This past week I did a swim workout that included three sets of 400s. 400s are not my favourite distance, and the final 200 of each set was supposed to be at tempo. I was dreading them right up until I had to do them. I started the first one and right away, my heart rate climbed and my form fell apart, because all I kept hearing in my head was, This is going to be hard.
In fact, it wasn’t hard. 400 metres is not very far. Three times 400 metres is not very far. As soon as I’d done the first one, I realized I had built it up into something much bigger than it needed to be. I relaxed. The second one was easy; so was the third.
The entire problem had been in my head.
The physical aspect of training is obviously important, but so much of sports is a head game. What we tell ourselves, what we think about, how much we obsess over results and performance—all of these have a huge impact on how we end up doing on race day. I’m beginning to see that how we think impacts how we train, and I suspect it impacts how we heal from injury as well.
I hate to sound like a Norman Vincent Peale book, but whatever you think you can or can’t do, you’re right. And the more attached you are to the results, the worse you will do. I don’t know why this is true; I only know that it is. The more something matters to you, the greater the chance that you will mess it up by obsessing over it.
My training plan is posted on my wall, where I see it all the time. Those long swims and four-hour rides loom. Mostly I look forward to them, but every so often dread creeps in, or the worry that I won’t be able to finish the scheduled workout—especially when the time or distance has been bumped up. And then that harmful self-talk starts up.
You’ve never ridden 100km. Maybe you can’t do it. You probably can’t do it. You’ll get to 90 and then what? Etc. Etc.
We can talk ourselves into, and out of, almost anything. It’s why exercise programs are so hard for many people to make a permanent part of their lives. They think: Oh God, the pool will be cold, and it’s early, and I’d rather be in bed, and the workout is going to be hard, and I don’t want to, I don’t want to, I don’t want to. So they don’t.
My body used to try to trick me out of swim workouts all the time. Before I had to leave for the pool, I would suddenly get cold, and my shoulders would get sore. I learned not to listen. When it comes to swimming, the only job I give myself is to pack my bag and get in the car, because I know the rest will take care of itself. With biking it’s only a question of putting on my shoes. (I don’t have this problem with running, because for me it has always felt like a gift. I don’t have to run. I get to run).
For the last few months, terror has been the main source of motivation for my training, but I now realize I need to rethink that. I need to stop telling myself I might not finish the race, or that it will be hard, or long, or painful. What it will also be is the race I’ve wanted to do for decades, and it will be in Whistler, one of the most beautiful places in the world. And I get to do it with two of my children.
One of my sons did the half-Ironman in Whistler with me this past summer. He says (and I agree) it was the most fun he’s ever had in his life. Ironman, he says, is just an opportunity to have twice as much fun.
Delusional? Maybe. But it’s my new way of looking at the coming months.
Last week’s ride was a milestone. They’re getting longer now. I’m excited!