10 tips for running a virtual marathon

Come Sunday morning there will be a few dozen elite athletes preparing to run 19.8 laps of St James’ Park and 45,000 everyday runners from all over the world, heading off to run their own version of the London Marathon. I have a mixture of excitement and nerves about being one of them.

When lockdown happened and my highly prepared and trained for Paris Marathon went out the window I got into a pattern of running 30 minutes each day just for basic fitness and headspace. Virtual challenges advertised on twitter got an eye roll. I was happy to wait till the real things came back.

But, when London Marathon announced spaces for the virtual run I couldn’t help myself. I moved to London when I was 18, have been here 25 years and doubt I’ll ever leave. It is home. And London Marathon is my race mecca. I had entered before thinking (a common failing in runners!) and only when emailing my coach afterwards realised I’d given myself 5 weeks to get from running a parkrun distance to managing 8.5 times that distance. Ouch.

We always say the reason you only need to go up to 20 miles in training for London is that the crowds carry you along the final 6. But on Sunday we won’t have that. We’ll be doing the distance on our own, self-supported and without the atmosphere that usually keeps us going.

So, as a Sport Psychologist what advice will I be giving myself on how to cope with being alone, not having support and not having a that amazing atmosphere.

  1. Smile every mile. Smiling is a great way of tricking our brains into thinking we are using less effort than we actually are and so can enjoy it more. If you watch beeps every mile this is a good time to give a good grin.
  2. Fill your ears. Usually at London marathon you get continual cheering and bands. We will only have quiet this time so pick your favourite ear filler: music (helps you go faster), podcasts or audiobooks and lose yourself in entertainment or knowledge. I’m planning a mixture of Hamilton songs (because my husband won’t be there to complain) and Mark Manson’s new book on relationships on Audible.
  3. Have snacks. I love working with Ultra athletes because they are all about the snacks – their races are basically eating competitions. Have something yummy on you that you get to look forward to for when everything feels a bit much.
  4. Take messages with you. Ask friends or family to put messages on a sticker which you stick to your gels. Each time you pull out a gel you get a lovely message to make you smile and feel loved.
  5. Have an instructional mantra. This is to remind yourself about good form and technique when you get tired. Mine is head up. That one instruction changes my entire stance; chest forward, shoulders back, more oxygen in, lift my feet higher and stop doing the marathon shuffle.
  6. See if anyone you love (or even like!) can be out on your course somewhere – having them to look forward to seeing will keep you going when it is tough.
  7. Expect it to be tough. 26.2 miles all alone is a big ask. No-one will find it easy – even those guys going under 2.30. There will be tough moments but if we expect them, accept them and welcome them in, we can wait for them to pass and be proud we kept going.
  8. Wear the race number you were sent – it will get you waves and smiles and help build the sense of community.
  9. Break down the route you are taking into chunks. Have a plan for each chunk; constructing a blogpost for one, counting the number of squirrels you see in the next one, seeing how many other runners you can say hello to in the third. Each chunk gives you a nice distraction.
  10. Know your why. This is most important. If you are getting up to run 26.2 miles on your own you need to know why. And you need to remind yourself of it regularly. Are you fundraising? Raising awareness? Proving something to yourself, or others? Giving yourself purpose after a crappy year? Write this reason on your hand or water bottle and when it gets tough glance down, and think through what finishing that marathon will give you, and others. Your why will be the equivalent of the crowd, getting you through that final 6 miles.

Have an awesome time on Sunday and hopefully I’ll be joining you with a virtual medal, an enormous smile and a very real pint of shandy (post marathon treat).

Podcasts for Sport Psych geeks

I love listening to podcasts to hear the stories of other sport psychs, to learn new techniques and skills, to build knowledge of new research and just for opening up my world. Here are a selection for those interested in sport psychology. If you have any other suggestions would love to hear about them on twitter: @josephineperry

Sport and Performance Psychology

Finding Mastery (Dr Michael Gervais) – A huge number of followers listen in to hear from some of the most accomplished performers in the world talk about what makes them masters of their own universes.

The Sport Psych Show (Dan Abrahams) – Dan is a qualified sports psych and over his 84 (to date) episodes has chatted with some phenomenal people who work in high sports performance. He focuses on motivation and applied tools so really helpful for those looking for activities to try. 

A Slice of PIE (Hosted by Pete Jackson) – A new podcast exploring Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE) in sport, business and other performance fields. Although very new I include because I love Pete’s approach to high performance psychology and trying to understand where what is used in one sector can be really effectively repurposed in another so I’m looking forward to more coming out.

Working in sport

Supporting Champions (Steve Ingham) – I’m a bit biased because I’ve been a guest on Steve’s podcast but it is one I listen to regularly – especially when I feel like a bit of insight into how others might be dealing with their sporting careers. Steve has worked in high performance sport forever (sorry Steve) and it seems like he knows everyone so he has some brilliant guests. He is really focused on their stories and their journeys through their careers so brilliant advice (whether you are just starting out or been going for years) is interwoven throughout.

The Private Practice Startup Podcast (Kate & Katie) – If you are an applied sports psych then although the basis for the chat is America and focused on clinical psychology (so they are in a different ‘system’ to us) the interviewees have great insight and ideas to make private practice really professional and valuable. And the chemistry between the hosts makes you feel like you are listening in to the two of them chatting over a class of wine.

Wider psychology

How did we get here (Claudia Winkleman & Professor Tanya Byron) – Discusses emotions and every day issues using the insight of a clinical psychologist. 

Choiceology (Katy Milkman) – Covers the questions we’ve often wondered (one of my favourites was around why we love specific numbers in sport such as the 4 minute mile or the 2 hour marathon). So if you have questioned it Choiceology has probably considered it. The idea (and why it is sponsored by a finance company) is to expose psychological traps that push us into poor decision making.

General Sport

Don’t tell me the Score (Simon Mundie) – Simon has some fantastic interviewees so although he is focused on sport in general there is lots of psychology interwoven.

Clean Sport Collective – I just adore these interviews – It is American focused but lots of female athletes are profiled and you feel like you privileged to listen into a friendly chat. Full of people who deserve more profile and these guys are helping to achieve that.

Science of Sport Podcast (Ross Tucker & Mike Finch) – If a journalist wants to get a quote from a world-renowned sports scientist they go to Professor Ross Tucker. He fronts up this podcast with sports journalist Mike Finch to break down the myths, practices and controversies in sport. Their episodes on doping and ‘The Shoe that broke running’ are musts if you want to be informed of all the perspectives on these contentious issues. They also include interviews with some of the world’s leading sporting experts. For those who love sport.

Tough Girl Podcast (Sarah Williams) – Sarah has a passion to give female adventurers the exposure they deserve. She knows if you can’t see it you can’t be it so profiling female athletes and explorers is vital and she has set up a brilliant podcast to platform these women and their stories.

Endurance Sport specific podcasts

Marathon Talk (Tom Williams, Martin Yelling, Holly Rush, Tony Audenshaw) – – Love all these guys for their relentless positivity, weekly running updates and fascinating interviewees.

Mind over Muscle (Ant Middleton) –  – I am definitely biased on this one as I’m the resident Sport Psychologist on it but I genuinely think we come up with some good stuff so I’m including it! Ant Middleton (the SAS guy), Mara Yamauchi (two time Olympian and super speedy marathon runner) and I take 5 first time marathon runners towards their first London Marathon in April. Of course (Spoiler alert) we don’t get there as the marathon has been postponed till the Autumn but we have some fun and some tears on the way.

Runners World (Rick Pearson & Ben Hobson) – Has interesting runners on for short chats that are easy to listen to on a shortish run.

The Tripod (Annie Emmerson & Louise Minchin) – – This was a 7 part series last year taking three newbie athletes on their first triathlon. Annie and Louise have lots of superstar friends – they got cycling advice from Chris Hoy, Swimming advice from Rebecca Adlington and some top tips from Vicky Holland. Really relaxed and lots of fun – all while soothing the nerves of the triathletes.

Free Weekly Timed (Vassos Alexander & Helen Williams) – – For anyone with a love of parkrun (which is most people!) this is a great listen hearing from different parkruns, people from parkrun HQ and a weekly quiz.

Others that have been recommended by fellow Sport Psychologists:

Free courses in sport, exercise & psychology

Courses logos

When I was a trainee I was also a new mum. I needed to do as much of my learning and development as I could online while my daughter slept. I found some really valuable courses which were completely free. With the lockdown meaning work is quieter than normal I’ve been using the time to top up my professional development and have really enjoyed it so thought I should share some of the great courses out there for those interested in Sport and Exercise and Psychology. They all come from either Open University, Future Learn, Coursera or Class Central so each are worth checking out if you are looking to do some free learning.

Sport Psychology specific

Exploring sport coaching and psychology
Open University
Course explores the influence of coaching and psychology through the lens of sports people and teams who have been successful. Focuses on coaching practices used with young people and adults, including research and advice of leaders in their fields.

Exploring communication and working relationships in sport
Open University
Covers skills required to boost your ability to vary your communication approach according to the situation and the needs of the people involved.

Exploring the psychological aspects of sport injury
Open University
This course examines the relationship between injury and psychological factors, looking at the link between injury and psychology at two distinct points – before an injury has occurred and then following an injury.

Learning from burnout and overtraining
Open University
A course looking at those sports people who have thrived and those who have experienced burnout. By exploring burnout you will gain a deeper understanding of the physical and mental aspects of sport such as athletic identity, overtraining and perfectionism.

Motivation and factors effecting motivation
Open University
This course explores the term ‘motivation’ and factors affecting motivation. This includes looking at the most influential theories of motivation that contribute to understanding the causes of motivation. The motivation of sports people and people working in sport and fitness environments are used to help understand the theories presented.

Working with client skills

Developing Clinical Empathy: Making a Difference in Patient Care 
St George’s, University of London
To learn skills to help you understand a client’s situation. Helps to develop relationship-building skills such as compassion and empathy. Covers different types of empathy, explores non-verbal cues, and understanding key opportunities for showing empathy in clinical care.

Psychology

Introduction to Psychology
Yale
Provides a comprehensive overview of the scientific study of thought and behaviour by exploring topics such as perception, communication, learning, memory, decision-making, persuasion, emotions, and social behaviour.

Science of Wellbeing
Yale
Challenges designed to increase happiness and build more productive habits. Covers the misconceptions about happiness, annoying features of the mind that lead us to think the way we do, and the research that can help us change.

Learning how to learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects
University of California, San Diego
Provides access to learning techniques used by experts in art, music, literature, maths, science and sports. Covers illusions of learning, memory techniques, dealing with procrastination, and best practices shown by research to be most effective in helping you master tough subjects.

Wider Sport Science

Science of Endurance Training and Performance
University of Kent
Learn about the science behind endurance sports training and performance, including effective preparation and rehabilitation.
(NB: Course not running right now but you can sign up to get an email when it does).

Managing your health – the role of physical therapy and exercise
University of Toronto
Course covers the concepts and benefits of physical therapy and exercise.

The Science of Exercise
University of Colorado, Boulder
Helps you to have an improved physiological understanding of how your body responds to exercise, and will be able to identify behaviours, choices, and environments that impact your health and training.

Introductory Human Physiology
Duke University
Learn to recognize and to apply the basic concepts that govern integrated body function (as an intact organism) in the body’s nine organ systems.

Lifestyle medicine

Essentials of Lifestyle Medicine and Population Health 
Doane University
Covers the foundations of population health and lifestyle medicine and makes the argument for why healthcare delivery models based on these foundational principles are essential to addressing global healthcare crises.

Introduction to Lifestyle Medicine 
Doane University
Lifestyle Medicine is the science and application of 49 healthy lifestyles as interventions for the prevention and treatment of lifestyle-related diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke, obesity, some neurological conditions and some cancers. It is bridges the science of physical activity, nutrition, stress management and resilience; sleep hygiene and other healthy habits to individuals through clinical practice in healthcare.

Racing interrupted…

A virus we hadn’t even heard of when we entered many of this season’s races and competitions may now cancel many of them. We might feel upset and stressed because everything we have been working towards feels uncertain and also feel guilty for feeling that way as we know people are already poorly and it is important that we don’t contribute in any way to the spread of this disease.

I was both upset and guilty when I heard a rumour Paris Marathon might be cancelled. My motivation went out the window. My race the next day was lacklustre and my attitude sucked. Once it was officially postponed it was easier. I had stability and confirmation and I could plan around it. With a little reflection I could see there are far more important things in the world and that I had already learnt so much on my marathon training journey to date that nothing was wasted.

Part of the strategy when we get a setback is to allow space to sulk. We suggest about 48 hours is fine to throw all your toys out of the pram, to stomp your feet and be a grump. But then it is time for action. The five steps I follow with athletes in this position are:

  1. Sulk
  2. Research
  3. Adapt plan
  4. Find the positives
  5. Get back on track.

I think this can work really well for a specific setback – such as just one race being cancelled for say logistical or weather reasons. But as we are looking at so many competitions having to cancel or postpone maybe a wider, more strategic mental approach is required. I asked on Twitter how athletes are approaching these challenges and how they are maintaining motivation. The awesome answers that came back seem to fit into five main categories.

Reframing

One of the strongest responses, and something we often practice in sport psychology is to reframe a situation. I loved the response from Gill Bland (super speedy runner and writes for Fast Running) that all challenges can be seen as training opportunities. We can use tough times to see that and do things differently. We can also use this period to get some perspective. It is just a competition we are missing and we are incredibly lucky we are fit and healthy enough to be able to compete in the first place.

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Unplanned, but beneficial improvement space

Many amateur athletes are squeezing their sport into already full lives; family to care for, money to earn, friends to socialise with. We schedule everything to within an inch. An unexpected and unplanned interruption can be a blessing in disguise as we get some space to reflect and then focus on areas which usually get forgotten. More yoga, strength and conditioning, specific skill weaknesses can all become part of our maintenance programme.IMG_9443

Helps you become more flexible

To do well in sport we need to be able to focus on just those things we can control, and minimise our thoughts around those we can’t. We should be doing this for any competition which matters to us. Get a sheet of paper, divide it vertically into three columns. On the left hand side write all the things you can control about the situation you are in, on the right, all the things you can’t, and the middle is the things you might be able to influence. Then focus 90% of your mental energy and preparation on the left hand column and just roll with whatever happens on the other side of the paper. These interruptions offer a great practice opportunity.

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Helps you uncover whether you have been extrinsically or intrinsically motivated.

I loved the response from Alice Hector (ex Pro triathlete and generally a super supporter of anyone doing long distance stuff) which was that cancellations offer us a chance to reflect on why we are competing. Do we do our sport because we love it (intrinsic motivation) or because we have goals to reach (extrinsic motivation). When the goals disappear we can clearly see if we are in our sport because of the feeling of doing it, the joy it brings us, the way it makes us feel. If we are not maybe it isn’t the right sport for us, maybe there is something out there which would give us genuine joy even when there is nothing external in it for us? So perhaps these interruptions can help you either see what you do love about your sport (and that we just really benefit from the process) – or help you to hunt out something you might love instead.

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And if we are intrinsically motivated, as Kate Carter (fabulous runner and running journalist) reflects, then you get a chance to consider exactly what it is you love about your sport so you feel more motivated to do more of it.

Kate tweet

Practice without pressure

Finally, while sport is brilliant – it is fabulous for physical, mental and cognitive health and wellbeing – and we should treasure what it gives us – it can also create pressure. Once we start to take it seriously, instead of relieving some of the strains and stresses of life, it can add to them. Races or competitions being cancelled can give us an opportunity to get back to the fun side, the bits that helped us fall in love with it in the first place.

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5 weeks to go…magic mantra

Big Half medalSo the big focus for this past week was The Big Half. A fab half marathon which starts near the Tower of London, heads under the Rotherhithe tunnel all the way to Canary Wharf, back to Tower Bridge and along to Greenwich. You finish in front of the Cutty Sark. We got a stunning day and the organisation was great but I forgot to tell my body all this. I’ve had a cold which had started to go into my chest and while I thought I would be fine I know realise my asthma inhaler wasn’t working and so I felt like I only had the top third of my lungs working. I was light headed and wobbly and just had nothing. Knowing my little girl would be waiting with a high five was enough to get me to Tower Bridge at seven miles but by eight miles I was really low. I had a little sit down on the curb. Sulked. And had a chat with myself. This could either be a DNF and I’d feel rubbish for ages or it could be an opportunity to prove I was mentally tougher than I think I am. I repeatedly realised I would have to tell my little one that mummy found it too hard and quit. That was enough of a kick to stand up and go again. I also realised having to write a blog post about DNFing was going to seriously dent my ego. I kept repeating my mantra (more below) and just jogged it though. Finished in 1:55. Probably a personal worst time for the distance but proud I made it. Next time though I won’t race when struggling with my asthma. It is not big or clever!

Pace chartI know an additional issue was that the night before the race the French government banned all gatherings of over 5000 people. This meant the Paris Half (supposed to be starting 12 hours later) got cancelled and now we don’t know if Paris Marathon will go ahead. Frantic searching for another marathon in April which still had places led me to the Bungay Black Dog marathon. Not what I was hoping for in a big city marathon but all reports suggest really nice and friendly and interesting course. And it is near my parents so I might get some extra support. But because that big goal I was working towards got all fuzzy I definitely lost excitement for The Big Half. When we don’t have a strong ‘and tummy turning with excitement’ goal it is really hard to stay motivated.

Anyway – as the Big Half went so badly I had a chance to practice some mental skills. The main one being some mental toughness not to DNF. I used to DNF a lot and I really disliked it about myself. With my little girl coming to watch lots of races I don’t want her to see things getting tough and me quitting. I built this into my mantra.

A mantra is a short word or phrase we use to focus our mind to either maintain our motivation, keep us focused on our goal or to remind ourselves of something that will help us run better.

It works best when it is really personal so it resonates deeply. When we have a dark moment (or dark five miles in my race) repeating our motivational mantra over and over again will help us stay focused and working hard. It is really useful for athletes in sports (just like runners) who have a lot of time to think and to talk themselves out of putting in the required effort, especially as research has shown using a mantra can help increase perseverance.

Good times to use your mantra are on the start line of a race if feeling nervous, mid race if you realise you are not doing so well or when you feel your effort levels dropping.

The mantra you choose doesn’t need to be set in stone. You can choose one which really works for you in every competition or mix and match depending on the race ahead. The one which works best though will make you slightly emotional, giving you a bit of a lump in your throat thinking it. To be most effective it needs to be positive, purposeful, memorable and short.

My mantra revolves around my daughter Hattie. At her christening we asked our friends and family to help us develop and maintain three characteristics in her; happiness, kindness and bravery. And as we know role modelling is so important for what children internalise it means we as parents need to show our happiness, do kind acts and be brave when we really don’t want to be. So I use this in my mantra; Make Hattie Proud.

Mantra band

Once you’ve decided on your race mantra, until you get into the habit of repeating, it you can write it on your hand or use a wrist band – we have some in our Sporting Brain Box to help people practice. A really nice touch if you have a mantra that really works for you is to write it on stickers on your gels. Gives you a little reminder every time you take out a gel in your race.

Anyway, on Sunday ‘make Hattie proud’ took me through five miles of misery all the way to Greenwich. Her first question after a high five at the finish was ‘Did you win mummy?’ I answered that ‘anyone who finishes is a winner’. And I meant it. And I have my magical mantra to thank for making me one (in her eyes anyway!).

 

 

6 weeks to go…Training diary

Brighton HalfThe Brighton Half marathon was fun. But it took a lot of mental energy to make it that way. A few days before with Storm Dennis on his way they decided there would be no finish barrier or infrastructure that could be blown over but other than that all was going ahead. The day before I went for my shake out run and it was 17 minutes out, 13 minutes home. Strong winds.

Race day was fab. Decided if I was going to run in 40mph winds I may as well enjoy it. Forgot to charge my watch so no pace to follow and no time goal – just to try as hard as I could and to feel proud of my efforts afterwards. I smiled lots (it is an official psych strategy – I promise) and actually felt like I was having fun. 6 miles of running into the wind was hard work but all good practice for Paris – especially if there happens to be a storm! Our best friends had snuck down from London to give some high fives which was a fantastic boost and despite the weather there were still supporters out cheering and brilliant volunteers marshalling which was awesome.

One of the first things I did after the race (after playing on the 2p machines on the pier to warm up my three-year-old and eating hot sugary donuts by the beach to warm up myself) was top up my training diary.

I’m a bit geeky about using training diaries – they are ace. I ask all the athletes I work with to keep one. There are lots of reasons why. A big one is that we get robust confidence from knowing we have the skills required to excel and having done all the training required. A training diary is an easy way to be reminded of this.

Training diary

Ideally in this diary we log our physical training, fitness sessions, physical or mental skills we are working on, any niggles or injuries we are feeling, the types of training we enjoy and how we are feeling about our training. If we fill it in every day when we get to our race we have a huge amount of information at our fingertips to help us prepare effectively. I do mine before bed each night so it becomes a habit.

While online training diaries are great for convenience, many restrict athletes from adding in that extra information so a paper diary, with lots of space is best. A paper diary means as well as keeping track of what our body is doing, we can also keep track of what is going on in our head. I was in a rush when I set up my programme so printed some pages out via calendarpedia.co.uk  but my partner on the Sporting Brain Box, Sarah at Art of Your Success sells a great training diary  if you want something much more professional and full of lovely tips too.

Things you could add into your diary are

  • My goal for today’s session was ….. and I…..
  • Physically I did…
  • My fitness levels seem…
  • The skill I mastered best was…
  • What I did well in this session…
  • Any niggles or cramps?
  • The negative thoughts I had were…
  • What I have gained by doing this session?
  • How do I feel?
  • How tired am I?
  • Is there anything in my life right now causing me mental fatigue?

Mine is fairly simple at the moment with just what I’ve been doing and how I’m feeling but I’ve also been adding my Resting Heart Rate (once it goes over 55 I know I’m getting poorly so it is a good way of keeping an eye on my health) and my Peak Flow level as I’m trying to get on top of my asthma so this is a good prompt to do so.

The next race is the Big Half. I’ll be using it to practice my mental toughness in a race, my nutrition strategy and whether my mantra is strong enough. The race starts on Tower Hill in London and finishes in Greenwich. I’ve asked my husband to strategically stand our daughter at the end of Tower Bridge (7 miles in) as my incentive to work hard and get a high five and a cheer from her half way through. Apparently Storm Jorge is on the way but I think we are all pretty good at running in storms now – if the weather gods are reading I’d love some practice running in the sunshine. Please….

7 weeks to go…stars in the dark

A good week for training. Started badly though. Went for a run and after 25 minutes felt dizzy and blugh. Did another 5 minutes but no better so turned round and headed back. Next day’s intervals not much better. But a swim on the Thursday was pretty magic. My coach has this theory that swimming during marathon training makes you a better runner. I dislike swimming so I wish she was wrong but unfortunately she really does know what she is talking about and legs and head felt great afterwards. I also had a sports massage from Joseph on Friday who is fab (apart from the regular reminders to stretch!) so went into my long run on Saturday feeling good. Which was handy cause running in a storm is hard work. Managed 16 miles ambling round Richmond Park. Sunday was just 10k home from meeting friends for coffee in Richmond. My friends looked at me like crazy setting off in the rain to run but I promised I was ok because I love running in the rain. Something so liberating about it. It is a pretty good strength to have too seeing as it can rain quite a lot on London.

It was a good run to use to reflect on my strengths. Because although in training (and many sports psych sessions) we tend to focus on our weaknesses, on competition or race day we really need to know our strengths, so we can use them to our advantage.

It is one of my favourite sessions to do with athletes. Most are so humble that they look at me in horror when I initially ask about their strengths but once we get into it and break them down into areas they find they have loads, and start to feel much prouder about how good they have become.

We start by doing a strengths audit. This is a list of all those elements which make us feel confident we can achieve our goals. Proactively identifying strengths is helpful as we are prone to a number of cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias where we are more likely to notice things which support what we already believe or negativity bias where we focus more on negative information than positive. Countering these by promoting positive elements, reminders and memories can help us overcome these biases to stop downplaying everything good and seeing it through this negative lens. The strengths audit is also great for a confidence boost. Even if we don’t believe we have a natural talent for our sport, we can still see the elements which help us perform well in it. And it helps us focus on our own skills and mastery, not on those of our competitors.

This one is easy to do as a list but to make it resonate a bit more I raided our Sporting Brain Box to do my strengths audit as ‘Stars in the Dark’. This gives you what you need to put your strengths up somewhere you can’t miss them. I’ve just stuck mine up right above my desk.

Stars in the Dark

Stars in the Dark gives you 10 silver stars. We are looking for at least one strength from each element:

  • Fitness
  • Strategy
  • Skills
  • Tactics
  • Mindset
  • Support

If you struggle then you can get out your training diary to see which sessions you always nail, or look through your phone to see who gives you the best support with your sport. If you really struggle then think about other areas of your life which may highlight transferable strengths. And if you still struggle (and many athletes, especially if they are in a bad period within their training will find this hard) then talk to other people about where they see your strengths coming from. It could be a coach, partner, parents, friends or club mates. The benefit of this is knowing your strengths are strong enough to be recognised by others should mean they can be pretty confidence boosting for you to remember in the build up to and during competition.

So with my Stars in the Dark staring down at me I’m off into Brighton Half Marathon this weekend.

8 weeks to race day…Weaknesses

Tramill screenLast week’s training went ok – I’m not great on sticking to paces outside so when one of my sessions called for different paces throughout I thought I should do it on the treadmill. We have a treadmill in the garage so at least I didn’t need to fight to be allowed to hog one in the gym for ages but even still 100 minutes on a treadmill is the longest I’ve ever done and was mentally really tough. And really annoyingly I was using imagery to get through the session visualising the screen showing 100 minutes when I’d finished it and didn’t realise the number of digits was limited so as I finished it clicked over from 99:59 to 00:01. Cue big sulky bottom lip! But the session was definitely one to consider a ‘gold medal session’ to give me some confidence when it comes to Paris race day.

The storm squashed my weekend racing plans as the Winter 10k round central London was called off. I was recording a podcast the day before though which, as it is a running podcast, actually meant I had to run 10k with the athletes on the show so added a 12k run home from that and I felt like I’d got a decent session in to replace the race.

When I got home from the run I found out my shy 3 year old had managed her first swimming class – for weeks she has refused to get in the pool – so this was a really big deal. We went straight out for celebratory dinner – I want her to learn that we celebrate success – especially when we have had to be really brave and leave our comfort zone.

And leaving that comfort zone to confront our weakness is the point of this week’s reflection. A key session I will do with athletes as their sports psych is to consider their strengths (we will look at this next week)  but I never need to ask their weaknesses – so many athletes are perfectionists that they are highly attuned to their weaknesses and consider them over and over again.  They can reel off a long list.

But being aware of them is different to actually facing them and working on them. And that is vital to perform at a high level. We want to focus on our weaknesses in training so we can benefit from our strengths in racing.

I know my biggest weakness is my ability to make excuses. I am really good at justifying what I have done to block out what I was supposed to do. So if I have a 1 hour run at 7.5mph I might do the run, but only at 6.5mph. I’ll argue to myself it is good enough I did the run. And it is – but not if I want to get faster and stronger. I will offer myself the excuse the day got too busy and no-one can run a business, look after their family and train effectively. But you can if you put away your phone and get off social media thus freeing up lots of additional time.

As Project Paris is all about trying to do everything properly I’m trying to address these weaknesses so my mindset must switch from finding excuses as to why turning up is good enough to finding excuses for why I must turn up and train properly.

Much of dealing with our weaknesses can come down to why we are racing in the first place and the values (see last week’s post) we have behind our racing. We can use our purpose and our values to address each weakness. My values are family, achievement and courage.

If working with an athlete who makes excuses we would list each excuse that they have used over a couple of weeks in their training. And then we proactively address them with our counter excuses. For example mine would look like…

Excuse… Countered with..
I’m so tired, I won’t be able to do the session properly I’ll need to be brave during the marathon when I get tired – this session will be good practice for that moment.
It is good enough to do a bit of it – it doesn’t need to be perfect I need to follow my coach’s sessions if I am to achieve my goal
I’ve got a deadline that matters more I knew I would have a book deadline when I entered this race. I can do both and I’ll feel more invigorated to write once I’ve run.

Practising these over and over – not just in the moment – will help to embed them as thoughts which automatically start to counter my excuses.

9 weeks to race day…Values

Green week 4Another green week. :0) I’ve now hit my goal of four green weeks. Some of this is more focus and effort on my part – some of this is down to working more closely with my coach so the training which goes in matches my workload better – giving me fewer excuses. I did procrastinate all day Sunday about a horrible 70 minute treadmill session but actually, as usual, once it was done I realised it wasn’t that bad.

I got my long run in by running home from a talk I was giving at the Olympic Velodrome. I think you know you are in marathon training when you look through your diary and get excited at events being held a bit of a distance away as it gives an opportunity for a sneaky run!

Another project that got me running this week was a cool new podcast I’m involved with. It is called Mind over Muscle and is being produced for London Marathon by Audible. Ant Middleton is the main dude on it and I have already enjoyed hearing his perspectives around mindset. Mara Yamauchi is also working on the show and I plan to bug her for some marathon tips closer to the race. I don’t want to ruin any surprises in it (it starts on Thursday 6th Feb) so won’t go into what we have been up to but I am really enjoying working with runners who wouldn’t usually have a sports psychologist. Seeing how some simple (but of course evidence-based) recommendations can make a big difference to someone’s mindset is really encouraging to remember why we do the work we do.

One of the other areas I really enjoy doing as a sport psychologist is helping athletes understand their values – not just in sport but in life. It is pretty rare that we get the time or headspace to really think and identity what matters to us but actually, if we truly understand where our drivers come from, what we really want and where our passion and purpose lie, it is much easier to make authentic (and thus stickier) sporting decisions.

For example, an athlete who really values trust, communication and creativity would struggle to feel comfortable with a coach who had very rigid rules and told the athlete what they thought they wanted to hear rather than what they actually thought. However, an athlete whose values were discipline, dependency and happiness may be quite happy with this approach.

To ensure I’ve picked the right goal and to keep these values front of mind I did my own value mapping. We can use a list of 56 common values to begin and the aim is to filter down to between three and five. It is really difficult. Most athletes will want to retain about 20-25.

Achievement Effectiveness Honesty Quality
Affection Efficiency Hope Recognition
Ambition Empathy Humour Respect
Autonomy Equality Independence Risk-Taking
Beauty Excitement Innovation Security
Challenge Faith Integrity Service
Communication Family Intelligence Simplicity
Competence Flexibility Love Spirituality
Competition Forgiveness Loyalty Strength
Courage Freedom Open-minded Success
Creativity Friendship Patience Teamwork
Curiosity Growth Pleasure Trust
Decisiveness Happiness Politeness Truth
Dependability Harmony Power Variety
Discipline Health Productivity Wealth
Diversity Helpful Prosperity Wisdom

For me, after lots of reflection, the three that drive my journey in life (and sport) are family, achievement and courage.

They can then be built into my marathon process: I want to impress my family – I want my daughter to be proud of her mummy. I want her to learn that if we set out to achieve something we see it through to the end. We don’t quit when it gets tough – instead we summon up all our courage to overcome the difficulties.

This can filter into self-talk so I can draw on mantras like ‘Make Hattie (my daughter) Proud’ – ‘Be Brave’ – ‘You wanted this’ and they should all help to keep me going when it gets really hard.

I have a race this weekend – the Winter 10k round central London. I’ve run it at least 3 times before so I know where I tend to tire out and where I tend to make excuses to slow down. I’ll be practising these value driven mantras to see which ones really resonate and work to shut down the excuses.

If you’ve read this far and want to work on your own values I’d love to chat about them on twitter: @josephineperry