Tough Girl – Sarah Williams

Tough Girl pictureSarah Williams is the brains behind the fantastic Tough Girl podcast. She is currently studying for a Masters in Women and gender studies and goes off on her own adventures when she gets the chance. Through her podcast she has interviewed over 150 female athletes and adventurers and has created over 100 hours of content. The podcasts have been downloaded 400,000 times and are listened to in 172 countries. Sarah shows great skill at not just teasing out the women’s incredible stories but helping them acknowledging what they learnt about themselves through the challenges they have taken on, and highlighting how they have helped to inspire and empower other women.

Here we turned the tables. The interviewer becomes the interviewee. We learn more about what inspires her, what she has learnt from these 150 women she has interviewed and which elements of sport psychology she uses in her own adventures.

What inspired her to start tough girl…

“I was going into schools to give motivational talks and chatting to the girls about their goals and aspirations for the future and it was just disheartening. These girls were wanting to be wags, to be pretty, to find a rich man and this was 2015.  I was thinking why, you can be so much more than what you look like and who you marry. And then I was looking through a newspaper and it was all just men, men, men – all football and rugby – I was thinking where are the women? There were no women at all. Where are all the role models? If these young girls can’t see it how can they become it. How do they know they can go out and be adventurers and explorers and swim the channel? When I started looking into what challenges I could do I started coming across all these amazing women. I like to think of myself as a connected person; I read a lot but I just didn’t know about any of these women or any of these challenges they had done. So how would a 15 year old girl know about this?

With a podcast, when you hear someone’s voice and you hear that passion and you hear that doubt, it really connects with you mentally. To share that, to get all those voices heard and out there, to increase the amount of people who are role models, podcasting was a good way to do it. The feedback is amazing. So humbling. One today almost made me cry. It just arrived this morning. I think a lot of people don’t know who to talk to and to reach out to but because they have heard my voice they’ll reach out to me.”

Why role models are so important…

“There is a ripple effect. For everyone going out running, your friends and family see it and suddenly others see it is possible and so they feel it may be for them too. I remember my first London marathon. My sister was doing the London Marathon, pretty much every friend I have was doing the London marathon. I felt left out. Everyone else was running and training and you want to get involved and do more of it.”

What has she noticed about her interviewees…

“That everybody is just normal and anybody could do it. It is just that they DO go out and do it. Fear is something we talk about a lot. It is all the fears; the fear of success, failure, all of them. There is one lady I interviewed called Kat Davis (listen here) and she was sharing about the time she hiked the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail). She was saying I’m scared of bears, I’m scared of snakes, I’m scared of the snow. I’m scared of being by myself and scared of failing. I’m still scared of all those things but I still go out and do it. And I think that is a really big thing. It is worth talking about more and more. Doing it and the fear. That is the common theme. Everybody is scared and has their own personal fears. The worst line I hear is I could never do that. I’m not like you. Actually you could. You just have to try and just have to give it a go.”

Any triggers she has spotted making people want to take on these adventures…

“I think sometimes people do have those live changing situations happen to them. But then sometimes I think it can be a very gradual build-up in the case of just starting for a walk, then it is 5k, then 10k, then a half marathon, then a marathon, then an ultra, then a 100 miler. This trigger is always one of the key things. What can make people take those key steps? How do you get people to do it? I do think about that first step a lot.

The mental skills she has spotted her interviewees using…

“Visualisation, being really specific about goals, having accountability and needing to tell people what they are doing and why they are doing it. Once a goal is out there you’ll be asked and that is very very powerful for getting people to the start line and giving that motivation and incentive. The other thing around mindset that comes out a lot is about gratitude and positivity. I see people realising they cannot control the environment so if someone is climbing Mount Everest they realise they have no control over the weather and what is happening on the mountain but actually what they can control is their internal emotion.”

“You’ve heard about the Egg and the Potato? It is Jasmijn Muller’s mantra. So Jasmijn got that from the podcast from a triathlete called Parys Edwards who shared a story about how the same boiling water which makes a potato soft, makes an egg go hard. The circumstances will be the same but how you respond to them gives a different outcome. So if you can, then ‘be the Egg’, and for a lot of women this just clicked for a lot of them. It was like when situations are overwhelming I can give in or can I be positive so even when I was doing something like Marathon De Sables I’d be thinking I can’t control the heat, or the distance, or the terrain, but what can I be grateful for? The sky is blue, I’ve trained for this, I love the temperature etc and actually that can shift your mindset in a powerful way.”

“Mantras we talk a lot about. Sometimes they can almost get a little bit complicated. Depending how far you are in when you are doing an ultra, at one point for me it got down to a point of just saying ‘Step’. ‘Step.’ ‘Step.’ Just keeping me moving as I was slowing down so much. Even counting helped so much. 10 minutes running but I would break it down into 3 minutes and then to 5 minutes and then 8 minutes. So even a 10 minute block I would break it down even further. But even for these big overwhelming goals that people take on it works as well. So a marathon isn’t running 26.2 miles, it is running 1 mile 26 times. There are so many ways of breaking things down but most people don’t even start because they get so overwhelmed by the big challenge. But if you just take it down to the very first step, it is ‘what do I actually need to do’. I don’t think it is complicated but sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. Once you start going out and doing these events you start picking up these little tricks that work specifically for you. It is also rewarding yourself and celebrating what you have achieved.”

On the adventures she is planning….

“One thing I’m looking at the moment is basically rowing an ocean. I’m looking at what can I do my Masters thesis on and there has been a lot written about female mountaineers and female mountaineering but I look at trying to find academic research about female ocean rowers and there really isn’t any. So Roz Savage has rowed the Pacific and then the coxless four women have also done it and that is it for the Pacific. There is quite a lot more for the Atlantic and I think for the Indian there is Sarah Outen and Roz Savage and another group of four women who have done it and I think that must be fascinating to look into that. When I was chatting with Mollie Hughes she said one of the reasons she started climbing Mount Everest was because she started doing her dissertation around the mental preparation around climbing Mount Everest and obviously got so into it that she ended up going to climb it twice. So I think that rowing an ocean would be incredible. I think I’d like to do it as part of a team; in a pair or a four. I think there would be a big difference being by yourself in the middle of the ocean in a boat than there is being by yourself in the middle of the Appalachian Trail. It is very very different.”

“I’m definitely now more interested in the longer challenges. I could not motivate myself to train for months for an Ironman for it all to be over in one day. That literally has no interest for me at all now. Running a marathon doesn’t really interest me, anymore. That is not to say it isn’t amazing and not fantastic, but I can’t really psych myself up to go and do four months training for four and a bit hours. For me it is about the experience. It is about making it more of a lifestyle choice and making it a longer challenge and making it more interesting. I think when I hear about Elise Downing who ran the coast of Britain. I think I’d prefer something like that to put yourself under that pressure at the end of the day.

What is the biggest thing she has learnt from 150 interviewees…

“That you can always do more. What I mean by that is I interviewed Stephanie Case who inspired me to go and get my masters in women and gender. She works for the UN and runs a charity called free to run. She trains for these incredible events even when she is working in places like Afghanistan and living in a compound and only had the top of the roof to train and she would run for hours and hours and hours in a circle round the compound. And I’m sat there thinking she has got a full-time job working for a global agency, she’s training for a marathon and running an international based charity and I’m thinking I can do so much more.”

“I can dream bigger and I can do it. And even when you are pushing yourself on the Appalachian Trail even when you might be mentally or physically exhausted after 20 odd miles I listened to someone who says you can always do 40% more than you think you can. So when you think you are at the end you are not. You can push yourself another 40%. You can always do more. You can always achieve more. My sister is very inspiring to me. I think you have one life. What can you do with it? How she makes use of her time is incredible. Most people just don’t. Do more. Dream bigger. Time is going to disappear anyway and I think sometimes you’ve just got to do it. There will always be people who comment on your choices and your decisions, but you’ve just got to be comfortable with you and not with what other people think cause actually, in 20 years’ time, you won’t even remember who these people are.”

Seven tactics to stop comparing ourselves against others

Race resultsIn sport comparison is inescapable. If you are racing or competing there will always be numbers ranking us, digitizing us, making easy comparison to anyone else. It is a very quick way for athletes to lose confidence and develop low self-esteem. This social comparison can be harsh as someone else will always be better than you. Even Bolt got beaten. And Research has found that the harder we are on ourselves the harder it is to regain our motivation and we are less likely to achieve the goals we do set so, the more we compare, the worse we will do.

You can only compare effectively if you are starting from the same starting blocks as the person you are comparing to. We are each too unique to compare fairly. Even identical twins will have different personality traits, different talents and different motivations. But we never are. So comparison puts focus on something you have absolutely no control over putting yourself in an unwinnable, and very frustrating situation. To get on top of this negative comparison here are seven tactics to try:

  1. Focus on temporal comparison where you look at how you are doing compared to where you were in the past and where would you like to get to. You can then make clear steps and plans to get where you want to go and this helps you feel much more in control. In doing this we become more self-aware and can understand our motivations and ambitions better. If we tie this in with our own values we can feel authentic in the route we take. To identify these values ask yourself three questions:
    • What do you want to be remembered for?
    • When you look back over this year what will you need to achieve to feel proud?
    • What are the three values that matter most to you?

Once we look deeply at the ‘then, now and the future,’ and understand our values which support that then everything is in the open it is much easier to confront and deal with it.

  1. Remind yourself that the perfection you see in others is just an illusion. We only see the instagramable perfection of other’s lives. Research found people more likely to show positive emotions than negative ones and that we each tend to overestimate the presence of positivity in the lives of others. This means we a comparing our lives with an incomplete picture of someone else’s. You may see the great race result a club mate had but not the pain they have gone through in training. You see the picture perfect family day posted on facebook but not the mega tantrum two minutes before the shots were taken. There is always a far more realistic story behind it.
  2. We beat ourselves up for not ‘trying hard enough’ yet we are on a different journey in life to other people and were born with different advantages. There is a great saying – don’t measure yourself against someone else’s ruler. If you compare yourself to other people around you those people start become enemies, instead of your friends. Benchmarking their successes to evaluate ourselves against will make us jealous and bitter rather than supportive and excited for them. If you find yourself succumbing to this then a good point to remember is that we become like those we surround ourselves with. Surrounding ourselves with successful, ambition and hard working people and some of those elements will brush off on us – so it is not just altruistic, it is actually in our own interests for those around us to do well.
  3. Celebrate your uniqueness. What do you love about you? Forget being humble. What is great about you? What values do you have, what traits do you love, when do you feel proud?
  4. Remember and document your successes – keep a diary or a ‘jar of joy’ and note down when you have been proud of something you have worked hard towards and achieved. When you find yourself starting to compare with others pull out a note and read through it.
  5. Find things that matter to you which cannot be measured. Race times, school grades, work appraisals all use numbers and are very easy for us to use to compare to each other. But some of the loveliest things in life can’t be compared. Seeing an amazing view from a mountain you have climbed, drinking the perfect cocktail on a lovely beach, eating fish and chips with your best mate on a park bench putting the world to rights, a run along the river where you come up with a solution to a problem you’ve been ruminating over, taking a picture of a friend or child that completely captures their personality, making someone’s day by baking them a cake they weren’t expecting. All things which have no measurement, but will bring you, and often someone else a little piece of joy.
  6. If you can’t help yourself comparing then study the person you are envious of and understand what it is you envy and then work out how you can achieve that. If they are famous then read interviews or autobiographies. Pull out the envy element and make a plan for how you can develop that. Write down three things you could learn from them to help you get closer to what they have achieved? When you find yourself starting to get jealous look over these, remind yourself you are on a different journey to them, and pick one of the things you can learn from them as your goal for the next week.

 

 

1 week to Marathon – confidence booster

confidence-boostersWhether you think you can or you can’t, you are right.

This famous phrase amplifies just how much of whether you succeed is down to your mind. Over the last seven weeks I have blogged some ideas you can use to stay on track and ensure your mind is fully prepared for the London Marathon. This post, with one week to go, suggests you put the icing on your cake by creating your confidence booster.

Self-belief and confidence make achieving our goals far easier. One of the best ways to boost your confidence is to find the evidence and remind yourself of all the fantastic things you have done in the build up to the marathon to get you into the best shape.

So, like in the picture above, get a piece of paper, get out your training diary and write down:

  • Your goal for the Marathon
  • Your mantra which you will use when it gets tough
  • Your strength that you will be able to draw upon when you struggle
  • 3 sessions you did in your build up which give you evidence that you are well prepared

Keep this paper in your wallet, or kit bag, or by the side of your bed and when you feel the nerves creeping in, read through it and remind yourself how hard you have trained and how much you deserve to achieve your goal.

Have a fantastic marathon day. May your goals be hit and your celebrations fun!

5 weeks to Marathon – Pre-race routine

Composite of Clock and Calendar

Over the eight weeks’ final build up to the London Marathon I am blogging some ideas you can use to stay on track and ensure your mind is as prepared for your run as your body is. This post, with five weeks to go, suggests you prepare yourself a pre-race routine.

 

Some people have superstitions they follow. A lucky charm, the same safety pins they use for every race number, always having a t-shirt under their running vest. There is a great list of superstitions followed by famous athletes here. While these superstitions can give you a feeling of security and comfort if you can’t find your charm, or your t-shirt is in the wash you’ll feel very out of sorts. Better is to have a routine you follow before every race that you feel completely in control of.

Your pre-race routine should be personal to you, fitting your own personality and preferences and full of the things you have discovered help you run well. Putting them all together into a pre-race routine helps you focus your attention, reduce your anxiety, improve your confidence and block out distractions before your marathon. It can cover just the hour before you race or it can go back up to 24 hours to put in place everything that you know helps you perform at you best. This can include warm up routines, how you like to engage with others beforehand, preparing your kit, what you eat and drink or how you travel to the venue. Your routine will help you transfer your attention from the nerves and anxieties to things which will help you focus on doing well and make your marathon successful. And it should become something you do before every race or competition so it becomes automatic.

There are lots of questions to ask yourself when you write your routine:

  • Training: Do I want to train the day before the race, if so what session? What time do I like to train?
  • Mental skills: What mental skills will I use: visualisation, self talk? Will I prepare a ‘what if’ plan?
  • Kit: When will I pack my kit bag? Have I a list of everything I need? Have I recently used my kit to know it is not damaged or likely to chafe? Will I be able to store it somewhere?
  • Travel: How will I get to my race? Have I checked the routes? Am I sure I know where the venue is? Are there road / train works? Is there parking? What will I need to pay for?
  • Food: What do I like to eat the night before a race? What do I like for breakfast? Will I be able to get hold of it if staying away? What time should I eat breakfast?
  • Warm up: Does my body like a warm up? Will I avoid people or chat to others? Will I listen to music? Will I take any nutrition before we start? Will I practice any mental skills before the race?

When you’ve answered all of these questions you can timetable in all these activities so you know you won’t have forgotten anything important and can feel confident you are fully ready to race. If you would like a timetable to follow you can download a worksheet here.

7 weeks till Marathon – Understand your motivation

computer

Over the eight weeks’ final build up to the London Marathon I am blogging some ideas you can use to stay on track and ensure your mind is as prepared for the race as your body is. This blog, with seven weeks to go, suggests you should spend some time understanding your motivation for running the marathon.

 

Why are you running the marathon? Are you fundraising for a charity? Is it something you’ve always wanted to do? Do you enjoy running and use the time in your trainers to keep you mentally strong? Do you want to set a new PB? Has running become your social life? Or are you running because you always do a spring marathon? Whatever that motivation is that got you signing up and out training for the marathon, understanding it, can be really valuable. And when you don’t remember why you are running, or why you chose the races you have entered, it is all too easy to back off or even stop when it gets tough or life gets in the way.

There are two types of motivation. The first comes from inside you. This is when you are competing for the love of it, simply because you get personal satisfaction out of the training, out of striving for targets or just the joy of being able to run. The second type is more externally driven. This may come from the medals you gain, the accolades which come from your friends and family or the fact you don’t want to let down your charity. Neither is better than the other but, if your motivation comes from within it can be more robust and stay with you when you come up against set-backs.

If your motivation is that you love being fit and healthy you will, in the main, be happy looking at your training plan and seeing 6:30am treadmill sessions. Even if that session doesn’t go well your motivation remains high because you are inspired by the process, not the outcome. If your motivation comes from winning prize money your motivation will be through the roof when you are doing well but if you get injured, your rate of improvement slows or you simply have a run of bad luck you will find it really hard to maintain the motivation to keep going and training will feel like a chore.

Whether your motivation comes from internal or external factors all types of motivation can be fuelled – if you are able to identify, hone and make the most of yours.

Free writing is a really good way to do this. You need a pen, notebook, 30 minutes where you won’t be disturbed and a large mug of coffee (tea works well too!). Then all you have to do is daydream and ask yourself a bunch of questions as you write:

  1. How do you see Marathon day going?
  2. What to do you want to feel as you cross the finish line?
  3. What outcome would make you happy?
  4. When you have those (albeit probably rare) amazing runs where you feel like a runner and the miles fly by effortlessly, what is in your mind?
  5. What gives you your buzz in running?
  6. If you were told you couldn’t run at all for the next month how would you feel? 

Reading though your piece of writing at the end can help you identify your motivation. If your daydream is standing on a podium at the end of the marathon then you’ve got a pretty big clue. If it is to be able to hobble into work on the Monday morning with your medal round your neck you have another clue. If you imagine yourself handing over a big cheque to a charity that matters to you, another clue. If it is having your son or daughter ask to go running with you because they want to be like you when they grow up then ‘inspiring others’ may be your motivation. Whatever you feel it is, once you’ve identified it you can work to bring it into your training – making your training really effective and a lot stickier.

For example, if a big donation to your charity is your motivation then research what your target amount could buy for them, and break that down per mile so you know for each mile you’ll be providing an hour of a nurse to someone with cancer, or two hot meals to elderly people. Perhaps speaking to some people the charity supports to dedicate each section of the marathon to them. Or create yourself a mantra which reminds you of who and what you are running for. Write that mantra on your wall, in your wallet, in your kit bag.

If you discover you are motivated by inspiring others then joining group training sessions, signing up to be a run leader for your club or taking coaching classes can be a great way to stay on top of what you want to achieve and give you the buzz you need to stay on track.

So actively identifying your personal motivation and then entwining that with your training and races plans can keep you on track and your goals in sight.

8 weeks till marathon – Training diary

061307_diary_oldOver the next eight weeks, in the final build up to the London Marathon I’ll be blogging some ideas you can use to stay on track and ensure your mind is as prepared for the marathon as your body is. This blog, with eight weeks to go, suggests you will really benefit from have a training diary. And not just an excel spreadsheet, or an online tracker, but something you write in, which has loads of space for things beyond the usual: 10 miles run at 8mm pace!

A training diary has so many benefits. Not only will you be tracking how many miles you have run and at what speed, but also the cross training you are doing, any niggles or stitches or stomach cramps you noticed, how your head is feeling on each run, whether you loved, or hated, a certain session, whether you felt the session was beneficial, and what thoughts were going through your head as you did it. In short, it means as well as keeping track of what your heart and legs are doing, you can also keep track of what is going on in your head.  

This will help you spot trends. Physically it is a great way to see if certain runs are causing you stomach cramps, or if you enjoy some types of training more than others (perhaps outside you feel inspired, treadmill leaves you stressed). These are often things you realise over time but noting everything down into a training diary speeds up the process and means you can learn much more about yourself and your training, and adapt things to give you the most benefit.  

There are some great training diaries out there but you can also make your own just from a notebook and adding the following questions in to answer after each run session.

1.       The goal for this session was…..

2.       Did I achieve my goal?

3.       What I did well in this session…

4.       What I would do differently next time…

5.       Any niggles or cramps?

6.       The negative thoughts I had were…

7.       What I have gained by doing this session?

The process shouldn’t be onerous and often the answers may just be one word answers. It should not take longer to fill in your diary than it took to do your run! But running through these questions should help you to reflect really well, keep track of any issues, and will give you some great evidence to use when you get to the start line and need to remind yourself of all the great training you did in the build up to the marathon.

Latest research: Recovery strategies

running-ice-bath

A confession. I love triathlon. For 12 years I’ve been racing in them. I’ve raced every distance from super sprint to Ironman. It’s taken me to amazing places round the world, introduced me to my husband, given me fantastic friends, helped me develop a wonderful support network of likeminded people who I love learning from and even made me change career. So I will always defend triathletes.

However….

We can be a fickle bunch when it comes to new gear, gadgets and gimmicks. Some have been known to spend hundreds on equipment or toys which can save a few watts off their bike, or grams from their trainers. And one area which is always moving is around recovery. Which magic vegetable should we be drinking before bed? Are we supposed to be sitting in hot baths or freezing baths this month? And just how many items of fluorescent compression gear are actually necessary, if any?

So when I attended Elevate conference and found there was a session on ‘Athletic Recovery’ to highlight what the current research is telling us about which strategies actually work I was there! The session was hosted by Dr Ken van Someren, Head of R&D at GSK with talks from Dr Jessica Hill (Senior Lecturer at St Mary’s Uni), Prof Glyn Howatson, Reader Northumbria Uni) and Nick Littlehales (Sleep Coach). We learnt…

Recovery is really important

  • It gives you faster and better adaptation from training which gives you better winning margins.
  • But we need to be clear each time what type of exercise we are trying to recover from and adapt for that.

The focus with nutrition should be on quality and in real food

  • We need to focus on quality and those products which have been through informed sport programme (i.e. tested to not contain any WADA banned products) or, even easier, are real foods so no processing required and no contamination possible.
  • Functional foods have added value beyond basic nutrition and can potentially improve your health through reducing inflammation, exercise induced pain, blood pressure and by improving your cognition, vascular function and sleep quality. Important to have the right food at the right time of the right quality and over the right duration.

Always bear in mind the placebo impact

  • While researchers will do all they can to remove the placebo effect some recovery interventions are very difficult to randomise or blind. There is just no way to disguise the fact someone is standing in a vat of icy water!
  • There can also be a belief effect – with athletes who already believe an intervention is effective reporting more effective outcomes.

Different recovery interventions may work differently on different groups

  • Highly trained athletes may respond differently than untrained members of the public.
  • Strategies may work differently with people of different ages. For example anti-inflammatories can supress adaptation in the young yet in older athletes paracetamol and ibuprofen were found to help with adaptation.

How an intervention is carried out can make a massive difference to how it works

  • The duration that an intervention is run for, temperatures used, quality or purity of product, used just once or multiple times or the type, length and intensity of exercise completed before the intervention can all impact on the efficacy of an intervention.

 

Research on specific interventions

Cryotherapy (ice baths) – the therapeutic application of cold has a number of benefits: Reduced blood flow, constriction of blood vessels, reduced tissue temperature, compression of water. What they can see so far is that you need to spend 5-10 minutes in water that is between 5-10 degrees to be effective.

Compression garments – the theory is that the muscle fibre reacts when damaged meaning there is less space for any swelling to occur. It is thought to improve blood flow, reduce DOMS and decrease muscle oscillation. The research to date finds that wearing compression does not help race performance at all. But that they do have a role in recovery when the compression garment actually fits properly.  Their advice is to wear them straight after a race and sleep in them overnight.

Tart cherries – when they gave 10 athletes tart cherries and 10 athletes a placebo over a 7 day period (5 before competition and 2 afterwards) they found the athletes who had the cherry juice had reduced inflammation both immediately and over time.  They suggest taking them before competition increases your anti-oxidant capacity. They also ran a cycling test, mirroring a three day stage race (in the lab) and found that the cherry juice reduced inflammation.

Blackcurrants – Worked with a group of modern pentathletes and gave them a placebo and then blackcurrant juice. They found with the blackcurrant juice they had reduced inflammation and reduced oxidative stress.

Sleep – As you can’t control how you sleep it is about what you do leading into sleep. Suggested that instead of talking about hours of sleep you have had, talked about how many cycles of 90 minutes you get, and how many cycles you need. Then you can add extra in the day if you need to. You need to prepare well to sleep so you get all levels of sleep and not just lighter levels of sleep. One key tip is to breathe through the nose so if you struggle with this look out for tools which can help.

Learning from the best: Sally Gunnell, Lucy Martin & Joe Townsend

Elevate winning mindset

On Tuesday I attended Elevate, an exhibition with seminars for those working across exercise, health and performance. A seminar I really enjoyed was chaired by Prof Greg Whyte and focused on what it is to have a ‘Winning Mindset.’ He hosted Sally Gunnell (a former Hurdler with titles including World, Olympic, European and Commonwealth champion), Lucy Martin (former GB Cyclist), Joe Townsend (GB Paratriathlete) and Dr Peter Jones (Sport Psychologist).

I loved some of their insights into what it takes to have ‘The Winning Mindset’ and wanted to share a few. I was scribbling frantically so may not have got their quotes word for word, but should be pretty close.

On the importance of mentally preparing to race

Sally Gunnell: The biggest thing that lets lots of us down is that inner voice. I realised this when I was in a race and at the 8th hurdle I started wondering how other people were doing. At that point I stumbled. I then realised the power of the mind. You need to prepare ahead. It takes time to really prepare yourself to get in the right mental state. My brain won those races. It was about 70% mental.

Lucy Martin: My mind was always my biggest challenge. I always beat others in training but on the day I would always mess up. Then I learnt to just focus on myself. You have a lot of time to think on the road, 3 to 4 hours, and I’d find myself comparing myself to all the other competitors. I learnt to completely focus on myself and my performance improved. That was more important than any other training I have done. In the Olympics in 2012 I felt relaxed and had my best training. All because I had been training my mind. And I took it into other parts of my life too. Those girls who are not emotional, who think logically are the ones who succeed in challenging times. My mind is now more important than my physical training. I would prioritise it over my physical training – it is that important.

Joe Townsend: On the start line I feel cool, calm and collected because I am in an environment which is familiar territory. Compared to the Marines where I was always going somewhere unfamiliar. On the start line the hard work is done and you get to race. Most people have a fear of the unknown when racing and yet all the information you need is in front of you. Three days before an event I will have a schedule to follow. It reduces loads of the stress and anxiety. You have all the information you need before the race so you know what you are going into.

On the importance of using visualisation

Sally Gunnell: I was taught to visualise. Preparing mentally. Every day. Go through the perfect scenario in my mind. It also taught me to visualise what happens when things go wrong: in every scenario they could. But I would also finish the scenario winning. I would never cross the line below first in my visualisation. I would always win in the image.

Joe Townsend: You can visualise the race. You know what you are going to be faced with. Visualisation allows you to keep calm. You know you have the tools to help you stay focused.

On how to deal with pressure

Sally Gunnell: I trained myself to deal with more pressure. I felt the more pressure I had the better I would do. Never let that voice finish that negative sentence. Instead, force feed positive thoughts.

Peter Jones: The pressure is always there. It is how we choose to deal with that pressure that matters. There are either challenge or a threat mindsets which sit on a continuum. A challenge mindset athlete will focus on just what they can achieve. They have perceived control, they focus on the process and on what they can do. A threat mindset athlete will focus on what can go wrong. They may have lower self-belief, lack of control over their environment, focus on avoidance and find reasons not to compete. Sports Psychologists can even see a physiological difference between those with a challenge and a threat mindsets. The role of the psychologist is to move athletes who have a threat mindset towards more of a challenge one. To do this the athlete needs to grow their self-belief, control their environment and focus on their approach and what they can do. Each of these will help the athlete increase their resilience. It is also not a constant so it is important to build behaviours and practices.

On their racing mindset

Joe Townsend: If you can’t change a situation, then don’t worry about it. If something happens and the course has to be changed then you are all in the same boat. You just go away and learn a new course. There is no point getting wound up – you can’t change it so you have to deal with it. Maybe I have been desensitised to some of those tough situations going through the military. I also always race myself and not my competitors. Stick to my own race plan and as long as my process has been followed then this counts as a great race.

On their pre-race rituals and routines

Lucy Martin: I don’t have a ritual but I had a routine where I would get ready very early and check over everything; my bike, how many gels I had on me etc. I would try not to focus on the race and would aim to save as much mental energy for the last 30 minutes of the race. Others would arrive much later and be much more relaxed about it.

Sally Gunnell: I used to have a lucky bag. Each year I or my husband would buy a lucky stone or something to add to it. 2 weeks before Barcelona Olympics we had a Chinese and in my fortune cookie it said: You are the chosen one. That went into my bag. When my bag went missing I retired.

Joe Townsend: I have a routine and the same process that I always follow. It works well for me. It means everything becomes very familiar.

On a winning mindset being nature or nurture?

Lucy Martin: You can be born with a winning mindset but you can also develop one.

Sally Gunnell: It all comes down to your mental training. Everyone has doubts but it is who can deal with the situation the best.

Peter Jones: You can be born with it and your environment can change it, but you can also change it.

What is your mantra?

I recently asked a group of marathon runners at a Performance In Mind talk about their mantras. My supervisor, who was watching, pointed out afterwards that ‘mantra’ isn’t a word that lives in everyone’s day to day dictionary. He had a point! Though the idea of them is probably a lot more common since social media and the internet began drowning in well intended memes though! A few examples:

In short, a mantra is a short phrase or even a single word that can remind you why you are doing what you are doing. It can be incredibly helpful if you start to struggle when training or racing. It can come from one of three areas: something which reminds you of your motivation for racing (“I’m running for those who can’t), something which reminds you of your goal (“That medal is mine”) or something which is more technical and helps keep your technique on track (“Pick up your feet”). In all three areas it has been found to have positive impact. You can have something you use every race, or something which helps you in specific types of races.

The justification for incorporating a mantra into your race tool kit comes from the researched benefits of self-talk. Self-talk is the way we all unconsciously talk to ourselves in our heads. What we say to ourselves can impact our behaviours. If we consciously make our self-talk positive we can behave it a way which is much more beneficial to our racing ambitions. Using self-talk effectively has been found to boost confidence and increase your perseverance. A great piece of research presented recently came from Alister McCormick at the university of Kent who worked with a group of ultra runners training for a 60 mile race. He taught half the group to use self-talk and half a different skill. The self-talk group finished their ultra race 25 minutes quicker than the other group. They had no additional training. Just used this one technique.

So how to pick your mantra?

  • It needs to be personal to you.
  • It needs to be positive – to either remind you of your motivation, your goal or your technique.
  • It needs to be memorable – so it is front of mind and easy to remember when you need it.
  • It needs to be short – so you can write it down when you may need a reminder; on your gel packets, on your hand, on your drinks bottle.

A wonderful example which is short, memorable, motivational and personal comes from an athlete who attended a workshop I ran a few months ago. He had previously been overweight and unfit. He had worked really hard to lose the weight, build up his fitness and enter a triathlon. As he ran past his dad who was watching him race he overheard his dad proudly boast to another spectator: “that’s my son.” This pride he heard in his dad’s voice made him realise he could never quit the journey he was on and that with each race he was achieving more and more.

What is your mantra?