General RunningTraining

Taking Out the Mental Trash: Negativity and Doubt

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I was sipping coffee outside Whole Foods the other day casually watching traffic pass by after my run. Most of the cars passed by without attracting too much of my attention until a beautiful red Ferrari zoomed past. It was fast and awesome and pretty. My appreciation was short-lived; following close behind was a loud, rusted-out beater of a car blasting the musical equivalent of a house party gone wrong.

The truth is, our thoughts are like afternoon traffic—sometimes they move effortlessly like a European sports car, only to be derailed by a traffic jam of nonsense—ugly cars that make a lot of noise and pollution.

Negative thoughts overshadow the pretty things in our minds. We’ve all experienced this. As annoying and sometimes distressing/performance-robbing as they are, there are things we can do to put the Ferraris on the freeway while curbing the rusted beaters with broken speakers.

As I mentioned in my last post, negative thoughts and doubts are one of the most common mental obstacles that runners deal with; all of us deal with it from time to time! Here are my top two recommendations on how to take out some of that garbage. Note: you may need to draw upon both depending on the situation.

  1. Mindfulness. This word seems to be everywhere and seems to confuse the heck outta people. It’s ridiculously simple in practice but takes repetition. To use the car and traffic analogy, you want to practice just watching the thoughts go by, learning to select which ones to watch and follow, like flashy exotic cars.

A perfect time to employ mindfulness is when we’re preparing for a race or hitting that point when it ceases to be fun. We can choose what we let pass through or focus on. And if you need to visualize actual sports cars driving by, go for it.

2. Reframing and Positive Self Talk. In order to change a belief, we must move it to our awareness. Here’s my go-to strategy to clean up the headspace a bit:

    1. Identify the thing. Know what it is that triggers your mind to go to all the wrong places (i.e. racing on a hilly course or feeling under-prepared).
    2. Debate it. Is this truly a valid concern? For example, are you sure that this race is gonna suck? Are you certain you won’t do well on this course? Are you actually incapable of running a certain time?
    3. Separate the trash from the truth. This isn’t single-stream recycling. Put the negative thought in its bin and reframe it. For example, instead of conceding that you’re just a bad heat runner and there’s nothing you can do about it, tell yourself that heat is a challenge, but you’ll work with it. If you had a bad workout or race and think it’s going to be a trend, focus on how it made you stronger, the valuable lessons you learned, etc.

Notice a common thread here: paying attention and being aware. Bottom line: If you wouldn’t tell your best friend/training partner/mother, etc. the things you’re telling yourself inside, I advise not telling yourself these things either!

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from all of this is that we have a choice of what we pay attention to and what we let slip past in our minds. Find it, debate it, or let it pass just like a junk automobile on the road. Remember to be patient. Training your mind takes time just like training your body to run a BQ or a bomb-ass 5k time.

These things are not easy, but so, so worth it!

Enjoy the ride.

Adrienne has been a runner since the age of 12 and a sport psychology consultant for the past 10+ years. As a writer, she was a key contributor to Kara Goucher’s book “Strong”. She lives in Texas where she loves to run cross country when she gets the chance.

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