and for the race (again, that are UNDER your control like setting the pace at the beginning, keeping your focus on a specific thing or mantra, etc)

2 Watch your thoughts:
 We are always thinking but we are not always aware of what we are thinking. This could be a problem since most of us tend to have the same thoughts over and over again and, most of the time, these thoughts don’t really belong to us. Most of them have been giving to us by people while we were growing up (think about what your parents, teachers, friends, society told you: “money doesn’t grow on trees”, “You don’t really have the athletic gene”, “If so and so haven’t been able to do it what makes you think you can?”, etc). 
Watching our thoughts is very important because it will give us a clue about what we think of ourselves. We can’t think what we believe about ourselves if we don’t know what that is. Pay attention to what you are thinking when things are hard, when you are in the middle of a really hard workout. What are you thinking about it?

3 Self Talk: 
After you notice your thoughts, pay attention to what you are telling yourself. This is VERY important. I remember the moment when I realized what I was telling myself as an athlete: I was in the middle of a swim set and I was hurting from the effort. I noticed that I was thinking “this hurts, its really hard” then I had this little inner voice saying “it’s only a workout, back off because you still have another set and won’t be able to finish it if you keep pushing”. I remember I noticed it and that made a huge difference in my life. I learned to listen to the voice in my head and to change my inner talk to “it’s hurting, that means I am giving my 100%. Keep pushing, this is how you learn to race and to overcome the discomfort” “Worry about the next set when you are on the next set, right now it’s just one step at a time”. 
I still pay a lot of attention to my self talk every day. Not only when I train or race but in my every day life. Sometimes I notice I am being kind to myself and sometimes I notice I am really harsh (“wow Tere, you look so old!”). Paying attention to what I tell to myself allows me the opportunity to change my harsh self talk for a more loving, compassionate one, and allows me to really dig deep and push out of my comfort zone when I train.

4 Learn to hurt:
 This one is related to the previous two points. Learning to hurt is key for becoming better, faster, stronger. Your mind will tell you to quit before your body is ready to do it. This comes from a self defense mechanism. Think about a really hot stove. If you put your hand there your mind will immediately sense danger (you can get burn) and will tell you to back off, Right? Well, our mind is amazing but it also doesn’t know the difference between real danger (like getting burn) and discomfort (like pushing through a hard set or a race). If the mind senses that we are out of our comfort zone will want to quit, to back off for self defense purposes. When you are racing or training and you realize this is happening tell your mind “thank you for taking care of me but this kind of hurt is okay”. I literally have this mental conversation with myself and it helps me to keep pushing.

5 Visualization: 
If you can see it, you can believe it. If you can believe it, you can achieve it. 
Try to have a mental image of what you want to achieve. Rehearse what you want to happen in your eye’s mind. See yourself having the perfect race but also having obstacles coming at you and overcoming them easily and succesfully. The more you rehearse this in your mind, the better prepared this one will be for when the moment to perform arrives.

6 Relaxation: 
Relaxed muscles perform better. Learning to relax while performing hard is key. It sounds counterproductive but it’s important that you keep pushing while on a relaxed body (and relaxed mind). While training and getting out of your comfort zone have a mental check of your body, see if there is any tension there (I tend to contract my shoulders). See if your mind is relaxed -in the present moment, just executing- or if it’s worrying about the next step. Learn to loose your body and to see how it feels to perform when you are relaxed versus performing with tense muscles. Practice being in the present moment (so you have a relaxed mind) instead of being focused on what will come next, on the next mile, or on what you didn’t do well in the previous one.

Thanks for reading. I hope this helps you to get out of your comfort zone and to start training your mind so you can become the best version of yourself and keep expanding what you thought were your limits.
Please follow me on Twitter (@terezacher), Instagram (@insightfulrunner) and on my Facebook Page (Tere Zacher/Athlete) for motivation throughout the day.

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