mental training for athletes

There is No Quarantine on Mental Training for Athletes

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By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning

During a recent conference call with our ultrarunning coaches, we were discussing some of the major changes we’ve made to our athlete’s training during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some athletes have been forced to alter their routes due to trail closures and others have had logistical constraints with the collision of home school and work from home orders. Despite the constraints, athletes can still improve, and that improvement need not be limited to the physical. Outcomes like improving cardiac output, lactate tolerance or anything we can measure in the lab might need to take a back seat for the time being. Yet, regardless of your ‘shelter in place situation’ you can always work on your mental game. As my colleague Andy Jones-Wilkins put it on a recent conference call- ‘there is no quarantine on mental training’.

Mental training is something athletes can focus on now that will pay dividends down the line. You can do it on the trail or at home, and similar to running intervals around a track, the options are endless. Unlike intervals however, there are few metrics to focus on and cause-effect outcomes are fuzzy. There is no ‘percentage of maximum’ for the mental skill of focus, nor is there a ‘threshold’ for the proficiency of awareness. Don’t let the lack of concrete performance data hold you back. You can get better at these and other mental skills and they can impact your running performance just like a set of Tempo Intervals.

Where to start

When we think about physical training, we target certain intensities to elicit a range of adaptations. For example, a RunningInterval workout will predominantly improve an athlete’s VO2max, as well as the pace and amount of time they can tolerate at that intensity. But the benefits of a RunningInterval workout are not limited to just that narrow range of physiology. Improvements will also happen downstream as your cardiovascular physiology is interconnected. As we like to say, ‘your body does not know (physiological) systems.’ Similarly, the mental exercises described below are all interconnected. A visualization exercise will not only improve your confidence but will also improve the specific skill of focus, which will in turn improve another mental skill: awareness. Therefore, I don’t think that that there is any particular order or sequence you have to undertake these mental skills with. Rather, pick one that resonates with you and stick with it for several weeks before moving on to the next. Just like physical training, mental training takes consistent reinforcement to make the most meaningful impact. Think about it as block training for your mind. That reinforcement is more likely to happen the more specific and consistent you are with your practice. So pick one, start simple and stick with it!

To give this article a bit of framework, I’ve divided it into two sections- Mental Exercises for the Run and Mental Exercises for Home. In reality, any of these exercises can be done in either venue. However, I’ve organized the specific skill in the most conducive environment.

Mental Exercises for on the Run

Breath focus

Being able to focus is a great skill to hone in for any athlete. Running, particularly on trails, involves multiple inputs you can choose to focus on at differing levels. In some cases, negotiating rocks and roots, controlling your effort, deciding where to turn at the next trailhead, and trying to determine how much climbing is left on the hill you are battling have to be managed simultaneously. However, just like physical intensity, your body can only handle so much focal intensity at once. Even without training, your focus will naturally deprioritize unimportant inputs when necessary. If you have ever been on a run while listening to a podcast and all of the sudden wondered ‘Now, what were they talking about?’ that’s your mind shutting out the conversation to focus on another task at hand (or foot, as it would be). Athletes running a race in unfamiliar terrain for the first time suffer the same fate, as their focus needlessly shifts to where the next turn or aid station is and away from the more important task at hand, which is normally controlling the level of effort. Training your focus and being able to redirect it gives you a valuable tool during workouts and races by enabling you to maintain concentration on the tasks that are more important.

How to do it:

On a normal endurance run, pick a section of trail that is relatively benign and that is anywhere between 3 and 5 min in length. Make sure you know where some obvious landmarks are at the beginning and end of the section. These landmarks will serve as the boundaries of the exercise and should be so familiar to you they do not require any additional attention. When you approach the boundary of your selected section of trail, focus on solely your breath. Listen to the air filling your lungs and the sound of the exhale. Be aware if you are breathing through your nose or your month or both. Is the air dry or moist, can you smell anything from the surroundings? Follow your breath from your mouth, into your lungs, feel your chest expanding and then subsequently contracting. All of your focus should be entirely on your breath and how you interact with it. If you have another thought float by your mind, don’t fight it, acknowledge it and simply redirect your focus back onto your breath

Although this exercise is only a few minutes long, if you have never taken the time to focus on one singular aspect while running, chances are you will find it exhausting (mentally exhausting, that is). During those few minutes of the exercise, other thoughts will creep into your mind. Most of these are trivial in nature and will revolve around your family (‘I wonder how my daughter is doing?), work life (‘Am I going to have time to turn the report in?’) or some other area outside of running. So, start with a short, manageable section of trail during a RecoveryRun or EnduranceRun and as you train your focus, try lengthening the session, doing it while climbing or during an interval.

Body scan

The body scan is a tool to improve your overall awareness as well as the specific awareness of how your body is feeling and responding in the present moment. If you have adopted a guided mediation practice at any point, chances are you have done this exercise in some form. The awareness you develop from this exercise can then be applied internally as well as externally to the environment (‘it’s getting colder, is a front moving in where I will need my cold weather gear?’), other people (‘that dude looks labored’) or a particular situation you are in.

How to do it

As with the focus exercise, pick a benign section of trail during a EnduranceRun or RecoveryRun day. The length does not matter as much, but most people need at least 2 min to complete the exercise. You do need to choose a starting point to frame up the beginning of the exercise. As you pass by your predetermined starting point, start with your tip of your head and see how it feels. Move from the crown of your head to your forehead. Is your brow furrowed up like you are answering some incomprehensible physics problem? Move from your forehead to your cheeks, to your mouth, down your neck to your shoulders. Along the way, take a mental checklist of everything you encounter. From a tensed muscle to the way you are holding your arms to how your pack is moving along your torso.

What you are doing during this exercise is making yourself aware of how each piece is feeling and responding. By going ‘head to toe’ it gives you a consistent framework to work with, much like an interval structure organizes a workout or your Google calendar organizes your day. As you continue to do this exercise, the awareness you create with your body will continue to improve. Running with tense shoulders and arms will become apparent earlier, and haphazardly charging up the early climbs of a race will become less frequent because you will instinctively become more aware of your body’s sensations and output of effort. You can also use this exercise during a workout or a race as a ‘systems check’ of sorts, in order to control effort and mitigate problems before they arise.

Mental Exercises for home

Mental exercises are certainly not confined to the outdoors. In fact, in many cases athletes respond to better to mental exercises first done in the comfort of home as opposed to attempting them in the field of play right. Being in the walls of your own home reduces the complexity and clutter that is inevitable in the outdoors.

Meditation

Meditation or mindfulness has become the rage in recent years within athletic circles. Meditation can improve your focus and awareness by honing them in a calm, consistent environment. These skills can then be transferred to training and racing, where there are more variables at play.

How to do it-

For athletes that are consistently undergoing a meditation practice already, keep that up during these times. If anything, place a premium on the consistency of your practice (in terms of days per week as well as the specific time you practice during the day) rather than the length of the practice itself.

If you are new to mindfulness practice, I highly encourage you to try one of the guided apps like Headspace or Calm (NFI in either of these) to give you some initial direction. Like any training, mindfulness practice is awkward at first. You will be unsure if you are ‘doing it right’, if it is making any sort of improvement, and if it is worth your time. Also, like training, the answers and results will not appear like magic. Give it time, go slow, be consistent and reap the rewards.

Visualization

Visualization is another at home exercise you can use to tune your mental game. It can improve confidence as well as awareness and focus. You can also use visualization to prepare for scenarios commonly encountered during races like twisting an ankle, getting lost or triumphantly powering through the finish line. A word of caution with these scenario generators: in real life, they rarely go exactly to how you had planned.

How to do it

I prefer athletes have good framework for a mindfulness practice first before undertaking at home visualization exercises. The reason being, it is essential to develop a calm and quiet mind before intentionally introducing a problem to solve or scenario to rehearse. That being said, for your visualization exercise, first develop a race or workout scenario you want to envision. Pick the boundaries of this experience, as that will give you a starting point and an end point to work toward. If you are new to this practice, start with a scenario you have experienced hundreds of times. It does not have to be complicated nor earth shattering. I often have my athletes start visualization practice with a scenario like warming up for workout, going through an aid station or some other race or workout activity they have done before and are comfortable with.

Once the visualization practice is more mature, move on to more complicated scenarios. You can visualize powerfully cresting a particular climb during your goal race or getting out of a problem spot. But, be careful to make the exercise specific enough that is relatable to you in real life. Visualizing ‘feeling good’ is not enough. If you are visualizing a particular part of the race, you should be able to mentally picture the trail surface, landmarks, how the air feels, what you should see in the distance, what your pounding heart actually feels like (your heart rate might actually go up if you are particularly engulfed in the exercise) and every other detail surrounding the experience.

As you progress in your visualization training, move the experiences from the more routine to things you might encounter. Rehearse what to do when you twist an ankle or get lost. Visualize what is feels and looks like to run up the biggest climb of your next race. As you become more and more comfortable with this type of practice, the scenarios you envision can adapt and evolve as well. As a final enhancement of visualization, you can take the exercise outside to one of your normal runs or workouts and visualize the scenario while running which will add a kinesthetic link to the mental exercise.

Journaling your training

Journaling is a way of capturing and consolidating the training experience you just had.  It reinforces the purpose of the workout you had and can therefore bolsters confidence that the run you just did will pay off with some positive benefit.

How to do it.

Journaling starts with the place to record your thoughts and feelings. This can be a physical training log or notebook or an electronic training log. In my experience, some athletes like to separate their run training log, which focuses on more objective feedback like splits, nutrition and GPS files from their journal, which will be more subjective and emotive in nature. Other athletes will like to combine the two. As a coach, my preference is to steer the athlete to a system where they will be more consistent.

After you have picked your method of capture, set up your post-run routine so you can journal nearly immediately after your run while the thoughts are still fresh. If you are using a paper and pen notebook, place it on the nearest counter you will walk by after finishing your run, or even in the passenger seat of your car if you drove to your workout. If you are using an electronic journal, your phone becomes a good option to capture your feelings so long as you have the fortitude not to check Instagram first. The point is, try to begin journaling as soon as possible after the run. Capture your thoughts about the run when there are as vivid and raw as possible. If you undertook a focus or body scan exercise during the run, write down what you remember and felt during those exercises. All of these are valid experiences you can record in your journal. They don’t need to be particularly poignant or poetic, just simple recaps of various points of the run that will ultimately help reinforce the purpose of the workout.

Remember, there will never be a quarantine on mental training. You can do these rain or shine, in your home or on a run. Most of these exercises take very little time commitment, and some are even concurrent with training. They all can pay dividends down the line to make you a more complete, resilient and confident athlete.


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Comments 3

  1. Thank you! I used to meditate on a regular basis and found it so beneficial. Love your “exercise” suggestions and hope they’ll steer me back to a regular practice!

  2. Pingback: Ultramarathon Daily News | Tensday? March 14nd? | Ultrarunnerpodcast.com

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