Whether we like to admit it or not we are creatures that seek pleasure. Seldom do we seek out what makes us uncomfortable. In fact we tend as a society look at “those people who do enjoy pain” as deviants. Many athletes indeed push themselves. But the curious thing is that even there, most athletes stay within certain limits. These limits in fact we (Mental Game Professionals) refer to as comfort zones.
We become accustomed to a certain level of discomfort that we wish to experience. Often when an athlete seems to do all the right things – nutrition, hydration, strength training, cross-training, track work, long runs, tempo runs, goal setting, etc. – there is no breakthrough. Though there can be many causes I have found a common theme in so many of them. That is in fact the aforementioned comfort zone.
These athletes may be some of the best around or novices. Learning to push beyond one’s comfort zone does not happen like magic. It does not happen with a lot of wishing and praying. It does not happen by just thinking about “pushing” more.
All athletes are unique and so to find the elements that optimize the breakthrough takes some work. (NOTE: I use the word “optimize” because there are never guarantees and the physical must coincide with mental work done.)
Where do you begin?
First you do indeed have to have all physical aspects cared for.
Remember that mental game training is the equivalent of taking your foot off the brake. It allows your body to perform to the fullest ability it has been trained to. It does NOT allow for performing above what you are capable. Despite the dramatic use of “giving it 110%!” pleas from coaches… there is NO such thing. By definition 100% is everything. We perform at some level less than 100% most of the time and rarely does anyone truly experience 100%. One other way to think about it is after a race to ask yourself – is there anyway at all I could have run even 1 second or even 1/10th of a second faster? If so, then you never did 100%.
You must integrate mental toughness training into your workouts.
You must experiment in practice with a variety of pacing strategies to experience discomfort and the unexpected.
You must challenge your beliefs of what you are capable of and take the chance – to go out harder than usual and give yourself the opportunity to break through. Staying at your old race paces day in and day out will not lead to new PRs.
You must get to a point of physical fatigue that you would typically end a workout and then… do just one more (ok sometimes two more).
As some of you know who work with me, I will conclude workouts with an extra repeat or two not on the workout schedule. This is both for physical and mental training.
Sometimes it is as simple as removing time references. You run without a watch or splits. Stop limiting yourself by staying with your established workout pace and go by feel instead.
Once you expand your mind to experience discomfort and cope with it successfully you find that in races you will be able to do the same thing.
Final word: This does not mean that every workout has to be crippling hard. You must train smart and integrate these strategies at the right time and right amount. It also doesn’t mean pushing yourself to an injury you must read your body and understand the difference between discomfort that warns of impending injury and discomfort that your mind is telling you it’s ok to back off.