"Progression not perfection” - This is the running quote and everyday mantra of a dear friend of mine, and I couldn’t agree more.
This is the recipe for kicking goals, seizing the moment and moving forward.
The most successful individuals and companies have realised that "Perfection is the enemy of action”, so they choose constant progression instead.
It doesn’t translate to being sloppy in what they do or lacking effort or attention.
It means not hiding behind excuses and self-imposed “high regards" because ultimately:
- we are never going to be perfect, we are human after all
- we can always adjust things as we go and discover better ways of doing things
- while those whose opinion we respect, won’t judge us for not being perfect
- we will certainly regret not having tried because we were waiting for the perfect opportunity or for the fear of not being perfect
In running this means taking the chance, turning up, doing the hard work in training, at home, with dignity, compassion and grit.
The most successful runners I know, run almost every day, can race every other weekend. Sometimes they win and sometimes things blow up on their face.They are totally comfortable with failing, they don’t race only if things are perfect, if the sky is blue and the temperature is a perfect 15 degrees.
I have a long way to go to fully embrace this attitude.
I am obsessed by the details, in my training, in my races, in my work and in my life. And I can always find reasons why things are not good enough.
I am sure I am not the only one.
But I am slowly getting more comfortable in letting go of a utopian perfection and instead, focusing on progression.I must admit it feels good… almost like compound interest. You find yourself ahead without knowing why.
This blog is an example. Sometimes I manage to say something of value, other times not so much.
But I keep moving forward and that’s all that counts.
For the last 5 years, once a week, I have been attending a core strength class for runners from my friends at The Body Mechanic. It is a key workout of my week and when I miss the class, I do the exercises at home.
I know they help me physically.
And they make me FEEL strong.
The physical benefits of this routine are evident just by looking at my health insurance statement. In my first few years of running, I was troubled by constant injuries. Now I’m running longer and faster than ever before and I get away with general body maintenance & massage - touching wood.
Another result of the physical improvement shows in my form. My race finishing photos were the last thing you would want to put up on a wall on display. They showed my lack of coordination, my knees were falling in, shoulders dropping, head tilted on a side, totally out of whack. I looked in pain, even when I wasn’t. I am still very far from having a composed style, but at least, I don’t ask the race directors to remove my photos from their site anymore!
I am diverging from the topic… I came to realise that the second benefit of “feeling strong” is the main reason which has kept me so committed over the years. I associate the exercises, stretches and movements, to a feeling of building strength and having strength. Just by re-enacting these movements, I can almost instantaneously enter that mental state.
In other words, by changing my physiology I trigger a change in my state of mind.
This has translated in different habits and routines, I incorporate in my warm-up and at the start of a new day.
I do a few push-ups in the shower, stretch my back, 30 seconds of lunges and groin stretch. Before a race, I do step ups and squat at the start line. While running, I often do few butt kicks, extend my arms above my head, do some chest rotations. When I stop at checkpoints I may do a "Richard Simmons" for a few seconds and maintain a squat.
These movements last only few moments and don’t make any physical difference.
But the mental uplift is real. And to me, it’s all that matters.
There is an endless list of changes in physical states which I found create positive feelings. Feelings of energy, strength, readiness and self-belief. I now invoke these changes on purpose, when I need to prime myself for the day, for a hard training session, for a race or I need a pick-up.
The opposite is also true. More powerful and scary!
Just try to go out one morning and run looking 50 centimetres ahead, hunched and with a sad face. It will ruin your run and probably your day!
Maybe, like most, this is exactly how you run when you bonk. No amount of caffeine and pep-talks will get you out of that near-death feeling, if not coupled and supported with a change of physical state.
My point being that it is a self perpetuating circle. By changing our physical state, we influence our mind state. Which in turn will affect our physical state.
The body-mind connection is undeniably real and we are in control of most settings.
When all the dials are tuned to the best, we have a perfect run.
How do you put yourself in the best possibly physical state?
“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.
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?
The inaugural 5in5 challenge couldn’t have gone any better. Colin succeeded in running 5 marathons in 5 days, in very difficult weather conditions, inspiring friends and fellow runners, stepping up the game and setting the bar high for anyone coming after him.
And it did it all by himself.
In an ironic turn of events, five days before the start of the #5in5, I turned the corner in my kitchen and my little toe got caught up with the kitchen bench, snapping in two. While I have to laugh for my first fracture coming from something stupid like turning a corner, rather than from a legendary fall from a mountain peak, it was soul destroying at the time. After 18 weeks coaching Colin, I was looking forward to finally celebrate by running the 5 marathons alongside him and keep my end of the deal - to support him no matter what.
It took me three days and the advice of 4 different physiotherapists, to decide to cycle next to Colin instead of running. When I finally summed up the courage to tell him, his reaction was a shock and a realisation that, maybe, it was meant to be like that.
“It is ok” - Colin replied - “I can do this. You have trained me to do this. Since the beginning, you insisted I should be able to turn up any day of the week, anywhere, in any condition and run a marathon.. or five in five days! I now know I can”.
Pretty powerful statement. He took full ownership of the challenge and my work was done.
As running five marathons in five days was not enough of a challenge, for the first four marathons, the weather in Sydney was extremely hot (high of 34) and the last run in Canberra was totally the opposite, cold and wet.
The courses were designed to keep Colin engaged and to be hard enough for them to be a challenge :)
I am sure Colin will put together the chronicles of the 5 days; as his coach and partner in this journey, what stood up and inspired me, was the confidence, clarity of mind and total commitment. He embraced the #5in5 challenge and was 100% invested in the vision and in his own WHY it was important to do.
There was no space for second thoughts, double guessing or self pity.
It is fair to say the personality traits propelling him forward during those 5 days were very different from when he started the training 18 weeks prior.
Colin and I discussed about this at length. During the 18 weeks, there were few key moments when he either realised his resilience and strength or made the conscious decision to trust the #5in5 process, to brake through his mental barriers and change his perspective.
For me as his coach, this inaugural 5in5 was a great learning experience. Everyone is motivated by different things and triggers by different events. What works for me, doesn’t work for others so I had to understand, adapt and find the right way to work together while getting the message through. I am proud I could provide the guidance and structure for the training, nutrition, logistics and most importantly, on the mindset. The 18 weeks were not without some dramas and confrontations but it was all part, and possibly, the best part of it. We both grew and became very good friends as result of the experience.
I am extremely proud of Colin’s achievement and I was certainly the second most excited person in Canberra when he crossed the finish line of his last marathon.
I can’t wait to start the new #5in5 intake for another amazing journey and meeting more amazing people.