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Training the Mind and the Body will Follow

The Mental Frame

How we mentally frame a given route we run or segment of a route we run or course profile can be the difference between creating for ourselves a positive experience or a negative experience. There are so many training runs where I have thought to myself “Uggh, I hate this segment” and low and behold I end up hating it and it has deleterious effects on both my performance and my experience. Over the years I’ve been ultra-running this experience has been crippling at times. In the past year or so, I have decided to take to task framing positive experiences more effectively and remapping in the mind negative experiences.

In ultra-running (and life) we are faced with situations and experiences that appear and feel abysmal. It is true that there are and were negative things about the situation and experience. However, most often in hindsight we find that being resilient and reflective provides the opportunity for good things that were previously unrevealed.

The brain is like a fastener for negative experiences, it holds onto the negative experience with all it’s might.  In running, this means that it dreads that 20th mile where one may have historically bonked multiple times over, or maybe that dreaded steep climb in a training run or race that feels like it is sucking the life out of the runner. The negative experience can leave us feeling powerless, not trusting our training, and gobble up all of our positive energy.

Process Oriented Framing

The accumulation of accomplishing many small relatively insignificant goals can and does help create an environment in which big and bountiful goals can be achieved. Most of us are not capable of running 20 miles a week and then showing up at the starting line of a 100 mile endurance race and completing it. But most of us can envision running 5 miles or 10 miles or a marathon. However, we must first meet the goal of 5 miles or 10 miles through a dedicated process of training.

Almost every successful ultra-runner I have had the fortune to learn from has agreed with the notion that nobody runs 50 miles, 100k, or 100 miles while thinking about the 50th mile on mile 2 or the 100th mile on mile 10. It is a framing process that is not tractable. In almost all the discussions I have had and races I have ran the sage wisdom of, “just get to the next aid station” “just get to the next runnable segment” has proven to be a mental framing that works. It is the simple task of staying in the moment and not putting the cart before the horse.

These mental processes and framing can not only help us navigate the adversity that comes with ultra-running and life but it can also be used to create positive experiences where we may have had negative ones so that when mile 20 comes or that steep climb comes we can have re-wired the mental experience to be positive and improve our performance and avoid crippling ourselves emotionally.

In Application - The Bear Canyon Loop

The Bear Canyon Loop is a Tucson trail running staple. It is a ~16.8 - 17.0 mile loop that navigates through mid to low-land desert through the Catalina Mountains. The loop offers runners a little bit of everything. There are amazing views, there is a good amount of climbing (~2800ft) and a lot of fun and semi-technical downhill. For many years, I have wanted to run that trail in under 2hrs and 30 minutes. I had been hovering around 2:40-2:45 since 2015 and in 2017 I got to 2:36. I spent months training to improve my time and I got stuck at 2:32. No matter what I did I could not seem to shave those dreaded 3 minutes. 

I eventually came to realize that there were certain segments that would just defeat me. I analyzed my watch data and found that I was losing time on two segments and realized those were the same two segments that would mentally crush me too. They were segments in which I had wired myself to believe were negative experiences and they were keeping me from my goal.

I stepped back and came up with a smaller, more easily obtained goal - running those two segments well. I wanted to make sure I created multiple positive experiences on those segments. In practice, this meant going out on the loop and not aiming for a goal time but rather, going slow and easy and then at those two segments, redlining those segments so that I could experience what it was like to run those segments well. I changed nothing else about my regular training program and I did this for each segment 3 times.

When the time came to try for a time below 2:30, I had a different mental framing around those segments. I did not fear them nor did I think they were unable to be ran well. At the time I went for the bigger goal I had positive energy going into those two segments. It was literally a different experience and it made all the difference.  On that day, I was 2:28, I was satisfied. To date my Bear Canyon Loop PR is 2:21. I am unsure if I am physically capable of any faster and my time is not the fastest around but by engaging in the process of mentally training myself, setting smaller goals first and then putting it all together, I was able to accomplish something that was meaningful to me. And in that, there is peace.

Final Thoughts

The purpose of this post is not to try and convince anybody that they do not need to put in the physical work required to meet training and racing goals and that we are capable of mentally willing ourselves to our goals. Rather, it is to shed light on the idea that when the physical training is coupled with mental training, we give ourselves a better chance to optimize our performance and create positive experiences that move us onward and upward. I want to thank my dear friend Tammy Kovaluk for inspiring me to write this post and share this experience. 


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