Exercise is a huge part of my life. I typically work out six days per week, alternating between running, Crossfit, rowing, and indoor rock climbing. While I consider myself reasonably fit, lately I've been feeling a little blah about my workouts.
Many times in the past few weeks, I've completed workouts and expressed frustration to my husband about my performance. Why can't I run faster? Why am I consistently the lightest lifter after more than a year of Crossfit? Why can't I finish a V2 boulder problem?
Last week, I finally snapped. We were having a lovely family Spring Break in Colorado, and I took a couple of days worth of ski lessons. I'd snowboarded maybe 30 days in the past few years, but I just never felt that comfortable on a board, and my husband suggested that I try skiing instead.
I felt like I made great progress in my first three days (minus an unfortunate and painful collision with my ski tip and an out-of-bounds tree). On the last day, my husband and I grabbed our 6-year-old daughter from her snowboard lesson after lunch, and we did a couple of runs together.
We started with the gentlest of greens, and I cruised right down, feeling very confident. Then, my daughter wanted to go up a slightly harder green for our final run of the trip.
The run started out great. The grade was a little steeper than I had done, but I was busting out some beautiful S-turns. Then, we reached a short part of the run that was more like a blue (according to my ski instructor). I started a turn into a narrow space between two trees, panicked, and fell.
"Hi Mama!" my daughter cried, as she happily zipped right past my contorted body.
I stood up, cursed under my breath, made it a few more feet...and froze. The end of the bluish section looked steep, and I literally could not make myself start another turn down the hill. And worse (please don't make fun of me), I was so freaked out and frustrated, I cried. If you're thinking it couldn't get worse, it does. I unstrapped my skis and walked down the hill to the easier part of the run.
Side bar: If you have small kids and have dreams of family skiing, start them early when they are low to the ground and have no fear. I can tell you from experience, mountain sports are a lot more difficult to learn in your 30s and beyond.
At any rate, I was fuming on the ride home. When we got home, my husband cautiously (so as not to unleash the beast) said, "I was reading this article in Outside, and it was talking about mental training for athletes. I thought it sounded interesting."
That's all I needed to hear. I got back to our mountain retreat, found the article, bought the book, and immediately began reading it. I finished the 265-pager in two nights.
How Bad Do You Want It? Mastering the Psychology of Mind over Muscle by Matt Fitzgerald combines some page-turning sports writing with research on sports psychology. In the process, he explains how some of the world's greatest runners, cyclists, triathletes, and rowers have achieved greatness, overcome obstacles, and rebounded from failure in their athletic careers.
I don't think I am spoiling any plot points by saying this, because it is emblazoned on the back of the cover, but here is a hint: "The greatest athletic performances spring from the mind, not the body."
So why couldn't I make that turn on my final run? My body was perfectly capable--I just needed to do what I'd been practicing for days. My failure to perform was strictly mental. Which also explains why I struggle with an Olympic lift after going up five pounds, when I did the previous rep with ease. It's not a matter of strength. I think about how I am going for a PR, and I panic.
As I read, (nerd alert) I flagged key sections with Post-its, so that I could go back and try to apply some of the principles to my own fitness pursuits.
The timing is excellent, as I am repeating the hardest race I've ever done for the second year in a row in five days. It is a 25K through the woods, with close to 2000 feet of elevation gain. Last year, I got lost, ran 2.5 extra miles (17.8 total), and stood in one spot, cursing for 10 minutes.
This year, I have a plan, which I lifted directly from the book.
In the opening pages, Fitzgerald discusses pro-racer Alissa McCaig, who had a bad habit of choking during big races. After a particularly frustrating performance at the 2011 USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships, Alissa made herself a promise. Her next race, she would not be bogged down by expectations--she would simply run with bravery, try to have fun, and see what happened.
Using this strategy in the 2012 Olympic trials marathon, she ran the race of a lifetime, setting a personal record for that distance by nearly 6 minutes.
So this weekend, I will go out with a smile, enjoy the beautiful Missouri scenery, try to be brave when I am staring down a rocky hill, and just go for it. To answer the author, I want it bad--I just want to finish, rather than winning. Wish me luck.