The Mind is the Athlete

By Ryan Warrenburg, ZAP Fitness

All those who attend a ZAP Fitness Adult Running Camp leave with a t-shirt donning the phrase “The Mind is the Athlete” on the back. The phrase comes courtesy of ZAP co-founder Andy Palmer and stems from his background as a sport psychologist. All runners seem to acknowledge the importance of mental side of running, but most dismiss that truth when it applies to them. It’s as if the theory of mental training is important, but the practical application is always for someone else to work on.

The reason people tend to ignore the mental side of training is it’s easier to implement physical change. It’s quantifiable, easy to see, and can be implemented on your run this afternoon. Changing our mentality takes much more time and effort, and because the physical and mental are inextricably linked, the opportunity to ignore the mental side and confine our attention solely on the physical side always exists.

The linkage between the mental and physical components isn’t a simple cause and effect relationship, that misconception is another way people dismiss the mental side of training. It would be naïve to tell someone the mental side impacts the physical side of training but not the other way around, yet this is how most people view the mental side. Generally, when you are in great shape you have more confidence standing on the start line. If you truly believe in yourself you stand a better chance of racing well, but confidence alone doesn’t get you to the finish line.

If you’ve ever played a game of pickup basketball you know what I’m talking about: the guy who believes he’s the Michael Jordan of YMCA basketball. Every time he gets an inch of space he’s shooting the ball. Every time. He may only make 10% of his shots, but it’s not for lack of confidence; he truly believes all those shots are going in when he lets them go. He’s got the mental side down, even if he’s lacking a bit in the physical department.

Elite Minds

In the book Elite Minds, author Stan Beecham discusses the importance of expectation. To me this is the critical component of the mind-body connection in running. The very best athletes stand on the start line expecting to win. They don’t hope to win; they expect to win. Obviously not everyone can win the race, but only when you expect to win do you get the best out of yourself. Now if you’re running the New York City Marathon chances are you’re not going to win, and it won’t help you to believe you will.

As Stan puts it, “you’re not trying to be the winner, you’re trying to be a winner.” The trouble with this concept is most people don’t practice this mentality. If they do it at all it is generally in an attempt to work up some confidence the morning of the race. And while the thought of confidence is there, the belief may not be. As Stan explains, thoughts are conscious while beliefs are the unconscious truths we hold about ourselves.

Create a Belief System

As a coach I’ve been guilty of fostering thoughts rather than beliefs. Before every big race I talk to the people I coach about going to the start line with confidence, I tell them to look back at all the hard training they’ve done in preparation. If the training has gone well then those thoughts can more easily create a belief in success, but that is the easy and less effective scenario. It doesn’t mean there’s no value in it, most runners would benefit greatly by just being able to calm the nerves of self-doubt that swirl around their head the night before or the day of a race. However, creating a belief system and expectation for success runs much deeper than that, and will put you in a better position on race day.

In order to create an environment that optimizes your chance for success that expectation must exist well before you are standing on the starting line. The expectation that you are going to succeed should be with you every day from the start of training. As Stan points out, that belief might start as a thought, but that’s the first step to changing an existing belief system.

If you train with the expectation of success every day you will create a belief system built around that expectation, and elevating your daily expectation will elevate your end result. Train for what you will do on race day, not what you want to do or what you hope to do. It can be an uncomfortable thought. Having expectation makes you vulnerable to failure, and the fear of failure often overrides the belief required to be your best.

Pain is the Desired State

Being uncomfortable, however, is what distance running is all about. Whether it’s the uncomfortable notion of facing fear right in the face or the uncomfortable feeling of pushing hard through the middle of a race. You could insert any number of “real world” analogies here, but I digress. My college coach always told us to “embrace the pain.” The last time Stan spoke to our ZAP elite runners he challenged them to embrace the pain. It’s natural to wish away the pain in the middle of a race or workout when it gets difficult. However, as Stan writes, “If you are wishing away the pain, you are also wishing away the thing that’s going to make you better. Pain is the desired state.”

Embracing the uncomfortable and creating a belief system of expecting success are two of many mental tools you can use to help improve your physical performance. You don’t have to rely on your physical progress to pull your confidence along, and teasing out the difference between the physical and mental is as difficult as it is futile. Rather than thinking about them as two distinctly different things, view them as one. After all, the mind is the athlete.

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*This Article Originally Appeared in the May 2015 Issue of Running Journal