I rode the Challenge Philippines hills again last Saturday. It just never gets easier! What’s worse is we had a pro, Michael Murphy, riding with us, so I got left behind much faster this time around than in previous recon rides.
Not to make excuses for my performance as well, but I had just come off a bit of food restriction, so I was running on an empty tank most of the ride (propped up by Snickers, Pocari Sweat, and some Coca-cola by the end). And because we had several support vehicles following us on the course, it was very tempting to call it a day early as we headed back. I even started rationalizing quitting before I caught myself.
I frequently hear these words from many newbies to the sport of running as well as triathlon: “Kaya ko ba ‘yan?” (Am I capable of that?) I think that’s why finishing a marathon is so empowering; it’s a physical manifestation of your ability to go beyond what you thought were your limits. It also has an effect on the rest of your life. “I’ve done a marathon; I can do this!”
When you train for these kinds of races, it’s the kind of training that prepares you for the stresses not just on your body, but also on your mind. You learn patience, gain confidence, and get fit from each training session so that by the time race day rolls around all you need to do is execute your race plan.
But there’s this tiny seed of doubt still lingering in your head, and let me tell you that seed can grow when you go through the inevitable bad patches. When people at the finish line tell you the last few kilometers were all mental and that it took all they had to hang on and keep going, they’re not wrong.
Believe it or not, most of the time you think you can’t go on, you still physically can. It’s just your mind putting the brakes on you. Professor Timothy Noakes created the Central Governor Model of exercise regulation in an attempt to explain the limiters of physical performance (you can read a detailed outline of this model here and a review of related literature here). This model says that “fatigue is not a physical event but rather an emotion… that is used by the brain to regulate the exercise performance.”
There have been some studies on the effect positive self-talk has on performance. In a cycling study referenced by Runner’s World, the group of cyclists who were taught positive self-talk techniques increased their amount of time cycling to exhaustion compared to the control group, and their rating of perceived exertion increased more slowly than the control group as well — they believed the exercise was easier.
You can also check out what elite runners are thinking in this article by Active.com.
So I caught myself getting down on myself. With about 15 kilometers of long and painful hills in front of me, I decided to play a game. “OK, let’s keep going, however slowly we’re going, up until that bend… Hey we’re here and we’re not dead, let’s see if we can get to the next one.” And I just kept going like this until I actually was able to finish the ride! I kept my confidence level up by celebrating achieving the small things until I finally was able to complete the big thing.
This is also why I tell people never to label themselves as “slow” or “stupid” or whatever other self-denigrating insult they can possibly think of (and trust me, people have an insane capacity to be hard on themselves!). This is the reason if we want our sport to grow we should be positive and encouraging to others, but especially those you see are having a hard time. If by a kind word or action you can help improve their self-talk and help them get across that finish line, then by all means do it!
“Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right,” the cliched quote goes — but it’s even more important in our sport. Tell yourself you can. Tell someone they can (and mean it). It all starts from there.