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Chasing Potential - Stress & Mental Training

 Thursday, July 27, 2017

"Stress is Stress". That line was a key take-away from my time last week at the USATF Level 2 Endurance certification. It is not surprising, but is a good reminder that our bodies react in virtually the same way to stress, whether that comes from a heavy training load, sleepless nights with a young child, or a week crammed with intense learning, studying and finals. I'll write a bit about stress today, and will also frame up some mental training steps thanks to some tips from Dr. Justin Ross.

The USATF Level 2 course was held at Cal State Fullerton University, and for 6 days I had the opportunity to learn from my instructors as well as my classmates and roommates. The curriculum was built by Dr. (Coach) Joe Vigil, who established the running tradition at my alma mater, Adams State. That helped to give me a good framework for learning, since much of the language and concepts were familiar from my days on the ASC track & XC teams. This course took my knowledge to a higher level, as we dug deep into the periodization (organization) of training and to the adaptations created by different types of training. I'll share little tidbits along the way, but today's topic is all about stress! 

What does stress look like in that atmosphere? Here are some of the stressors I had to balance with training last week: 

  • Monday: Early AM tempo Run. Travel from MN to Los Angeles. Traffic. Settling into an apartment on campus where I'd be spending the week. Two Sports Science finals on our prep modules. 
  • Tuesday: Fire alarms woke us up at 12:45am. Spent about 15 minutes outside before heading back to bed. Cue the insomnia for the rest of the night. Early AM easy run (not too bad!) 2 more Sports Science finals before classes began.
  • Wednesday: Early AM Anaerobic Threshold run, after fighting insomnia from all the excitement of the class. Fighting food sensitivities from the cafeteria food. Another day packed with lectures and meetings. 
  • Thursday: Day full of classes, rushing back to my room in between to attempt to get food I could tolerate. Working on a group project. 
  • Friday: Early AM run scheduled, but a surprise allergic reaction to the beet juice I was testing changed my plan. I got a few miles in, but felt crummy most of the day. Group presentation for our project, another meeting, study for finals. 
  • Saturday: Early AM long run - Coach MK Fleming suggested I cut back to from 16 miles to only 8-12 as my body was in a rough spot between Friday's allergic reaction, sleep deprivation, and cafeteria food that doesn't work well with my low-FODMAP diet. Finals. LA traffic, another meeting, and a late flight home. 

Whew. Is it any wonder it was not a great week for my running, though I learned so much that I can apply to our Life Time Run programs in the future? I'm spending this week trying to get back into the rhythm of my own training!

I passed, and officially have my USATF Level 2 Endurance certification!

So how do we manage stress and use running to positively enhance our lives as runners, parents, and/or employees trying to fit so much into our days? I have some tips from an expert, Dr. Justin Ross of Mind Body Health. (Disclosure - Dr. Ross has provided me with a couple of performance coaching sessions at no charge as I am adjusting to being a 'competitive' runner again. We have no formal partnership, but I appreciate the insights he has shared with me and my readers.)

Step 1: Find your “Why”:
JR: Connecting to the underlying reasons why running is important in your life is critical to being able to sustainably create a lifestyle that supports engagement in this sport. The foundation includes motivation, goals and commitment. Foundational elements, especially when it comes to goals, need to be both specific and meaningful - the more meaningful a goal the more likely we will be willing to put in the work to achieve that goal. Start by asking yourself a set of very simple questions - Why is running important to you? What does running provide to you in your life?  What are the running goals you want to achieve?

Step 2: Permission
JR: Permission is critical. Especially as busy parents (trust me, I get it too, I have a 5 year son and a 3 year old daughter) you have to give yourself permission for self care and time to train. We tend to be great caretakers of others, or working on the never ending to do list, but we often fail to give ourselves permission to work on individual goals. One of my favorite sayings is, "Everything you say yes to means you're saying no to something else." Start by noticing what is you are already saying yes to in your life. You have to give yourself permission to say yes to engagement in activities that are personally fulfilling, even if that means you are then saying no to something else. The only possibility for goals to be obtained is through disciplined commitment. And commitment can only happen if you grant yourself permission.

Step 3: Self Talk is Critical
JR: If you're anything like me, you have a non-stop deluge of thoughts and self- talk in your mind. All day. Everyday. The narrative in our minds in large part shapes how we live. There's a simple and effective method for beginning on work on self talk. Start by noticing "I am" statements in your mind and work to make them positive, proactive, and connected to your goals. It could be as simple as saying, "I am going to give myself permission to train for such and such an event." The power of working on your self talk, especially "I am" statements is well within your grasp, and is the pivot point for putting you on the path towards success.

The tips above can help you form a framework for improving your mental game. Check back in the future for more tips from Dr. Ross, and to see how my 'game' is evolving as I prepare for the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon. It is my first marathon since Boston 2014, and the first time I have run Twin Cities since "the hot year" in 2007. I'll have to do some serious positive self-talk to pump myself up for "the hill" leading up to Summit Ave!

Dr Justin Ross is a clinical psychologist in Denver, CO, specializing in sports performance psychology. He has been an endurance athlete for 10 years, competing in triathlons (70.3 distance) and more recently running marathons recreationally. He currently holds a 3:03 marathon PR and is working to run a sub 3, hopefully sometime later this season. Professionally, he loves helping others push through perceived limits and achieve their goals. He is available to work with athletes from anywhere in the country.

Last blog post: "Reset" 

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Rebekah Mayer, National Run Training Manager at Life Time Fitness. Follow me on Instagram at rebekah_mayer, on Twitter at @rebekah_mayer and our team at @lifetimerun. Find us on Facebook at