Saturday, August 1, 2015

The 'Mental Threshold': A Personal Case Study

Long-time readers know I like to use myself as an ongoing case study of sorts and I was inspired to share a workout that unexpectedly became another self-run experiment. So here's the most current thesis. Hope you enjoy....

Yesterday I deliberately got out of my comfort zone. My usual Friday workout consists of a moderately paced negative split run or just an easy 5 to set me up for the next day's long run, however, I tagged along with Team Green Running's competitive group for a set of hill repeats on a local disc golf course. I wanted to see how things are done a little better since I recently started supporting this talented team and practice what I preach some by pushing through challenging things. 

Let's just say my mission was satisfied fully on both accounts! With Coach Doug's blessing and some knowledge of the loops that include multiple, relatively short hill climbs I really didn't know what to expect just jumping in on a team's sesh-how long/far, fast, etc. A little uncertainty is good sometimes, and I had a nice little wake-up call ahead. 

The workout started out simple enough with a 30-minute aerobic run before hitting the grass hill course. I had done an additional mile prior to the group arriving so I was very nicely warmed up on a SE Texas summer morning. The hill assignment was four loops around the park, each measuring around a half mile or so. I love running on grass, and I historically have been okay with hills, but I knew that that day was going to be a challenge for me as hill running has not been a regular part of the repertoire, with the exception of my week in Colorado. 

The day before, I did two separate talks with TGR's Youth Cross Country Camp on the importance of positive thinking and learning to better handle difficult tasks. As I punched my Timex to begin the hills, I very quickly became my own case study in this concept. It was about halfway through this workout where I had a little moment of clarity on what it takes to mentally succeed in the most difficult of tasks and conditions; in this case a shock to the system training-wise. 

On the first loop when things got difficult very quickly and I was surprised with how tough the workout really was, I not only hit my anaerobic threshold, but also my 'mental threshold'. Never hears of such a term? Probably because I just came up with it. (A Master's level education at it's finest here, folks!) At least I don't think too many people call it that. But as runners, this is potentially an applicable way to better understand and apply the "get comfortable being uncomfortable" and "pain is weakness leaving your body" type of mentality. Yeah, these statements make you sound tough and may pump you up a little, but they need some backing to actually be effective. 

Just like we adapt to aerobic training and it becomes routine and rhythmic, training that is more intense that uses another system and at a given pace for an individual it is not longer comfortable, and the runner must train at a pace that they find unsavory at first in order to adapt and become more proficient at it. The 'mental threshold' is that moment where the discomfort registers and the athlete has to decide what it means. Basically, you have two choices when this happens: spaz out and likely continue spiraling, or accept what is happening and focus on giving your best. One truth of this is that it is not pleasant at first, and you have to recognize what is happening and "accept the changes" that are happening if you want to improve. We don't get better if we don't work on extending the mind's threshold over time. 

I think this can also be applied mentally to running. As I mentioned earlier, halfway on the first loop I got hit hard with a release of negative thoughts and emotions when I didn't feel any pop in my legs and breathing could have been easier if done through a soda straw: "I'm outta my league", "Don't embarrass yourself", "You're not that good", and "maybe I can't handle the heat today"....and so on. Since my heart rate rose very quickly, I almost felt a vague sense of panic and my shoulders and neck tensed up. I had reached my current mental threshold for the workout. So....what now? Better change the mindset quick.

 ....So the workout turned into a craptastic disaster? No, not really. I never physically got comfortable (not the purpose anyhow), but the biggest win of the day was noticing what was happening and not going down the rabbit hole of taking harder-than-expected runs personally. In order to "accept input and changes" (i.e. train a different energy system) I simply noticed that the way I was thinking was not going to help me improve, so I told myself to give this a chance and take it one piece at a time. "See...not so bad!", "Look, the downhills are there to recover on", "Use shorter steps, work that form".... By the second time around, I actually did feel a little better because I was able to relax and not make the experience any harder than it already was. An 'oh crap' moment turned into a "let's get tough" moment simply by recognizing an unhelpful mindset and changing to something more productive. I'll be honest though, it still hurt, but one of those hurts where you have to smile afterward regardless of how tired and thirsty you are. It's likely next time, after learning how to run something like that, the mental threshold will raised. 

The bottom line/take home message is this: pay attention to what you think about and how that makes you feel while running. Are you stressing out? Getting frustrated? Doubting yourself? Good. You've hit threshold. Then, recognize what may be happening and understand it's part of getting faster. then begin training it. Hold the pace a little longer. Make it a challenge instead of a threat. Dare yourself to get stronger. Talk to yourself positively. Kick the unnecessary negative thoughts out. Soon enough, those things that you thought were ridiculous before become doable. The mind can do some pretty incredible things if you let it.  *that being said, pay attention to if you're doing something actually harmful or way out of your current fitness range. 

They say running ain't easy, and they're right. But we don't have to make it any harder if we don't have to. Hope you've enjoyed my very non-academic discourse of a self-labeled thing. Now get out there!

Stay the course-but put some hills in it every now and then. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Galveston News Press Run: Entry Giveaway

Although racing along the Texas Gulf Coast presents a handful of challenges climate-wise, I have always liked going down there and running. Not far from the Island on Surfside Beach was where I ran (and somehow won) my first marathon, so when I was approached to partner with and run The Galveston News Press race on September 12, 2015, I was happy to oblige.

Galveston Island hosts several events annually, including an Ironman 70.3 events and several road races. The News Press Run features a unique course on the Galveston Causeway (who's up for a challenge?) and supports local education. Both the 5k and 10k are chip timed and the post-race party promises more energy.

Wanna race a 5k/10k on the Galveston (TX) Causeway for free this fall? Here's where some shameless self-promotion comes in. My summer intern Connor has put together a great twitter page for my sport psych consulting practice covering all major sports (running and triathlon included, of course) and features some great articles and tips for improving your mental game. To win an entry to the distance of your choosing via random selection, simply go to Twitter and follow @ALSportPsyc. Deadline is Monday, August 3rd and winner will be selected by that evening.

I'll be running up this thing in September. How about you?

Stay the course.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Colorado Training: A Photoessay

Yesterday I returned from an amazing and running-filled trip to Colorado. For eight days I ran, hiked, gawked at the natural beauty of the state, put a ton of miles on the rental car, gawked some more, and took in the local culture of Boulder and the surrounding areas. I have wanted to try my hand at running at altitude for a while now, and with work doing well but not crazy enough for me to get away for a little bit, I took advantage. I put in a little over 50 miles while I was there and loved the challenge and beauty of it all.

Runs ranged from 5400ish-8600 ft. above sea level. I had done a couple runs on a ski trip this winter and survived those, so I had some frame of reference for how it felt. What I found surprising was the range of difficulty was at different paces and inclines. In Boulder, I was lacking 7% my usual oxygen availability in Texas, and running my typical easy pace actually felt considerably easier than back home, a lot of that had to do with the dry climate at higher elevations. After nailing my first moderately-paced run at the Boulder Resivoir, I giddily texted my coach "OMG I love it here!". Running at paces 6:30 or faster or climbing the rolling hills was another story. I was challenged both cardiovascularly and mentally on those runs; vs. in more humid climates, these more 'hurt so good' than the overheating feeling I have been struggling with this summer.

Every run was different by design and instead of throwing down my usual post-novel, I thought I'd summarize a little more with pictures. I had a list of trails and places to run before leaving, and
my good friend Justin B. over at agreed to housing me at his place in Westminster, a Denver suburb just about 20 mins outside of Boulder.

I had my training schedule with me giving the daily miles and each day I picked a destination and went after it...

Day 1 was a rest day where I simply drove around in my nicer-than-expected rented Nissan Altima and got a feel for things. And looked at pretty scenery. Lots of it.

Day 2 was Justin's race day at the Boulder Peaks Triathlon, an Olympic Distance. He and his fellow competitors did work on a tough course that included a 15% extended climb through Gunbarrel and a basically shadeless run afterward. Me? Once J. was outta the water I headed out to a adjacent dirt road with some hills that the CU team and a number or triathletes train on regularly. I also did a fartlek run there running 6:30 pace as best I could off and on on Tuesday. That was the first run where I could feel my lack of acclimation to the altitude. But gotta give it your best to get stronger! Day 3 was just an easy 6ish in Westminster with the baby bunnies and prarie dogs.

Awesome view of the Flatirons in the distance at the "Rez".

Simple, yet perhaps one of my favorite runs of the week.

Run # 2 on Tuesday/Day 4 I just put in a handful of easy miles on the Doudy Draw trail that was recommended to me by locals. Just awesome.

Day , 5, Wednesday, was pretty epic. I hooked up with Colorado local and one of my favorite run bloggers, Jill, how knows how to pick a heckuva trail. We ran along a ridge line in the Golden/Morrison area and finished up on the Red Rocks Trail, right by the ampitheater.
Somehow I'm glowing in my Oiselle top here....not sure why! ;) Thanks for the run, Jill!

Recovering from 7000 ft with about 1000 ft of climbing in a mountain-fed stream

Day 6 was Mags day. Magnolia Rd., it's proper name, is known for it's awesome views and unrelenting rolling terrain at 8600 feet. This was an experience for the Texan. the first 4.5 miles I did not attempt because it climbs so steep the 240 horsepower car I was driving seemed to have some difficulty getting up in spots....maybe later, but not this trip! As I had been told, once you get to where the pavement ends, the fun begins. The difficulty was another level up there. I absolutely flew in some spots; running as fast as 5:20 pace or so on some downhills and the small flat areas were very smooth, but the way up on the hills there....OMG! I both felt on top of the world (well, I sort of was on top of Boulder) and demoralized in the same 5-mile run. I was prescribed 7:30-8:30 pace that day, and I somehow squeaked in a 7:59 pace. Thank you downhills. Lesson of the day: Even pace does not equal even effort.

Mags, I'm comn' back for you later!

Day 7 was my last running day there and I went ahead and did my long run to avoid rushing in order to get to the airport on time. I ended up splitting it up into 10 along Boulder Creek Path that runs straight through the eclectic Boulder downtown and CU and finished up with 5 more in the afternoon in some neighborhoods with more bunnies with Justin. It was on the path where I saw a 'who's who' of distance running. Several Sketchers team members were out, a handful of Japanese elites flew past halfway through the 10, and a pack of CU Buffalo men were walking to do a workout near Potts Field on campus. This was another run where I could feel the lack of oxygen, but managed to stay on pace, my Honey Stinger gels were very helpful in my heightened metabolic/catabolic state. After that one, I lost count of how many ounces of Gatorade I consumed . I could not get enough of it! Clearly, while I didn't get as offensively soaking wet, I still sweated a ton out there.

Eben G. Fine Park, my starting and finishing point on Friday. In the background is the start of Boulder Canyon.

A little post-run downtime with the training journal at the base of the Flatirons. Incredible.
The trip wasn't all running. I had a lot of time to hang out in Downtown Boulder and get my fill of the local coffee shops and breweries, with my favorites being The Cup and Avery Brewing Co. After the Red Rocks Trail run, I headed to Estes Park for the day and took in some ridiculous Rocky Mountain scenery. My last evening was spent in downtown Golden, a very cute town with an old west feel to it. Being a pretty independent and introverted girl by nature, I found having the keys to a car and time to just drive around the state a great vacation seeing new and different things.
Long run aftermath. The struggle is real!

So 50 plus run miles later, I'm back in The Woodlands with a busy but exciting week ahead at the practice (that I started to miss a little when I was gone), a perfectly-timed cutback week of running, a more refreshed outlook and hopefully a little stronger from the rugged challenges of last week. I see what all the fuss is about with running at altitude, and I hope to go back up there sooner than later, as there are many other places I didn't have time to explore in a week.

In the meantime, I have a couple small races next month to prep for, and I guess I need to pick some Fall/Winter events soon!

Stay the course.