When The Going Gets Tough

Paul Navesey, Rick Ashton and I have something we laugh about called the 5km opt out…whatever race we are doing, the longer and the harder it is possibly the earlier the 5km opt out comes in. We run for about 3 miles then decide this is way too much effort and we convince ourselves that we will just ‘jog it in’ due to a sudden injury, leg falling off, nasty case of sudden ebola. Of course we don’t, but the doubts hit pretty early, even for super sonic runners like Rick and Paul. But thats part of running, doesn’t matter the pace, doesnt even matter the distance, most of the race is a battle with our mind rather than our bodies and 99% of the time its the mind that will win.

I have 2 fantastic clients who have set themselves a challenge to cover 500km in 5 days on their bikes and running to raise money for cancer research after both losing loved ones to this terrible disease. We have been training together for a while, starting off with a basic strength programme and lots of easy miles and have built up their distances both on bike and feet and they are currently now undertaking their ‘dress rehearsal’ of three days covering almost 300km. I asked for some daily feedback of a few simple questions and 3 words to describe how they were feeling. One of them, who is physically very strong,  was seriously doubting her ability to complete the challenge..where had this come from? Why was she suddenly full of nerves?  What could I do? Of course we have all been there, the week before a big event or a practice half ironman, suddenly the challenge ahead seems too big, our bodies too weak and our negative mindset too strong. Her monkey (see The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters for better details! ) had well and truly jumped onto her shoulder and was being given full reign to shout ‘you can’t do this, ‘ ‘this is too far’ and ‘you are too busy!’ (They both work and have families). The questions started and they both felt tired and perhaps the challenge became bigger than it actually is…a direct e mail was sent back to said lovely lady, saying in no short terms, ….get that monkey out of its cage…think of everything negative you can, sit and just let your worries be and then, feed the monkey a banana, thank him for his opinion, lock his cage and put the key in your back pocket (or words to that effect!)  I got a smiley reply back and just now as I type, they are half way through day 2, a text saying ‘the monkey is ass up, flat out of the scene!’
What happened? How had she turned this round overnight? Well of course nothing to with physical strength, but..  Belief. She needed her mental strength to come alongside her now physical strength. This takes practice and thats why we train, not just the body, but our brain too. Never under estimate the power of your mind. So the ladies have found their belief. Its always about belief and sometimes you need someone else to believe in you firstly before you can do so yourself.

As the UK ultra season is getting under way and I am reaching a number of ‘red boxes’ of races on clients plans I have been thinking what I can give them to put the final icing on their training cakes….then I heard this great piece of advice that Bear Grylllis was dishing out to a load of celebrities pretending to be tough in the jungle. Apologies to Bear for adapting his wise words, but this is how I interpreted it and after some thought adapted.

There are three parts to racing, any distance, any sport. Use the following three statements in THIS order and see if you can turn negative sessions or races around. 3 simple key words, to set you back on the straight and narrow – Think, use your Determination and then your Fitness.  Don’t be mistaken by thinking pure fitness will get you anywhere in life, without careful thought and even more determination you will (I promise- I have been there!) be found weeping by a trail…


Facing a challenge, any challenge use your brain; take a deep breath, assess the situation, ask yourself what would (insert HERO here- whose yours? Mine is someone very close to me, very handsome, very long suffering and mentally tougher than anyone I know.) do?
Focus on the goal and work or rework out your strategy. In a race if things start going wrong, instead of reaching for the panic button, take a moment, even stop, press refresh and reformulate the plan. Take your time. The goal is still going to have the same finish line, you might just need to take a different route. This is when decisions need to made using your mind, not your ego. And after doing this eat food, always.


Brain, determination then fitness

Secondly use your determination and strength. As runners, parents and athletes we are blessed in this department, there is not one person I coach who isn’t innately determined to achieve. USE THIS. Relax your shoulders, pull in your core, turn off that monkey rattling its cage in your mind and let your strength and determination do the work for you. Its a lot less tiring than fighting your mind. You have a plan, now use your strength. Determination-it’s free and limitless…just make sure to keep feeding it or it will tire.


Finally use your fitness. How many times have you seen a field of athletes racing off over the distance at a crazy pace when they have 100 miles to run?  How many people use all their fitness up in the first stages of race and rather than using their brains and holding back, plough on only to suffer like a dog in the final stages. Use your fitness wisely, imagine it as a bucket you have filled up during training…every session putting a scoop in, sometimes two. On race day you only have so many scoops to use..dont pick it up and empty it all out leading for the first 30km only to find when you really need it there is nothing left in the can! Keep your powder dry…knowing how strong you are and then when the going starts to get tough, the brain has worked, the determination is in place allow your fitness to show through and ENJOY the race rather than fighting the monkey and a tired body the whole way!

Brain first, determination next and then allow the fitness to flow. I believe that is the biggest lesson any athlete can learn and something I hope to teach my athletes both in training and racing.

I hope everyones races go to plan, if anything all the hard training you have put in is reflected in the results, be that a CR, a PB or crossing the finish line. And if all fails, you are alone out in the rain, the cold, you are hungry and tired, you are contemplating the 5km opt strategy and all you want to do is lie down and sleep –  use your brain, eat something, reach into that fitness bucket, take out a scoop of training and determination, pour it all over the trails and put a massive grin on your face….you are alive, you are achieving and you are amazing! Be so proud of all you have done and when you look back on this adventure with a rye smile, only you will know how hard it was and how you and only you achieved that dream. And that is something no one can ever take away.