Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Audacity of Positive Self-Talk

Lately I’ve been reading Tim Noakes’ classic, The Lore of Running. In his section about the physiology of running and just what it is genetically that makes elite runners so much better than the rest of us, Noakes discusses an idea called the Central Governor theory. In it, he posits that our brains can (and do) subconsciously calculate how much physical exertion our bodies can safely endure, taking into account earlier experience with strenuous exercise, the planned duration of the activity, and the body's present metabolic state. What we feel as fatigue is supposedly the Central Governor limiting neural recruitment of muscle fiber in order to protect the heart from anoxia damage. According to Noakes, towards the end of a hard race when we’re exhausted and pushing ourselves as hard as we can and doing everything in our power to persuade ourselves to keep going and not to slow down or stop, it’s the Central Governor that we’re trying to persuade.;

While the CG’s control over our exertion levels is supposedly subconscious and not something we can consciously override, Noakes also suggests that we can get better at persuading it to let us work a little bit harder than it really wants to let us. This, he says, is what we really mean by mental training or developing “mental toughness.” If you’re not used to pushing through the discomfort of exercising hard when you’re tired, the Central Governor probably won’t have too difficult of a time convincing you to back off a little, take a walking break, or cut your run short. The more we train ourselves mentally, the better we get at resisting the Central Governor’s attempts to slow us down.;

Later on, Noakes also discusses a well-known concept in sports (and a number of other areas): the idea of self-talk. You can think of self-talk as your involuntary internal monologue—the spontaneous thoughts that run through your head about what you’re experiencing. When you’re doing something relatively low-stakes (washing dishes, eating lunch, watching TV), your self-talk is likely to be fairly quiet and more or less dispassionate. In higher stakes pursuits (a job interview, an exciting first date, or important competition), our self-talk gets louder and more emotionally charged. In particular, self-talk plays a crucial role in determining how we respond to challenging situations because it is based on what we believe about ourselves, our circumstances, and our ability to influence events.;

For example, right before a race, my self-talk tends to include thoughts like, “I wish this race would just start,” “I’m so ready to run this,” “I hope everything goes well and nothing catastrophic happens,” etc. At the beginning of the race, when I’m still fresh and running comfortably, it tends to be along the lines of, “I feel great. I could keep this pace all day,” “Careful, not too fast yet,” etc.;

The last 25% of the race, though, is another story completely. As Noakes puts it, “If the self-talk I experienced was the same as that heard by others, its simple message was always the same: ‘Stop running this race, now.’” (530) What I find interesting is the connection that Noakes makes between self-talk and the Central Governor. The way he sees it, at that point in the race, if you are truly racing, it is the Central Governor that is in charge of the self-talk, and it has one goal: to get you to stop running as soon as possible.

If I have trained properly, planned well, and executed well, the first half of any race is relatively easy. The third quarter is tougher but manageable. It’s in that last killer quarter that things get rough. My legs burn. My mouth goes dry. My diaphragm struggles to move air in and out of my lungs. I fight the urge to compulsively check my Garmin; the seconds between each tenth of a mile it ticks off seem interminable.

I have often had the experience in that last quarter of feeling like two people with vastly different and very strongly held beliefs about what my physical body should be doing. On one shoulder is the part of me that desperately wants to set a PR or get on the podium or meet some qualifying standard or other; on the other is (you guessed it) my Central Governor. Whereas Noakes’ CG seems to be rather blunt and straightforward, mine is more insidious and manipulative. She knows better than to issue cut-and-dried edicts like, “Stop running now.” Instead, she whispers dark, semi-empathetic lines like, “You know…this race isn’t THAT important. You could stop now and no one would ever know if you didn’t tell them. They wouldn’t even think less of you if you did tell them. It’s not like this is the Olympics or anything. Or just slow down a bit. Jog for a minute or two. You can always pick up the pace again later. Why would you want to put yourself through this anyway?” Oh, she’s a wily and conniving bitch, my Central Governor, and she knows all the right buttons to push. When it comes to running, she is by far my most formidable opponent. I can accept getting beaten by other humans; I can’t accept getting beaten by her.

For me, the last quarter and what you face there lies at the very heart of competitive running. "In each race," says Noakes, "a point is reached at which it becomes necessary to face the mental challenges posed by self-talk and to develop mental strategies to cope, regardless of whether you are finishing first or last in the race." (530) This is that point. In my first few distance races, it took me by surprise; this was one aspect of my training that my earliest coaches had sorely neglected. I was unprepared for that barrage of negative self-talk and could do nothing but flail helplessly through it like a non-swimmer in the open ocean, grasping desperately at any shred of hope that happened to float my way.

To quote Jacqueline Gareau (1980 Boston Marathon champ), "The body does not want you to do this. As you run, it tells you to stop but the mind must be strong. You always go too far for your body. You must handle the pain with strategy." Since those early races, I've developed several strategies of my own for stroking through the turbulence. One the most effective ones involves creating a loop of positive talk in my mind ahead of time. The loop is a combination of quotes and phrases that tend toward the aggressive and audacious (probably because that's where I see my strength as a runner; I will likely never be the most genetically gifted runner on a starting line but there is some chance I can be the most aggressive and willing to suffer). I see it sitting there in my mind like a little tape recorder, right by the CG, standing by and ready to go at the first sign of distress and dark thoughts. Over time I've continually added to it, and after twenty-some-odd years, I've got quite the collection going. Sometimes I like to read over them the night before a race, just to keep the loop fresh. I thought I'd share it here, in case it rings true for someone, as a runner or in some other aspect of life. Some of it is a bit cliché, but that doesn't make it any less true; in that dark, desperate last killer quarter, things have to be a little over the top in order to drown out that bitch of a Central Governor with her moaning and excuses.;

Without further ado, the Loop of Audacity:

  • "A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts." ~Steve Prefontaine
  • Fatigue makes cowards of us all." ~Vince Lombardi
  • "The good Lord gave you a body that can stand most anything. It's your mind you have to convince." ~Vince Lombardi
  • "Never let the body tell the mind what to do. The body will always give up." ~George S. Patton
  • "Effort is only effort when it begins to hurt." ~José Ortega y Gassett
  • "No one is ever hurt. Hurt is in your mind." ~Vince Lombardi
  • "I must become a lion-hearted girl, ready for a fight." ~Florence Welch
  • "I came here for a fight, and I will fight to the end." ~Carlos Sastre (Or, alternatively, "I came here for a fight, and this is the fight.")
  • "The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender." ~Vince Lombardi
  • "Once you learn to quit, it becomes a habit." ~Vince Lombardi
  • "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit." ~Aristotle
  • "What counts is what you do when the pain sets in." ~John Short (similarly, "Anyone can run hard when s/he's fresh. The measure of a runner is how hard s/he can run when s/he's exhausted beyond all reason.")
  • "Pain is nothing compared to what it feels like to quit." (unknown) (similarly, "This is nothing compared to how you'll feel if you finish knowing you could've run harder, that you traded your best effort for a little temporary comfort.")
  • "Are you going to be a wimp or are you going to be strong today?" ~Peter Maher (along the same lines - "How bad do you want it? How bad are you willing to hurt?")

And to be honest, I think this is one of the ways I deal with not having won the genetic lottery and not having the luxury of triple-digit weeks. Like I mentioned before, I won't be the fastest or physically strongest runner out there, but what I do have a shot at is winning the mental battle, at beating my whiny, conniving bitch of a Central Governor into submission with sheer audacity. That, at least, is something I can say I've gotten really, really good at. :)

No comments:

Post a Comment