Advice from Dr Tim Rogers on how athletes can cope during the Coronavirus changes

I remember interviewing Dame Sarah Storey and asking her if she’d ever used Imagery. She said she uses it all the time; but whilst on the bike, visualising the events going on around her. Never lying on a dusty floor being talked at. She couldn’t see the value in that. And she is not alone. There are lots of mental skills we teach in sport psychology which work wonderfully. But they often require athletes to sit still, or sometimes even lie down, eyes closed, to learn them. Those techniques are not popular. When we introduce them eyes will roll and stomachs will sink. They want to be outside, in the gym, on equipment – using physical energy.

So, take these athletes, who want to be outside, to be active. Cancel all their races. Wipe out their goals. And, if they are not key workers, ask them to spend three, four or five weeks at home with only a short amount of time to exercise each day. Of course, they understand why and will do what they can to help. But it doesn’t make it easy.

So I asked Tim Rogers, one of the UK’s leading sports psychiatrists for ideas to help them cope.

TIm Rogers photo

What do you see as the biggest mental health challenges for athletes who have to isolate?

Athletes don’t escape the same issues as non-athletes.  In that sense, although social distancing prevents infections, social isolation can significantly increase the risk of other health problems, both physical and mental.  Blanket corona virus coverage on social media and through 24-hour news cycles mean we miss nothing, including hearing about everyone else’s worries.  Worry and anxiety become unhealthy when “what if” thoughts multiply and fill our thinking space with scary things all day.  This is tiring and hard to sustain.

Specifically, in sport, athletes and coaches across the board are struggling with the sudden unexpected loss of their goals, their events (major and minor) and sometimes even their livelihoods.  This was unthinkable only a few months ago.

Elite sports people can find these losses harder to cope with – emotionally – for a few reasons.  Sometimes they have had to invest such a large amount of themselves in their sport: who they are; what they value about life; how they spend their time; who they connect with in their social groups; that sudden changes like this can feel catastrophic.  Sometimes, they have set themselves extremely high expectations for what they want to achieve for their season.  Although there is nothing they could have done to control the onset of a pandemic, they nevertheless find themselves feeling guilty about not training, having a negative conversation with themselves or feeling that they have in some way let themselves down.

The combination of these things can place emotional wellbeing at risk, at a time when it’s important to look after yourself in all respects (both mental and physical).

How do you advise athletes to cope with a complete change of expectations for their season?

Take a moment to pause, step back and notice how you’re feeling during such an unprecedented time.  It’s OK not to be OK, whether or not it has anything to do with corona directly.  If at all you do need support: reach out in the normal way; don’t tell yourself you need to push on through, single handed or alone.

Putting yourself out there to compete in sport has to come with an awareness that things might not go as expected.  Sometimes this is the small stuff.  Right now, it’s something unprecedented.  Striving to achieve amazing things also means being flexible to adapt your goals when you have to.  Once you’ve done the best you can, remind yourself that this is enough.  It’s ok to readjust expectations.

Self-isolation need not mean social isolation.  Being connected to others in a supportive community does more than just help us feel better, it buffers the biological effects of stress hormones/pressure. It’s so easy to forget to reach out and connect but it’s still possible to experience the same sense of community and the same mental health benefit digitally.  One of the benefits of our era of tech is how readily we can now do this from our phones, tablets and computers.  A great example is the digital community in which I work: Big White Wall

Don’t just reach out to those closest to you, reach out to your wider group and be together with them online.  Giving support can be just as beneficial as receiving it.  When you do that, take a moment to notice how many non-sports areas of life you actually value really highly: family; relationships; friends; community; hobbies; spirituality; leisure; physical health; politics; caring for the environment; something else altogether.  Falling back onto the things that are important for each of us helps us through difficult moments and helps us manage unhelpful thoughts and feelings.

How do you advise athletes to cope with the increased levels of frustration and boredom?

A little worry or frustration can be useful if it nudges us to plan our way through difficult moments. Don’t revert to reading the news too much or ‘lurking’ on social media.  Set aside 10 minutes each day to get up to date with the latest developments, then that is enough until tomorrow.  If you are online for other reasons, think about what you post.  Share stories of coping, share care and support and share the things that have helped you.

Give yourself permission to focus on something else: a to-do list for today.  Any more worry about what might or might not happen in the future (or what cannot now be achieved) is not helpful for you or for others.

Routines are helpful.  I read a great thread about life on a submarine recently.  Submariners cope by routine: from making sure they rise early, wash and dress; all the way through the other aspects of the day.

There are lots of ways to help you get back into the moment right now, whether free mindfulness resources online, or anything else that pulls your focus into the present.  This enables us to cope and to problem solve.  Is there something you can take the opportunity to get done?

Your full training plan might not be possible for now but movement is still medicine.  Set yourself a goal to find the best ways of staying active and fit for your own situation.  For most people (except in situations of exercise dependence or disordered eating) any activity – however little – helps your mental health. Try to find some physical activity that is fun and enjoyable for each day.

Tim’s biography:

Tim is a medical doctor and consultant sports psychiatrist.  For many years, Tim has worked across the spectrum of wellbeing and performance with both individuals and teams in elite football, in the Olympic and Paralympic Systems, elite rugby, cricket, tennis, horse racing and many other areas.  He is one of a very small number of experts to have undertaken dual postgraduate training in applied sport and exercise psychology.  He understands the culture of professional sport and the unique pressures that come with this. Tim is also clinical director at the Big White Wall, an anonymous online mental health service with projects across sport, both in the UK and internationally.

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.

11 weeks to race day…Performance Profiling

RP half photoI missed a blog post. I’ll go back to the ACT stuff when I get some time but in the hope of catching up and getting back on track here is where I am at 11 weeks to go.

Running wise I’m on track. Three full weeks of complete Green in training peaks. I have a very surprised coach! I have a very surprised me too if I’m honest. I’ve actually liked not thinking about training – just doing whatever I’ve been told.

I also snuck in a race. I thought I was working all weekend but on Thursday realised I’d messed up my diary and would be free on Saturday. About 30 seconds later up popped a facebook advert for the Richmond Park Half Marathon. It was on Saturday morning and only a 20 minute bike ride from home. Bingo.

The race was lovely. Absolutely freezing to start with so I massively overdressed and then overheated. I do this a lot! It was tricky terrain. Really muddy, soggy slippery ground. And hilly. But I used the ‘I love hills’ mantra and overtook people which was a nice boost. I had lots of show tunes in my ears (I don’t normally listen to music in races but wanted to see if it helped) and grinned the whole way round. Ironically S Club 7s ‘Don’t stop moving’ started just as I sprinted for the line. But 13.1 miles was enough for me so I stopped!

Monday I started on a cool new project – but it involved spending seven hours outside at an outward bound type place standing in very thick, deep wet mud – I really don’t do mud! I think it tipped me over the edge into illness as I woke up this morning with no voice and a very high resting heart rate so maybe I need an easy week to fight off whatever is unhappy with me. So Training Peaks might get a bit red this week but I’m ok with that. If we are pushing hard we can usually expect a week of marathon training to get written off with illness – an the expectation makes it much less stressful if it happens.

One of the techniques that has got me to the start of week 4 going all Green so far is doing a Performance Profile.

Performance profiling helps us really understand the barriers and obstacles holding us back. It helps us take our goal and turn it into actionable, focused plans – entirely tailored to us as an athlete – and highlights what will make the biggest difference to our performance.

There are various ways to do performance profiling but my favourite starts with thinking about the characteristics of a person who has already achieved our goal. So for me that is someone who can run a 3:40 marathon. What would they be doing in terms of:

  • Lifestyle and support
  • Technical and tactical skills
  • Physical preparation and fitness
  • Logistical planning
  • Psychological behaviours and tactics.

I then rate the importance (I) of each characteristic on a scale of zero (not at all important) to 10 (extremely important) to help me prioritise the elements which will make the biggest difference.

Next, I consider where I am right now (R). This is where you have to be honest if it is to be effective. Again we score out of 10.

Finally, we work on our discrepancy score; I x (10 – R). We put the highest scoring areas (up to about 10) into our goal setting – often as specific process goals so we can be focused on improving them. Here is my profile:

Performance profile photo

The elements in red went into my goal setting. I’ll explain about my goal setting next week. Which will give me  a great prompt to check in with each goal and make sure I’m on top of them all.

 

 

 

 

13 weeks till race day… motivational philosophy

Richmond 10k medal

So the first proper week of training for Paris Marathon. It went well. I really love having a goal, especially one I’m genuinely excited by. I know why I am excited. My favourite psychological theory (yes – I realise how sad that makes me) is Self-Determination Theory. It says that in order to feel fully motivated for anything we need three pillars in place:

  • Community – we need to feel part of what we are doing, have friends in our sport, have experts we can call upon. We need to feel like part of the gang.
  • Competence – we need to feel like we know what we are doing in our sport and we have the skills to carry it out.
  • Autonomy – we need to be able to choose our own goal and choose how we get there. We really need to feel like we control our own destiny.

To stay fully motivated then I need to make sure I have the three pillars in place and I do:

  • Community – I have got this through being a member of a club (I’m a member of Serpentine Running Club which as one of the biggest clubs in England has lots of people to inspire me), using social media (I follow loads of amazing runners of all speeds and sizes and distances) and have built up some brilliant friends who run so I feel comfortable talking about running with them. I’m also married to a runner so very little negotiation is required to get a Saturday morning Parkrun in or to have a weekend taken up with races. And two of my closest friends have said they’ll come over to Paris to watch me run which will be awesome (and a good incentive not to be pathetic!)
  • Competence – If I was attempting something like fell or mountain running I’d be completely out of my depth. But running a flat road marathon on a course I’ve done twice before is fine. I know I have the physical skills to do that. My journey will see if I have the psychological skills to do it in the time I want though. I’m keeping a training diary so I can give myself evidence of my competence as a runner.
  • Autonomy – I picked this goal myself. I love the race; the atmosphere, the course, the weather at that time of year and I promised my daughter she could go up the Eiffel Tower after she missed out due to fog last time we went to Paris. I’ve also picked my own time goal. One which isn’t too unrealistic (I hope) but fast enough it will scare me into working hard.

With these in place my motivation is as high as it could be. And that is probably why (alongside having this blog for some accountability) I achieved my first ever fully Green Week on Training Peaks. Never been done before.

Green training peaks

I also got to finish the week with a race. It was a 10k in Richmond Park. I ‘warmed up’ with a 5k jog to make it count as my long run and then went harder for the 10k. Chatted to a lovely guy for the last 2k who told me he was coming back from ACL surgery and so instead of taking it so seriously like he used to now he was grateful for every mile he was able to run. A wonderful reminder of how lucky we are to be able to be active and to savour the moments (even when hot and sweaty and your lungs and legs hurt and you’ve just run through a massive pile of deer poo). And it really helped that I had both my mum and my daughter cheering me on the end – it pushed me towards a sprint finish! As a bonus my husband came third in the men’s race and won some wine which I’ll kindly help him drink tonight. 

Next week I’ll explore the start of my goal setting for this race in the shape of an approach to therapy that I love (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) and the matrix we use within it to help us overcome what holds us back.

Tips from the top: The Sleep Expert

Dr David Lee is the Clinical Director of Sleep Unlimited (www.sleepunlimited.co.uk). Most of his work is helping people with insomnia get some decent sleep but actually lots of what he teaches is brilliant for athletes – helping us understand ourselves, our sleep preferences and our circadian rhythm so we can perform at our best.

Here Dr Lee answers four questions – adopt his advice and you may be able to improve your performance.

  1. How can athletes understand whether they are an owl or a lark?

Most people can identify their preferred time of day just by asking them and there are three ‘chronotypes’: larks, owls and ambivalents.  If you prefer being up early and in bed early then you’re ‘larky’, if you like to get up late and go to bed late then you’re ‘owly’ and if you don’t mind then you’re ambivalent.

2. As most races are in the morning how can owls prepare well so they do not feel tired?

If athletes are well rested on the days (and nights) preceding a race then they should do well whichever chronotype they are.  It is possible to shift your routine for a while, so in the week before a race you can stay up late for a couple of nights and get up early (in synch with the race start time), this will build some ‘sleep pressure’ that will enable you to go to bed earlier and shift your routine backwards for 4 – 5 days before the race.  If it’s a really big event you could try to shift your sleep back a few weeks before so that you are properly entrained to your new routine before race day.  Remember though, that if you are an owl you’ll always have the propensity and innate desire to shift back to later get up times and bedtimes after the racing is done!

3. Why is it important athletes understand how their personal circadian rhythm works?

We peak and dip every 90 minutes as part of our natural body rhythms and it can be very useful to recognise this for a number of reasons:

  • It can help explain reduced performance so we don’t ‘beat ourselves up’ about not performing maximally (it’s just a dip);
  • We can change our gameplay if we know we’re dipping – consolidate – pace – go easy, then 45 minutes later when we’re peaking we can adjust our approach – burst – attack – go hard.
  • We can be more vulnerable in a dip, more likely to make rash decisions, eat the wrong foods, gamble, drink, smoke etc… so if you know about the circadian rhythm and the impact of dipping we can ‘wait 15 minutes’ if we’re feeling vulnerable, this will allow the dip to pass and then we’re less likely to be tempted into self-destructive behaviours as we’ll be more resilient as we go towards and then through a peak.

4. How can athletes identity their circadian rhythm timings so they can train when they will be in a peak?

Easy.  Look out for a naturalistic yawn.  We all do these multiple times a day (often after lunch, and especially in the evening when we’re tired).  Clock the yawn.  Then add 90 minutes onto that time to predict your next dip and so on around the 24 hour clock.  Ninety minutes, or an hour and a half, goes into the 12 hour clock eight times, and if you’re not jetlagged or shift working, or the clocks haven’t just changed in October and March (all things that disrupt the circadian rhythm), then your dips will be consistent around the 24 hour clock – e.g. a dip at 11am will correspond with a dip at 11 pm.  Once you know when your dips are you can:

  • Plan rest in your exercise routines;
  • Plan ‘go easy’ in races;
  • Add 45 minutes onto your dip times to predict peaks when you can go for it in training.and on race day!

 

Project Paris…

Paris Logo

I ran my first marathon in 2004. I’ve run one most years since then. But I’m not convinced I’ve ever really tried to run one properly. In fact, I’m pretty sure I haven’t because while being a sport psychologist is fantastic for helping you understand how you can improve in your sport, it is awful for exposing you to your weaknesses. When you spend all day with people striving to be the best in their sports or fields there is no hiding your self-awareness as to where you don’t stack up. I know I have an inner Homer (Simpson) and my spiritual home is the sofa, not the treadmill. I know I negotiate with myself that as long as I’ve done something (even though it is not the session my coach set) then I’m happy with that. As a positive it means I am rarely anxious about my sport and enjoy racing.

In fact, this process; trying to put my sport in context, seeing it as clearly just a hobby and not feeling like my race times define me is a great strategy. It is one I often recommend with athletes who are becoming overly anxious about their sport. But… it leaves me with a niggling feeling I could go faster and I’ll never know. So, for the next 13 weeks I’m going to try and go down the other strategy I sometimes suggest; going all in. Setting a goal that really matters to me, preparing properly, putting in place all the techniques and activities I would suggest to the athletes I work with.

I can’t ever share what we do with athletes, but I can share what I do myself. So over the 13 weeks I plan to share:

12 weeks to go: Explain how I’m shaping my goal

11 weeks to go: Creating my performance profile

10 weeks to go: Developing my goal setting

9 weeks to go: Highlighting how I incorporate my values into my training

8 weeks to go: Identifying my weaknesses – and how I will try to overcome them

7 weeks to go: Identifying my strengths & turning one of these into my super strength

6 weeks to go: Using a training diary properly

5 weeks to go: Developing a magic mantra

4 weeks to go: Working on my what if plan

3 weeks to go: Designing my imagery around the marathon moment I’m most scared about

2 weeks to go: Chunking down my race and planning out tactics for each section

1 week to go: Creating my confidence booster

And to keep myself accountable I’ll be blogging it weekly – because I hope knowing that I have to type about it will scare my lazy self into following exactly what my coach sets. I know it won’t be easy. I have a business to run, amazing clients to see, an awesome three year old daughter I love hanging out with and a book deadline five days before Marathon date (yup – genius planning there!) but I’m genuinely excited about the challenge and knowing there might be someone out there following my journey should give me the kick up the bum I need to stay focused and diligent and consistent until April 5th when I get to run Paris…