WIN THE MENTAL GAME! PART II

5:00 Mental Drill

In  "WIN THE MENTAL GAME" (Part 1)  I discussed the importance of establishing a mental training volume early in the season and then maintaining that through to the "big" race at the end of the season. My recommendation was the Coach Henner 5:00 Drill which directs you to only think about the upcoming race during five minutes of your daily run. This strict routine helps you avoid the pitfalls of over-thinking, the resulting over-arousal, and it's accompanying anxiety. 

The relationship between arousal and performance. 

The relationship between arousal and performance

Too much thinking can cause over-arousal but so can wrong thinking!  Having  explained 'When to think!" now it's important to understand "What to think! Thinking about the wrong things can lead to over-arousal even if you are not over-thinking. 

The optimal arousal level, or the state at which performance can be maximized, is marked by excitement. Over-arousal, the chief danger on "big" race day, puts the runner into the stress zone and the accompanying anxiety and fear. There is a high probability of "choking" when these negative emotions are present. 

outcome vs. process thoughts

The  investment of training, time, and emotional energy into the "big" race might create expectations that you deem  important to meet. In many instances it is the fear of not meeting expectations, or 'fear of failure," that pushes the arousal level into the stress zone. These expectations are usually outcome based with a focus on time and place. Focusing on outcomes during mental training is usually not productive and can be  detrimental to performance. There are some races where you do not have 100% control over your time or place. A typically fast course, and the promise of PR, might be rendered slow by heat, humidity, wind or rain. An influx of out of town racers might make it near impossible to still win your age group. Dwelling on outcomes that are not certain, and in some cases not in your control, can often push the runner into the stress zone of the arousal curve. An anxious, stressed runner loses some degree of motor control and running economy suffers.  Establishing and committing to outcome goals is still very important in directing training and providing long-term motivation. But it is process oriented thoughts and goals that should be the focus of mental training leading up to the "big" race. 

process thinking

Dwelling on outcomes can cause anxiety and fear, pushing the racer into the stress zone of the arousal curve. But a disciplined volume of process oriented mental training will enable most runners to arrive at the starting line at the optimal arousal level.  The following are examples of process-oriented thinking that help to answer the question, "How will I run the race?"

- I will get off the starting line quickly but relaxed.

- In the first mile I will stay focused on deep, easy breathing.

- I will hit the mile mark within 5 seconds of my goal pace. 

- When I start getting uncomfortable I will shake-out my arms.

- I will drive my arms and power up the hills.

- On the down hills I will lean forward and stay on the balls of my feet. 

-When it gets tough I will stay relaxed and composed. 

- On the final straight I will quicken my cadence and lift my knees. 

The thoughts outlined above describe how you will run the race and set a positive response to being uncomfortable.  These process oriented thoughts can then be interpreted as goals for the race. Unlike outcome based goals, these process oriented goals are 100% under the runner's control and much less likely to cause anxiety or fear. 

"the process is fearless"

The quote above is attributed to long-time NFL assistant coach Tom Moore. Cubs manager Joe Maddon appropriated the quote and used it as a theme for Chicago's first World Championship season since 1908. "Fear of failure" and anxiety are minimized, and even eliminated, when thoughts revolve around the process of the competition and not the outcome. These process oriented thoughts also keep the racer "in the moment" and better able to execute at the key moments of the race. Unburdened by worries about the outcome, the race becomes more fun and a positive outcome is more likely.

 

 

Win the Mental Game!

In training for the "big" race, you logged more miles than ever on the roads, track, and trails. This race build-up, you even adjusted your nutrition, went to bed early, lifted weights and incorporated yoga.  The "big" race goals were well within your grasp according to your workouts. Even though you tapered well and did your normal warm-up for the race, you felt sluggish and tired in the first mile of the competition. As the race progressed, you became less motivated and only focused on the pain you were experiencing. Needless to say, you were not able to access your hard-earned fitness on race day. 

The race day failure described above could have been caused by a training error in the build-up, but the more likely culprit is race day anxiety. From what I have observed and learned in my many years of coaching, "big" race day anxiety is caused by over-arousal of the nervous system. 

 

The optimal Arousal Level

As you can see from the graph below, there is an optimal arousal level for every race or event.  

 The relation between arousal and performance. 

 The relation between arousal and performance. 

If you are sluggish, or not motivated at all, you will be under-aroused and  performance will suffer. But for the "big" race, being under-aroused is not usually the problem. It is actually over-arousal for the "big" race that causes anxiety or "choking". This state of arousal has an extremely negative impact on motor control of the muscles. You are "paralyzed by fear" (at least partially), running economy suffers, and these things encourage the onset of unexpected early fatigue. An athlete experiencing this early fatigue due to anxiety becomes discouraged and negative thoughts spiral out of control. Once this self-reinforcing, downward cascade of muscle fatigue and negative thoughts take control, it is almost impossible to then give a best effort. 

The runner described above arrived at the starting line in excellent physical condition but without an adequate mental prep plan to deal with the expectations of the "big" race. Toeing the start line at the optimal arousal level, and then maintaining that arousal level throughout the race, is a skill that can be mastered with frequent practice. When  operating at the optimal arousal level, it is possible to access your fitness and ability on the "big" race day. 

Don't Overthink

During my 30 years of coaching experience I have learned that one of the most important factors determining your arousal level on race day is: How much time you spent thinking about the upcoming race. From what I have observed most runners think very little about the early season and tune-up races. In some instances this might cause under-arousal on race day, but definitely not over-arousal and the resulting anxiety. As the season progresses though, and the "big" race looms in the immediate future, the tendency is to dwell on the race. This over-thinking in the days leading up to the race is a primary cause of over-arousal.

Decreased physical training, coupled with over-thinking, creates a fertile environment for over-arousal and accompanying anxiety. 

Decreased physical training, coupled with over-thinking, creates a fertile environment for over-arousal and accompanying anxiety

Establish your mental training practices early in the season

To avoid the mistake of over-thinking, and the resulting over-arousal,  establish your mental training volume early in the season. Varying the volume of physical training is incredibly important, but not so for mental training.   It is with this in mind that I developed the Coach Henner 5:00 Mental Drill. I advise my athletes to only think about their upcoming race for five minutes daily during a run. By sticking to the 5:00 Mental Drill throughout the early season and right into the "big" race, my athletes have been able to avoid over-thinking and the detrimental effects of over-arousal. 

Establish your mental training volume early in the season and do not vary for the "big" race. 

Establish your mental training volume early in the season and do not vary for the "big" race. 

 

Establishing  mental training volume early in the season and then having the discipline to stick to that pattern is very important in avoiding over-arousal on the "big" race day. Now that the the duration of that daily mental training is established and maintained, we need to answer the question: What to think during your mental training? I will answer that question in Part 2 of WIN THE MENTAL GAME. 

 

 

a Secret to Running fast + staying healthy

runners are athletes

We have all heard the story of the young person who found their niche in running because they failed at other sports. I always have mixed emotions when hearing of this experience. My concern with this 'came into running because I was awful at everything else' story is that it implies that there is a distinction between a 'runner' and an 'athlete'. This notion is fairly widespread and, I believe, quite detrimental to the long-term progression of any runner. When we acknowledge the runner as an athlete and continually address all-around athletic development in addition to running development, we create the best environment for long-term progression as a runner.

Lift Weights, Play Games

Over the past 30 years I have coached middle school beginners, high school state champions, NCAA Division 1 All-Americans, and an Olympian.  At each and every level we have stressed the pairing of running progression with all-around athletic development. We made the weight room exercises, agility drills, and other athletic games an integral part of our practice routines. Our athletes always seemed more durable and to have that 'extra gear' at the finish when compared with the competition. This was due, in my opinion, to the training we did in addition to our running.

Pro triathlete Dylan Sorensen utilizes hang cleans, an Olympic lift, to improve core strength, power, and athleticism.

incorporate hurdle drills

Throughout my college coaching career, our weight room routine consisted of Olympic-style lifts with an emphasis on power, explosion, and athleticism. At least twice a week we worked on our agility and mobility through specific drills. In addition, we also taught every athlete basic hurdle techniques.

Hurdle drills and hops help Dylan gain mobility, agility, and develop explosiveness.

sprint! do general strength exercises

Every week we would pair these drills with short sprint reps of 40-80-120 meters with an emphasis on proper sprint mechanics, speed, and relaxation at max velocities. It is my firm belief that this emphasis of all-around athletic development reduced the frequency and duration of running injuries that our athletes sustained. In addition to reducing injury, this athletic development helped create runners with more speed and explosion. All of our athletes became stronger at every event; our 5k runners could drop down to the 800m and put out a great performance. The speed they could produce in the shorter races only helped to set them apart from most of the 'pure distance' runners they were competing with in their main events.

Under Armour runner Rachel Schneider completes general strength exercises to enhance her all-around athletic ability.

How Does this Apply to You?

The principles of all-around athletic development apply well for every age and level of runner. It's not just college and Olympic level runners who benefit from a training plan that encompasses speed, agility, and power. As we age, the benefits of incorporating 'athletic' training are exponentially more important to maintaining fitness. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced road/trail racer, you will stay healthy and race faster by becoming a better athlete. If you would like a specialized training plan to build your athleticism and reduce injury to increase your success in running, head to my coaching services page to contact me directly.