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. 


Raina R. said...

I definitely have a mental threshold! Occasionally it's even associated with running ;-)
I like your tips here. Self talk works well when we can put a harness on it.

Sharon said...

Mental threshold - good term. At my age I really struggle though with that fine line of what is just me not wanting to work harder or if my body is really saying hey buddy you better not do that to me :-)