A lightbulb went off when a few years ago I read the book “Mindset: The new psychology of Success” by Stanford Psychologist Carol S. Dweck. This was one of the first audiobooks I listened to while on the run, and I remember thinking to myself “This makes so much sense… I got it all wrong! But I still have so much time to change!"
The book discusses the difference between a "fixed mindset" and a "growth mindset”.
The fixed mindset is the belief we are born with talents and qualities which are fixed and immutable. On the opposite, the growth mindset is the belief that, through practice, effort and shift in perspective, we can grow to our true unknown potential.
Don’t be fooled by reading my oversimplification and interpretation of the growth mindset.
While the concept may seem simple and obvious, the implications are enormous. Dr Dweck and her team spent years researching, studying and testing the growth mindset and system. They applied it to young students in different schools, with amazing results.
The book has particular relevance to coaches, leaders, teachers and parents, but I feel it has a place in this blog as it can be applied to running. It can be interpreted in the context of training and racing, and constant improvement of our skills.
My three major insights from the book were:
Qualities are like muscles, we can strengthen them.
It seems plausible to me that, Usain Bolt and Kouros Yiannis, possess some special genetic combinations which give them innate advantage over the rest of us. But I am sure that when they were kids or starting out, these supreme qualities were not that obvious but they cemented through a lifetime of dedication and training.
There are plenty of example of people transforming from overweight and badly out of shape smokers, to elite athletes.
We have not been served with a hand of cards when we were born and that’s it.
Our qualities are not fixed, they can grow and can always be strengthened like a muscle. Our potential is unknown until we tap into it. If we allowed ourselves to try. And it all starts from believing we can improve.
To paraphrase Tony Robbins, “we overestimate what we can achieve in a year, but we underestimate what we can achieve in three to five years”.
Focus on effort over achievement or outcome.
As a result of the previous point, a “growth mindset” is focused on the effort we put in what we do.
If qualities and talents are not fixed at birth, we can stop trying to validate them through achievements only, but instead, we can cultivate them (through effort). This is extremely powerful as when we focus only on achievement, we tend to remain stuck to what we know and what we are good at. When we focus on effort, we open up to the opportunity of taking risks, accepting failures and grow. We can take on challenges, races, training sessions and define our success based on the effort we put in (I gave it all I have, I worked hard for months, etc.), rather than just the outcome (I won the race, I got the time I was after, etc..).
I find this liberating. If throughout my training and a race I give my truly whole self, I can be satisfied. And I can always put 100% effort into what I do.
The conversation we have with ourselves and others is important
To quote Dr Dweck from her Ted Talk:
“I heard about a high school in Chicago where students had to pass a certain number of courses to graduate, and if they didn't pass a course, they got the grade “Not Yet.” And I thought that was fantastic, because if you get a failing grade, you think, I'm nothing, I'm nowhere. But if you get the grade “Not Yet” you understand that you're on a learning curve. It gives you a path into the future."
"I am not that fast, yet”. “I have not reached my PB, yet”.
When we truly mean the yet at the end of the sentence, it changes its meaning and impact. It leaves space for growth and moving forward.
We all have certain aspects in our lives for which we naturally have a fixed-mindset and others for which we have a growth mindset. I know I sound like a broken record but changing mindset requires practice and faith in ourselves.
The book is really powerful and contains several methods on how to practice growth-mindset.
I would encourage you to read or listen to this book. In fact, I have it back on my Audible list, ready for my next long run!
“You have another 5 hours to go, at least. It’s freezing and this is the hardest section of the run, good luck with that! You should have tried the head torch, you can’t see a thing, you are going to kick a rock and bust your toenail, again. Your legs are shuttered; this is going to be a long walk of shame. What were you thinking going out so hard??"
“Last 30 km. Maybe 5 hours?! Then a large pizza! You made it here in exceptional time; now it's cold, you are tired and with the dimmed light from your head torch on this technical trail, you may be better off power walking for a bit. Maybe start running when the course flattens to sprint finish!"
Both statements are equally true but what a difference!
If you were my support crew I hope you would use the more encouraging one, or you won’t get moving.
The thing is that we often forget we are our own support crew. All the time.
The words we use in our own self-talk have an enormous impact on our training and racing.
The way I see it, the little chatterbox in our heads interprets the external stimuli, processes the feedback from our body, taps into our core values, beliefs and fears, adds some drama and doubts and shakes things up! The final cocktail is a stream of self-talk, a story we tell ourselves, which ends up influencing the reality we experience and our decisions.
It is a story. Although we are the narrators, we should take it with a pinch of salt!
Even better, because we have an active part in telling ourselves that story, we should remember a very powerful principle:
Before you speak, you should ask yourself: Is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve upon the silence?
[by Socrates (Greek philosopher) first and extended by Sai Baba (Indian guru)]
While we expect others (or should expect) to talk to us accordingly to the above principle, sometimes we have double standards about our self-talk.
And given we talk to ourselves all the time, day in and day out, during training and during races, we should pay attention to how we talk and what we say to ourselves.
Imagine if we could rely on our self-talk as our main allay, our internal cheer squad and motivator during races. What a performance booster! The self-talk would reinforce our belief we have the ability to overcome the challenge in front of us. Our mental energy would be invested in constructive and positive thoughts, keeping us grounded, relaxed and on the task.
I don’t think anyone is immune to negative self-talk. I think it is about recognising it for what it truly is: just a thought, a story we tell ourselves.
A common trait I see with successful and positive people is that they have a different dialogue with themselves and others. And they naturally bring that in their own self-talk, because ultimately we are what we practice. In my opinion, it has less to do with “reframing” a situation but more of a genuine “growing mindset”. In their character, actions, and conversations I see that:
This is not a complete list of course. I just wanted to point out the obvious we all forget: Tackling negative self-talk begins way before the self-talk starts! A quick fix in isolation, whether its a mantra, a reframing, a long exhale, or loud shouting as I always do when I get overwhelmed, don't help if the base conversation we have with ourselves is not honest, kind, necessary, true and improves upon the silence.
Do you really want to run <insert your goal time here> in your next <insert event/distance here> ?
Or a better question would be, what is at stake if you don’t?
Because there will be a few occasions during training and race where we need to make decisions which will impact our result.
There will be days we need to head out to complete the planned training session in the pouring rain and howling winds. Times when we will have to excuse ourselves from late nights out to get up early to train. Times when we will have to say no to those social runs and fun races we would otherwise enter (and admittedly this is probably the hardest thing). Times when during the race we will have to endure the suffering a little longer.
We can talk ourselves out of something we want… because we don’t REALLY want it that much after all.
But when there are higher stakes, we remove the choice of having a choice.
No regrets or sense of missing out from life during training, no self-pity during race.
We gain sense of direction and purpose. We feel empowered, in charge of our destiny, that with every step, we open up the path to achieving our goals. And when in the hurt locker, we can be confident we have done the work with total dedication, and that our effort counts. We often find the extra gear. The extra strength needed to keep pushing and enduring.
Generally speaking, we all perform at our best when there is something bigger at stake.
It can be something personal like pride and self-confidence, to charity causes, to career defining performances. Anything we attribute great value to, has the power to motivate us, keep us on the right path and affect positively our performance.
I often think at extreme stakes, life/death situations or family members in trouble, and how that would make me perform and step up my game. Say I’m chased by a bear, that would certainly make me break my 5km, 10km and marathon PBs. I would just do it.
Thankfully, this doesn’t happen here in Australia, maybe we could be chased by a kangaroo or Emu which I’m sure would be equally exciting. My point being that everything else being equal, the higher stakes will get us to perform better, by a large margin, and we can try to tap into that .
I don’t think that all the races we do, should have high stakes; it’s neither fun, nor healthy nor sustainable.
It is a fine line.
But I think if we pick a running goal which feels important and we are truly committed to achieve it, raising the stakes will help us keeping accountable. And it can be as easy as taking the time to write down why a certain race/time is important, telling a friend, or just share it in a public FB post to the world if that’s your thing!
It’s time to step up the game!
I belong to the category of people with a “Visual" personality type.
That’s why I’m useless with names (sorry!) and I remember people only by their faces. Maybe that’s also the reason why I can’t lose my strong Italian accent… I can’t see it!
It may not always serve me well, but for long distance running this has proved a very useful skill to have.
If like me, you subscribe to the ever increasing scientific evidence supporting the case for the mind being the limiting factor on endurance performance, training the mind through “Visualisation” becomes crucial.
What is Visualisation?
A consciously crafted full sensory experience which, although entirely in our minds, it feels so real even our bodies are fooled. For all intent and purposes, at least in the moment, there is very little distinction between the mental construct and the real thing.
“Visualisation” is not “imagination”. The most obvious example to explain the difference is in the context of a cold winter day. When you visualise it, you can feel your ears, hands and feet getting numb and you can see the fog of your heavy breathing. When you imagine it, you may be hugging the snowman who is talking to you! So in broad terms, visualisation is based on past experiences with additional details based on expectations, while imagination is a creation from scratch which may be very unrealistic.
Why does it help?
According to research using brain imaginary, visualisation works because our neurons interpret the imagery we created as real-life action.
This has two main effects:
In my view, the latter brings the most benefits to our endurance performance.
It gives us the confidence that, at least in our minds, we practised the different race scenarios and conditions, many times before.
We practised achieving our goals, that being time, pace, position or just getting up that massive hill and finishing the event with a smile on our face. If we do it regularly enough, it builds the belief that the physical manifestation of what we visualised is absolutely normal. Almost inevitable.
If it is so powerful, why don’t we all do it?
It is fair to assume that pro athletes do visualisation exercises. They may be guided by a sports psychologist or they may do it as a way to get in the zone and remain in it to perform at their best, or to practice that instinct of making the right move at the right time to get ahead a competitor.
What about the rest of us, recreational ultra runners and weekend warriors with little time and a great appetite for big volume weeks?
A common problem is that we fall into the trap to use up all our time, to physically prepare for our race.
We switch to thinking mode only in our taper week, which has the completely opposite effect as we start to freak out or get anxious, overwhelmed by the thoughts of all that could happen (and probably won’t)! The inclement weather, that hill, the burning quads, the nutrition, the stairs, the length of the course, bears chasing!
That’s not visualisation, it’s simply panicking - and has no constructive effect.
What does visualisation look like?
Say you are visualising the "35km mark" of a 3 hours marathon attempt.
You may be visualising yourself a couple of steps behind the pace-maker, who is pulling a green helium balloon with a 03:00 and a smiley face written on it. You are bang on the time and you are matching its stride by stride. In your peripheral vision, there are others close-by running strong and purposeful. You are focused on remaining glued to the pace-maker. Your mind is relaxed, your posture is composed, every breath is deep and fills your lungs with energy. Your heart rate is 155 bpm. The temperature is a perfect 17 degrees, the sun is up by now and you are happy you are wearing your orange sunglasses which fit you perfectly and don’t bounce; they make you feel fast.
At 35km mark, you feel a million times better than last time. Of course, you know you trained better, and you had a better nutrition plan. You took a gel 30 minutes ago and for the last stretch, you have a caffeine strip ready, partly open so you don’t have to mess around with it. The pace-maker announces in a loud voice that the next water station is 30 meters away; he will stay only for 5 seconds. There is a large number of people gathering at the start of the table, so you aim to the end of the table, drink a cup of electrolyte and throw a cup of water on your head to cool you down. You overtake the pace-maker by a few steps and execute your plan to perfection. You remain ahead of the pacemaker who is waiting for the group. Water dripping down your back, your quads burn and the feet hurt. But overall, you feel strong and you know that now is the time to get it done. You know you can continue on your own; 7km is your normal commute to work, so it’s in familiar territory.
You re-open your eyes.
Throughout the visualisation process, you see yourself from different angles, in first person and third person, in vivid details.
You can see, feel, smell, hear. You can rehearse your thoughts and actions to reach your goal, in a positive and constructive way
While what works for some may not work for others, these four elements are common starting points for anyone.
To reiterate the importance of practice, I find I can now create compelling visualisations and immerse myself in them pretty quickly. Sometimes all I need is to close my eyes for a minute. Other times, especially if I am running on a treadmill, I can just let my mind go.
While I don’t expect that just by visualising something, it will become real, I am certain that this helps me mentally and physically prepare for and deal with the real thing. And I find it entertaining too! What’s wrong with visualising the perfect race?
And of course, this is a skill that can transfer well to many other aspects of our lives.
I am working on visualising things not going to plan, so I can be prepared for that possibility too.
What’s your next step?