The other day, one of my athletes wrote in his log about the voices in his head. He was in the middle of a big training block. Cumulative fatigue was building in the legs. And though he was just doing a long run with some rolling hills – no intervals, no target paces – he heard the voices. The voices that were saying maybe he should be running faster, is the pace too slow, is he on track, is he where he was compared to last year.
We’ve all heard the voices. At our weakest moments, we’ve listened. We’ve let doubt creep into our mind for whatever reason – insecurity, boredom, not knowing any better. We’re told not to look at the pace during an easy run yet we look and we compare. We wonder what so and so is doing in their training. We think what if so and so was our coach would we be faster. We wonder if we’re ahead. Or behind.
We waste a lot of mental energy.
I’ve heard the voices too. Coming back after pregnancy, let me tell you sometimes the voices chatter loudly. Are you running enough. Are you fast enough. Should 90 percent of threshold watts really feel this difficult. If you don’t go into a workout with your mind firmly set in confidence, you find yourself questioning. You lose focus. You give it a little less because your mind is so cluttered. I find when I go into a workout with my mind made up (I feel tired today, this workout looks too hard), the voices talk the loudest. They find my weakness. They talk hard to get me to listen.
On Saturday, I was two days away from finishing up three weeks of big work. The voices started to chatter; you're tired, you're not going to be fast enough. Did I listen? I managed the voices by keeping it in perspective. By the end of a 3-week build you shouldn’t be feeling too zippy. Good excuse to give up (I’m so sore!). To not even try (my legs are too tired to hit those watts!). We are at our most vulnerable when tired. The voices say to me – if you can’t run xx pace right now how are you going to hold that pace for xx miles in x weeks?
All I know is the work I’m doing. Slow or fast, I trust my body knows what to do with the work. It’s hard and I’m giving it my best. When I make up my mind about that, the voices turn off. They’re always there – but the best athletes learn how to manage them.
I’m convinced the voices work a little harder with those of us coming back to sport after a long layoff. That little voice in the back of the head: will I really be ready? Am I crazy for what I want to accomplish this year? Yet when I think about my upcoming races, there is more excitement than fear. I will be ready. When I look back, I realize my failures happened because I was not ready – I was unhealthy, I was driven by fear. I am different now. I am unafraid. Maybe because I have failed incredibly and realized that even in last place, even DNFing, you still wake up the next day and life moves forward. You are still smart, strong and loved. Results in sport do not define us. It is what we do within sport – our attitude, our energy that is defining.
What I’ve learned is that beyond the basic training, event readiness is a state of mind. You can control what the voices say. We set ourselves up for arriving at a race ready or not. We have it in our head that on this day of this month, we will stand at the start line prepared – and thinking it’s on. If you let your head fill with the voices of doubt between now and then, you’ll arrive at that same line thinking – am I really ready for this? When you doubt, you don’t race at your best – you race scared. Racing scared leads to distractions and mistakes; you overpace, you forget your fuel plan, you think too much.
I’ve got some big races this year. Will I be ready? I’m not sure what ready is. Is it running an x:xx mile? Is it being xxx pounds? I don’t know and honestly – I don’t care. When I try to rationally search for clues that mean I am ready it wears me out. I find myself thinking, well, for that race a few years ago I know I did this, this and that. Thoughts like that make my head feel confused and cluttered. It’s chatter that makes me want to cover my ears begging for silence. It makes me lose focus on what I am doing because I’m always comparing it to what I did.
All I know is that when I arrive at the start line of my peak races, no matter who is standing next to me, I will have nothing certain behind me except the miles, hours, and training sessions. Months of waiting and watching while pregnant where I wasn’t working on my fitness per se but was working on my desire. If the voices choose to show up on race day – that’s all I’ll have to throw back at them.
And I think that’s enough.
What I’m realizing in my training is that it all goes back to confidence. It’s something I learned many years ago. I was in a half Ironman – it was hot and hilly. I had about 3 miles to go. I was up against some fast girls that I kept seeing at every.damn.turnaround. What lied between me and the win was not excellent genetics, superior training or fancy equipment. The secret is: I don’t do flying dismounts, I don’t train 20 hours a week, I rarely run over 30 miles in a week and I only flip turn with a pull buoy. How I ever accomplished anything is beyond me, right? What lied between me and the win was confidence. I wanted to own those last 3 miles. The voices in my head didn’t stand a chance. Fatigue, pain – not listening. Confidence, I’ve said it before – it’s a firewall.
We’d all like to think there are special workouts that make us winners, a set body weight or perfect number of training hours but that’s not the case. What amazes me about human performance is that different body types, ages and training approaches can all achieve success. It’s not so much what they’re doing but how they’re doing it. They’re confident, they trust and they don’t listen to the voices in their head. Sure sometimes those voices chatter but they manage it. They don’t perseverate. It is what it is. They move on to the next day and do the work again. Consistency builds confidence. What you do tomorrow backed up by what you did today. All of the work – good/bad, fast/slow – adds up to preparation. Preparation meets confidence and then you have…opportunity. What you do with that opportunity is up to you.
Will you breakthrough or listen to the voices in your head.
Yesterday during my long ride, I listened to an interview with Kara Goucher. At 4 months post partum, she’s just begun her return to competition. The interviewer asked how mentally hard it is to be in the race with the top women in the world. She talked about the voices. She admitted sometimes to standing on the start lines, looking around knowing these women are fast and wondering if she’s ready. Even if you are prepared, there are always moments you are unsure of yourself. Her strategy: in those moments, you snap yourself back and say I am prepared. I am ready for this. It’s a belief system you have to subscribe to all along. You have to trust that the work you are doing will get you there. And once there, you will not only know what to do but you will do it.
We need as many defenses as we can get to quiet the voices. Something Kara talked about was making note of breakthrough workouts. Writing down the time you nailed the intervals, toughed through a cold day, finished strong. Before your race, you revisit those breakthroughs for confidence. So when you’re out on the race course and you encounter an obstacle or challenge, you know you can do it because you’ve done it before. Kara and I have something in common (no, I don't run 100 miles a week!), I write down my breakthroughs too. It takes no more than 5 minutes on a Sunday night. I go back and revisit all of my workouts and make a note. When I think about how I want to feel in a race, I want to feel like I did in those workouts. It’s much easier when I know which ones to go back to and try to reconnect to those feelings.
Sunday was the last day before I get some rest. On my schedule was a 3-hour workout entitled Hard – Repeat. Ow? I have no idea what that really means because I never look at the details of my workout until I am ready to start. One day at a time, one workout at a time. Yet the voices started early that morning – I’m tired. Yeah, I know. You’ve been going for a few weeks, you should be tired! But if I listen closely enough, I realize the louder voice is saying if we do this, it will be a big thing. One of those big things that I’ll write down on Sunday nght and revisit before race day.
Pedaling through a 30 minute warm up, I could feel that mentally this workout would be much more difficult than physically. But if I put my mind to it – I would nail this workout and a few months from now draw confidence with it. Over 3 hours later, I stepped off the treadmill and smiled. I did it. Sure, I was tired and it hurt, but I got it done.
The voices are quiet now. With each workout, they dampen just a little bit more until they become muffled white noise. I won’t hear them on race day. All I will hear is – you can do this, you’re ready, you’ve done this in training. Because that’s the way I’ve been practicing. Practice as you plan to race. Be the athlete you want to be in racing when in training. Learn to manage the voices, and feed them what you want them to say. You control you – in training, on race day. Actively create what you want to hear in your mind.