It was when I started working down at IMG Training Academy in the summer of 2009 that I was first introduced to the area of sports psychology, or mental conditioning. As a runner for many years, it was an area I had never heard of, but that made complete sense. [Ever heard the term, "Running is 90% mental"?] According to the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP), sports psychologists help enhance sport performance in a number of ways, such as by: reducing performance anxiety, improving concentration, building self-confidence, and increasing and maintaining motivation. During my time at IMGA, I was able to sit in on a few of the mental conditioning sessions and experienced firsthand the critical role these professionals play for the development of the total athlete.
I was reminded of my interactions with these sports psychologists after competing in The Downer's Grove 5-mile road race last week. There is no logical reason why I should have done as well as I did, and I attribute much of the success to mental conditioning.
Coming into the race, I had been battling shin splints for about 5 weeks. At 25 weeks pregnant, I had already decreased my pace significantly, but knew that it was the extra belly weight that was wreaking havoc on my legs. Prior to the race, my training runs (if you can call them that) had consisted of 5-10 minutes of a warm-up at which time I was forced to walk due to the severe pain. The remainder of my workout was a run-walk combination of about 3 minutes running and 1 minute walking. As you can imagine, I went into race day fully expecting to have to walk, but actually determined to run. From a fitness standpoint, even though I had not run more than 2 miles over the previous 5 weeks, I was confident I could in fact run the 5 miles, as I had still been training in the pool, on the bike, and on the arc trainer at the gym.
My warm-up before the race provided little reassurance. Same story: ran for 5 minutes, severe pain, walked back to the race start area. While stretching, I began thinking about the race. Instead of thinking "I can't do this - why am I even trying?", I thought, "I know I can do this; I will do this - I just have to stay confident". I lined up for the race with the same positive mindset.
As I began the race, I told myself to relax and pick a steady pace. What happened during the race still baffles me. Was I in pain? Absolutely. However, it was controlled enough that I could keep running. I repeated one phrase the entire race: Feelin' good. Yup - the ENTIRE 5 miles. Any time I felt myself starting to think otherwise, I pushed those thoughts out of my mind and went back to "Feelin' good". I can't tell you who was running in front of or next to me. I don't know who was cheering on the sidelines. It was as if I had tunnel vision the entire race, but all I could see was the finish line. I had steady, but bearable leg pain the first four miles of the rolling course. I didn't dare walk for fear that I wouldn't start running again. At the beginning of mile 5, my shin/calf pain cleared up completely. While the cardiovascular exhaustion began to kick in at that point, I was so overjoyed with the relief of the calf pain that I didn't care. I finished strong, but very ready to see that line.
Did I have a great pre-race nutrition and stretching program? Absolutely. Did the weather cooperate? Yup. Had I been training otherwise to be ready to run 5 miles? Sure. I don't discount any of those factors because clearly they are all important. However, I can say with 100% certainty that it was really the mental stamina that got me through this particular race.
Interested in working with a sports psychologist? Read more here.