Understanding Our Barriers: Separating the Mental, the Physical and the Excuses
By: PCG Associate Coach Patricia Brownell
I spent the better part of my morning today, writing a block periodization plan for one of my athletes, who is doing her first Ironman in the fall. When an athlete’s “A race” is an Ironman, well really in general, but especially for an Ironman “A race,” a coach will start at the date of said race and work backwards to the beginning of the season when formulating a long-term plan. As such, one of the first workouts I scheduled for my athlete was a taper ride of 50 miles @ 70-75% FTP. As I wrote those numbers, I had to chuckle at the relativity of everything. These days, riding 50 miles would be a pretty respectable day for myself, but I remember being that Ironman athlete PRAYING for that easy taper week where my long ride was “only” 50 miles, and my long run was “only” 13 miles. This led to a whole lot of reflection on my first Ironman experience, etc. But I digress.
Not too long after vicariously reliving my Ironman days through my athlete’s plan, I decided I needed to take a mental break from my coaching work to go for a run. I started running again a few weeks ago, after a long “I only want to ride my bike” hiatus. The running comeback has been surprisingly difficult for me, but I’m making some decent progress, and forcing myself to not let running fall off my radar again. So, I laced up my running shoes, put on my snowmobile suit (joke…kind of – it’s pretty cold here in Massachusetts today,) and headed out the door.
Around a mile into my run, out of breath and starting to “feel it,” I found myself fixating on my running watch. It was too tight. It was hurting my wrist. I needed to stop and loosen it. So, I did that, and started running again. Not ten seconds later, I realized that I hadn’t actually loosened my watch, and I nearly stopped to loosen it again. That’s when it hit me, that my watch wasn’t actually tight. My mind was making that up in order to give my body an excuse to stop. My body isn’t used to feeling the pain that running can inflict yet, and my brain wanted to help it out. I’ve been at this place thousands of times before, and my experience knows that the uncomfortable feeling would be coming, but my body doesn’t want to push through it yet. So, I forced my brain to ignore the silly watch thoughts and tell my body to slow down and keep running -- the pain will pass…and it did. I survived without stopping again. Good job brain.
Which leads me to elaborate on my brain telling my body to slow down. I started my athletic journey as a runner. At one point, I was a pretty fast runner. I am not as fast as I once was, nor should I be – I haven’t run for two years and I’ve only started back up a few weeks ago. However, my body remembers my old pacing scale, and the stubborn athlete in me wants to stick to it, but my brain is sometimes not smart enough to override muscle memory and stubbornness, “But I used to run 13 miles at a pace much faster than this after biking 56 miles!”. When the brain fails at realistic pacing, one may find themselves at mile one of a run, fake-loosening a watch.
Which leads me to the title of the Strava workout I posted after the run: “Too much coffee, not enough food.” This is just dumb and nothing but an excuse. Let me elaborate, again. While it’s true I had too much coffee and didn’t eat enough food, those aren’t the real reasons I suffered on my run. I suffered on my run because my brain didn’t plan well to eat enough and not drink too much coffee prior to heading out the door. It was a prime example of poor planning. Brain fail.
As I resumed writing my athlete’s Ironman plan, after failing so many times during such a short athletic endeavor, I reminded myself to make sure to emphasize the mental aspect of training as her season progresses. Teaching our brains to make the right decisions, and to realize the difference between our mental and physical breakdowns, is every bit as important as training our bodies to handle a progressive workload. A well-trained body can only succeed and make gains with a well-trained brain supporting it!