Distraction: Mental Skills For Racing

Understanding of the human mind in sport has improved significantly in the last two decades. We have moved beyond the inverted ‘U’ of the optimal state of arousal model. There are many mental tactics a runner can use to improve race performance. These can be enhanced through training, practice and understanding. This post will focus on using distraction. It is the main mental skill I used during my recent 50km at the Surf Coast Century.

 

The concept of distraction is simple. Focus on something other than the difficulty or pain of what you are experiencing. Used the right way it can be helpful. There are risks in employing this tactic.

The Risk

You don’t want to be distracted at key moments in a race. Race starts, technical sections or the closing stages are when you want to be focussed. Being distracted in these moments can prevent you making the most of the race.

Short and fast is another situation you wouldn’t use distraction. You want to be fired up and focussed.

Can you maintain race pace automatically? If not, being distracted might have you fall off the pace.

When To Use Distraction

The main benefit of distraction is it gives you space. It can reduce the mental load. Potentially saving the mind for the time you need to have intense focus.

  • When you have a lot of negative thoughts
  • When you have a long section to get through
  • When you have the ability to automatically run at the required pace
  • When you want to save some mental energy for later

How To Use Distraction

There are three distinct forms of distraction to use:

  1. Use numbers
  2. Get off topic
  3. What’s around you?

1. Use Numbers

If the negative thoughts are hitting hard, use this. Turn the focus onto numbers. It is an interrupting technique that stops the subjective part of the brain for a moment. It takes away from emotion. Using numbers gives you the chance to reset the brain so you have a better chance to direct it where you want it go. You don’t have to be good at maths. You just have to do something with numbers. Here’s some ideas:

  • Count your breaths per minute
  • Count your steps
  • Do some simple sums
  • Convert your pace to miles if you think in metric

It is that simple. Your calculations don’t even have to be correct for it to work.

 

2. Get Off Topic

It helps having some company, but you can do this by yourself as well. If lucky to be running with someone just have a conversation. Talk about anything that isn’t the race. The conversation doesn’t even have to be good. It just has to be distracting.

 

If by yourself at the time, ask yourself a question. Again, not about the race:

  • Why is the sky blue?
  • What song lyrics do I always mix up?
  • What makes me smile?

 

Try listening to music, if the race rules allow. Getting absorbed in the tunes coming through your earphones can be a good way to pass the time a little faster.

3. What’s Around You?

This is a more subtle shift in focus. Move it away from how your legs feel or how much further you have to run. Look at what’s around you with curiosity. Look at the trees near you. Trace the line of their leaves. Look at the colour of the dirt. Is it dark? Light? What colour is it? Savour any views you are treated to along the course. It might remind you why you keep heading out for runs.

 

Distraction: Mental Skills For Racing

 

Surf Coast Century Relay 2017: Race Report

There is so much to love about this race. I’ve only missed one year since the inaugural Surf Coast Century in 2012. I plan to keep coming back.

 

If you are looking to try out trail running or an ultra marathon this would be an event to get to. The atmosphere is huge. The course is spectacular. It is a challenge whether you are doing a 21km leg or the full 100km, but there is so much support this event lifts you to achieve more than you thought you could.

Surf Coast Century Race Start Head Torches

It’s becoming an annual event for me with some awesome work colleagues. Our numbers seem to be growing. Fielding 3 teams this year. Two as 4 person relays. My team was 3. Andrew taking out the first 21km leg. Mick for 28km in leg 2. Myself given the job of two people and covering the 52km of legs 3 and 4.

 

Racing this year was an important benchmark. After injury at Wilsons’s Promontory 100km in May it is my first event back. Still no where near what I consider race fit, it was a challenge to get up to cover 50km of trails. If I can do this, then I can start thinking big for next year.

Anglesea to Torquay to Anglesea: (0-49km)

Having others run makes the first 49km a lot easier. It’s one of the advantages being part of a relay. It’s still an early, predawn start. Andrew trained well. Despite some injury issues got himself into great shape to smash out the  21km of Leg 1 across the beaches.

 

Mick took over at Torquay. Putting his hyperactivity to good use, set out and gained many spots over Leg 2. Face planting into a puddle didn’t seem to slow him down much. He ran hard and fast over the 28km of trails, hills and hinterland.

Surf Coast Century Leg 1 to Leg 2

 

Anglesea to Moggs Creek: 0-28km (49-77km)

Half way through the race (or near enough) for the team. One difficulty in ultra length relays is timing being ready for your leg. It was a mixture of trying to relax and keep moving. A balance that would be more difficult if I was aiming for a fast time. The pressure was off on my speed. The challenge was to see if I was able to cover the distance. Recent rains resulted in a minor course change. Bringing the distance up to 52km for the two legs I was about to run. We’ll just ignore the extra distance. I just wondered if I could make it.

 

Mick returned looking like he had run it hard. Passed over the first aid kit which was operating as our relay baton. Over the timing mats I went. My test had started.

 

The first few steps felt great. My body felt smooth and relaxed. My mind was a different story. A flood of what if scenarios smashed through my thoughts. None of them particularly positive. I knew the stretch between where I had trained versus what I was attempting was big. Thinking about all the possible reasons of failing wasn’t going to help. I distracted my brain by attempting to count my breaths per every 10 steps. Trying to count different breathes and steps at the same time fills brain space. Using numbers often overrides my subjective thoughts. It worked.

 

The trail takes us under the bridge of the Great Ocean Road. It is a narrow space to crawl through. A solo 100km runner in front of me was cramping through this crawl. I had an appreciation for doing this move fresh.

 

Into the hills. Nothing technical for the next few kilometres. Just lots of up and down. Not putting time pressures on myself allowed me to really enjoy this section. Mostly wide fire trail here. When focussing on the few steps in front it has felt a bit bland in previous years. Now I had the head space to look around more. The views into the Otways are spectacular. I’m surprised I haven’t appreciated this before.

 

Venturing off the fire trails it gets a little more interesting under foot. A few more turns. A little extra concentration on where you land. I started feeling pleasantly lost in the bush. No longer thinking about how much further I had to run. Instead I was looking forward to the journey.

 

The sound of cheering seeped through the trees. Indicating I was almost at Distillery Creek Road. This was exciting. The trail beyond the road crossing is some of the best single track in the country for running. I was excited. So was the small crowd at the road. My sis and bro-in-law were there giving me a boost. As was a girl dressed up as a strawberry!

 

Off the road… “it’s swim time!” I announced as I took the straight line through a knee deep puddle that others were taking the long and muddy way around. My shoes were already wet, and the dip seemed to clean off some of the mud I’d previously accumulated. A slippery, muddy and flowing single track led down into bush paradise. There was a lot of variety in speeds of runners through this section. Some were doing the 100km solo, others the 50km option and the remainder one leg of the relay. It was an interesting mix up. Quite social.

Surf Coast Century Leg 3

In trail running what goes down must come up. In this case it was 6km of moving against gravity. Not too steep. In my frame of mind it was very enjoyable. I also knew better was yet to come. Over the top and the trail travels with gravity for my favourite 3km of the whole 100km Surf Coast Century course.

These 3km is steep enough you can allow gravity to do almost all the work. It is just technical enough you need some agility and skill. It is a combination that hits my sweet spot in trail running. Because there is a risk to my ankle from going hard down hill I modified my stride a little. I made an effort to shorten the stride length and avoid any big step downs. Taking multiple steps down any drops where I normally just would have just jumped down. This worked. My legs spun. The impact seemed light. My ego was boosted as I passed a lot of other runners. It felt perfect. This is why I run.

 

Moggs Creek to Anglesea 28-51km (77-100km)

The checkpoint was full. So many people to support all the runners. It’s amazing as it is the most difficult one to get into. So it is an effort for spectators and supporters to be here. It was crowded.

 

I’d absolutely loved the previous 28km. Some warning signs of fatigue were showing up in my ankle. There was also some pain in a risky spot. Maybe I’d taken that 3km down hill a bit too fast. Part of me wished I had a relay runner to swap over to. Turns out my head wasn’t working very well. Having attempted to calculate a finishing time I asked my team to make sure they got my head torch to me later. They had to explain to me I could walk the remainder and be in before dark. Not sure what was going on there. Mick gave me an espresso, I ate some food and my mind cleared. Eventually I left the checkpoint. It was only 6 minutes, but I felt like I’d kicked back for an hour.

 

Fueled and refreshed. Climbing up the single track. My ankle was hurting. This made me worry , so I walked a lot of the next couple of kilometres. Gradually I added in more running. A process of trial and error revealed what hurt and what seemed to allow me to keep running.

 

With a careful style I ran slowly. I really wanted to go faster. Instead I erred on the side of caution. I didn’t want to take another month off running. This race was meant to be my springboard into more. In a lot of ways it didn’t feel right to hold back. It created a lot of conflict in my thinking. It was much harder than I realised to be in a race and not racing.

 

The battle in brain distracted me until the trail spat me out at the Great Ocean Road. Another bridge to go under. My mind clearly wasn’t working well. This bridge is much easier than the first, but not for me at this time. With no ability to focus or decide where to put my hands and feet I was embarrassed in my efforts. Jane from one of other teams caught me here. She was polite enough not to openly laugh at me.

Check Point 7 Surf Coast Century

On the other side it was good to run with her into the checkpoint. Only 14km left. I stopped and smashed down a Red Bull and Clif Bar. Jane ran off ahead. There were no doubts now. I knew I was going to finish. On and up towards the Airey’s Inlet Lighthouse. The trail was easier here and allowed for some better running. I got into a disconnected zone and soon had over 7km covered.

 

This brought me out to the beach. Sis and bro-in-law were nailing the supporter roles big time. The muscles of my feet and lower leg were cramping and basically failing to do their job now. Sand didn’t help. Luckily I was caught by a blast from the past of my triathlon days. We had about 6km to the finish. It was good having Christian to run with. Catching up and reminiscing helped distract the mind and we pushed each other to cover the final kilometres faster. My technique wasn’t the prettiest, but it got me through. This the was first race I’ve ever run where I didn’t try to beat those around me in the closing stages. I finally understood why many cross the finish together. It is a different feeling, but it is a good feeling. There is more to racing than just racing.

 

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Also check out the race site itself at Surf Coast Century.

Feel free to leave a comment below…

Taper Doubts: Surviving The Week Before Your Race

Most runners struggle during their taper.

It seems strange. Leading into a race you ease off on the training. You are no longer trying to push the boundaries of what your body can handle. More sleep. A little down time. Time to chill. Should feel great. Yet, most runners have trouble handling this.

Instead of relaxation we have too much time to think about the race. We doubt if we are ready. Not enough long runs. Should have done more intervals. What if I’m just not good enough?

Instead of feeling good our body signals problems. We become hyper aware of everything. Every little ache stands out. Is it a race limiting injury? Every muscle feels heavy. We lose our snap. All the speed has been sucked out.

Not just the first timer, but as an experienced runner we wonder if this is normal.

It is normal!

Running Race Taper

How to handle a race taper better

The Body

The body will feel flat. You’ve been training hard for some time. Pushing the body puts it on the edge. It has been in survival mode. Now you are giving it the opportunity to recover and rebuild into a stronger and faster you. This is a significant process. It takes the body a lot of resources.

What to do:
Give the body what it needs. Good food and appropriate rest. Racing and training hard put you in the fight or flight mode (sympathetic). Rebuilding puts you in the rest and digest mode (parasympathetic). Everything feels slowed down when here. Let the body stay in this state. You only need to feel good on race day. Trust the body, it is surprisingly good at getting this right.

The Mind

Train the mind. There will always be doubts leading into a big event. It’s okay. Not only should we accept this, but we can use it to our advantage. Set aside some time (that time you used to be running).

Write a list of your doubts and negative thoughts. Put it on paper. Then split the lists into 2 categories.

 

  1. Things you can’t control: training completed or not done – can’t change it now. Weather. Terrain. Other competitors. Now you’ve identified this, it is easier to push it aside and focus on part
  2. Things you can control: race kit, race plan, contingency plans, nutrition. This is where you can focus your efforts. Make a plan for a good race, and not so good race. What will you do if things go wrong. If you’ve considered situations ahead of time it will be easier on the day to just do it.

Meditate. This isn’t the time to learn completely new techniques. If you have a practice already then put some more time into it. If you don’t meditate find some time to sit still and breath slowly or follow a simple guided meditation. Personally I use Insight Timer whenever I feel like using a guided mediation rather than my own practice.

After 20 years of racing I still have to remind myself it is normal to feel bad, crazy good or just crazy during the taper. I’ve come to enjoy the process and see it as part of training and racing. Getting those feelings many dread indicate you are on track for race day.

 

Comment below and share how you handle your taper.

 

For The Injured Runner: Make The Most Of Injury Time

How do you get back to running after an injury?
Running doesn’t always go to plan. This year reminded me of that.
Early in May I had some awesome plans to smash out 100km at the Wilsons Promontory Ultra with a few friends. Nervous and relaxed all in one had me on the start line. For the first 26km it was all awesomeness. Running comfortably down a moderate hill my left foot landed on a loose rock.

Rip and pop!

Two weeks of living in a moonboot and no running for four weeks. It sucked. I’m not going to lie. I got grumpy.  The injury was a high ankle sprain. There’s some potential ongoing issues with this. Running properly again takes time. I decided to make sure I rehab the hell out of my ankle. It’s crazy how many exercises you can do for your ankle and foot.
moon boot rehab
Moonboot & rehab
Not running gives you a lot of time to think about not running. The exercises, walking, physiotherapy, stretching and strength work are just details. Injuries suck. How do you make the most of your injury time out?

Change Your Focus

If you have the discipline to train hard and push yourself in races, then you have what it take in injury. You need to flip that discipline to doing the stuff that isn’t as fun and hold back. Structured rest is training.
You can still push yourself. It just has to be different ways.
  • Rehab exercises boring? -> use that to develop the ability to maintain focus
  • Have a muscle imbalance? -> work on strengthening the weak muscles
  • Core is weak? -> increase the time devoted to this

The list can go on and on. Use the injury time to improve what you usually think you don’t have time for.

Real Goals

This should be a two-pronged attack.

1. Big Goal

First decide on a big goal in the future to work towards. Something that drives you. A goal to fuel your passion. Choose a goal that will signal you are back in action.
I chose being able to run 50km as part of the Surfcoast Century relay. Not expecting to be fast. Just wanting to put in a solid effort and finish without breaking down. It was definite and timely. A 4 month time frame. I had so many moments when I couldn’t be bothered. A big goal reminds you of the bigger picture. It makes it easier to give your own a butt a kick. You can’t always rely on motivation. Knowing you have a deadline helps force you to do the training you don’t want to do now so you can do the training you want to do later.

2. Little Goals

Second part of the goal setting attack is use a series of little goals.
Often best worked out with your physiotherapist, doctor or coach. Create small goals to work towards over just a few days. Treat them as criteria you have to achieve before you can increase the training load. Having something clear to work towards in the short term makes it easier to do what it takes.
During the first couple of days of injury the goal can be as simple as don’t make it worse. Focus on that and it’s easier to rest, elevate and apply compression or whatever is needed. A few days later the goal might be to introduce movement without pain, or it might be get a follow up review with the doctor. Super simple. Focus on a small goal and make it the priority.
Further down the rehabilitation path you progress the goals. Some of mine over the weeks included:
  • complete 3×10 double calf raises without pain
  • complete 30 single leg calf raises without pain
  • complete 3×10 hops without pain
  • walk briskly for 30 minutes without developing discomfort over the next day
  • run for 5 minutes without developing discomfort over the next day
  • run at a steady effort for 60 minutes without feeling instability in my ankle

There were steps in between these goals. The idea is if I can’t achieve the current goal, my body isn’t ready to progress. You have to earn to right to train at the next level.

Extra Thoughts

Mentally it wasn’t easy. I doubted myself. Every week I wondered if I was doing enough. With no high end training I couldn’t see myself being race ready. I stuck with the plan. When asked how I was doing I made an effort to keep my reply positive. Even if I didn’t believe what I said. The power of repeating something can rub off. Maybe it’s a case of fake it until you make it. Little by little the training increased. Nothing fast, but I was happy with the mileage. The weekly totals turned out like this:

4-18-34-58-57-62-68-78-82-61-86km

Sometimes the pace crept up a bit too much in runs. Aches and feelings of instability let me know about it the following day. The final 86km was right on my limit. Soreness and failure in support muscles forced a couple of days rest afterwards. Right at taper time. Have I made it? Next Saturday will have the answer.
Injuries can be a good reason to review why we do what we do. You can do a lot in injury time.
How do you deal with injuries?
Make the most of injury time

Run Alive

Do you feel alive?

What does it take? What does it mean?

There is more than just ordinary routine. More than work, chores, bills, sleep and repeat.

Attitude plays a big role in what we get out of life. Some see family responsibilities as a chore, others as a blessing. Some are passionate in their work, others see it as just a necessity to pay the bills. Not everything goes our way. We spend more time on tasks we rather not. There are amazing joys contrasted with deep sadness and everything in between. This is normal, but sometimes normal is overrated.

It is in this interplay between failure and achievement that something happens

I have an amazing family, friends, a job I enjoy. I have exposure to experiences that have helped me appreciate the good, bad and in between. Many would say I’m lucky. I am, but the harder and smarter I work for it, the luckier I seem to get.

This brings me to why I am writing this post. Being the first post on this blog I wondered where to start. The answer was easy. I should start at why? Why do I do this? Why run? Why blog about it? Why bother?

There is a feeling I chase. I could be satisfied with everything I get out of the rest of my life. I could be. Knowing there is more, means I’m not. So I chase moments. Those moments where all the noise is stripped away. Those moments where it feels impossible. Those moments where time is distorted. Those moments where I am broken down to my core. This is when I feel absolutely alive.

Different paths can lead to these moments. Some achieve it through adrenaline style sports such as sky diving. Others in short and fast races. Some may reach them writing a book. Some by performing life saving surgery. Everyone has certain things that truly resonate with them. For me, I find it in running.

There are some common elements that usually lead to those moments of really, really feeling alive:

    • The goal has to scare me
    • It is at the edge of my capability
    • It induces so much fatigue my body feels like it can’t continue
    • The discomfort and/or pain feels overwhelming

Writing this list makes it sound horrendous. How could any of this be fun? If it involves running it somehow resonates with me. These moments push everything out of my head and I am left with being present only in the moment. It is in this interplay between failure and achievement that something happens. Everything is enhanced. I usually discover I can get more out of myself than I believed. In short, I feel alive.

It carries into everything else. I’ve been surprised it doesn’t mute everything. Instead it enhances all my other experiences. It seems to lift the base standard of life. This is why I do what I do.

Hopefully this blog can help others feel more alive. Follow along with me as I explore running, challenges and pass on what I have learnt.

Chasing Moments