Cognitive Strategies for runners’

Work harder… train more… do more miles and get faster… you know that this is not necessarily true. Perhaps you have some injury that happened exactly because you followed that motto. You trained to hard and pulled a muscle…

Cognitive Strategies for Runners Achievement Perfectionism Blame game

Hi, my name is Heiko and thanks for joining me on Advanced Endurance Coaching, where we are all about improving the mind… especially for those runners’ over 40. It’s here where I want to share you with you my passion for training and developing mental skills, whether you are a runner looking to develop consistency, or you want to go for a new personal record, this is the place for you… and if you are a bit sceptic, hang in there as there might just be that nugget you have been searching for.

You’ve heard it all before, or seen it on websites, or cover of magazines….

No pain, no gain… or… you just need to give 110%.

Practice make perfect… and if you are honest maybe you fell for it every now and then.

I know I used to.

How and where did this come from…. All this power talk?

Well, apparently in 2001 a researcher at the United States military academy a specialist in cognitive neuroscience, wrote a powerful paper, where the main message was…. “displaying irrational beliefs of perfectionism over achievement help a athlete to be appropriately relaxed focused and motivated”.

So this is science talking.

And the word spread… not only in the military, but also to the sports world, where first elite runners picked up on it, and then many runners’ read that study, or heard about it and that was it… they took that advice and went with it.

Now, question… does this even apply to the average Joe, who just goes out and enjoys his run? Does he really want to get wrapped up in some or other psychological discussion and drawn into lengthy studies and research papers. Well if you look at all the social media posts, seems like it is a big thing. And do you think the readers understand the complexity behind it?

No, I don’t think so. But how about taking this superficial attention-grabbing headline and use it to start developing and improving cognitive skill set. Mental imagery skills.

Because that is one of the biggest building blocks that are in your hands. That is a huge topic that you can have under your control and can define as to how you want it. A factor you can have influence on, and that can change the course of your running.

No matter whether you are currently injured or looking for consistency or are running on a master level.

There are a number of ways cognitive strategies help your performance, no matter on what level you currently are at. And if by now you are even more sceptic than you where before, perhaps in your mind thinking I don’t know… hey hang on. Just remember the last time:

You bought new running shoes?

You select run gear?

You bought these products because some way or another you hope that they might give you some or other edge. Or perhaps you might not see much error in your running, and be satisfied with the current state. “Heiko I am good”….

Hmmm… Then I presume you are someone who has not set a goal that encourages and provokes you to asses and adapt your training when and where necessary. Maybe that lack of ambition makes that first marathon a dream you never hardly ever talk about anymore. Or that 10K personal best, is just a entry in your journal, nothing more. You never acted upon those goals. And every time someone mentions their accomplishment, you recall your goal and perhaps give it a shrug of the shoulder and avoid thinking about it. Which is a pity, because setting out on accomplishing a goal is such a incredibly rewarding journey, and even if you set the goal some time ago, come on use this moment to perhaps reconnect with that dream you had.

If however you are currently working towards a goal, perhaps a ambitious one, of a faster time, a new distance and are having the weight of expectation and defeating beliefs is something that will impede your performance.

And it does it in a sneaky way, so often athletes I work with only realize after using cognitive tools that they were far below their capabilities, limiting themselves based on groundless mental images that they had ingrained into their subconscious.

There is a reason why so many ambitious runners’ stick to “their distances”, “their routes”… it is inside their minds, something that they believe and are convinced of, that is holding them back.

Before I continue, what does cognitive mean, well it means anything that goes, or pardon the pun “runs around” into our mind. Be it words, thoughts, ideas and of course beliefs.

Then it is how you classify, or compare… your creative thinking ability, how you define, evaluate and hypothesize. How you identify, order and predict, how you reason and how you remember. Sjoe.. that was a mouth full

And now is the important part. These thoughts, these ideas, especially those that are set in stone… in order to grow as a runner, in order to improve…. they need to be questioned. But hang on, let me not get carried away yet.

The term is actually cognitive distortion. They are easy to spot. When I coach a athlete especially in a one to one basis, I pay close attention to the words he uses to describe his or her current situation.

And there are numerous key words I look out for, let me for the sake of this recording share 4 with you.

If I hear one of those, it gives me a lot of insight in order to start the mind training in such a way that the athlete immediately feels a positive improvement.

Please don’t judge the simplistic approach as not being serious enough this is backed up by science, but I guarantee you science papers are a boring read. There is so much information out there, on bookshelves, in libraries, in PDF’s, and such complicated and in-depth studies, that often even though the content is valid, are not relatable. The secret of communication between you and you athlete, lies in your ability to use these tools in a sports coaching environment. A hands-on tool. And that is part of the RESET program that is developed for runners’ specifically. Have a look at where you will find more details.

Back to the words…. It is a bit like google, anyone out there that has a website or wants to share something with the world out there via the internet…. Perhaps you launched a new website, poured in a lot of effort. Design, content all great. You launched it and for the first 3, then 6, then 12 months nothing happened. No one except your immediate family looked or even found your website.

Then after doing some research you realized…. “eureka, I need to pay attention to keywords”.

You need to pay attention to the specific keywords, same process where companies spend millions of dollars on, are what at the end of the day make or break a runners or companies position, to reach his or her goal. Hey, if google built a million… billion dollar empire out of this, it might just be worth our while to assess and check our keywords. Those words we associate with running…

So what are these key words that can apparently have this devastating effect?

Ok, here goes:

1. Always

And perhaps you have worked with a runner and you will immediately recognize and recall someone who does this.

“I always forget to pace myself”. Or perhaps…

“I always reach the 7K and then, no matter what I try”.

Whenever the word “always” is used in such a context you need to pay close attention. There will be more stories than the one your athlete is telling you about. Immediately probe with further questions, as it will reveal a lot about the person standing in front of you, and how he perceives his running.

In this case, the athlete is displaying white and black thinking, “either or”- thinking. Now I am not judging, just analyzing and using this as an example.

But if there are only two colors in the rainbow no one will look at it. It is nothing special. No options. It’s the colors that make you want to take a photo of a rainbow, and share it on social media, is it not?

So, if the word always, is used.. it leaves very little color… aah I mean options, except win or lose. It shows that the runner is restricted in his way of thinking, and this will impair his or her performance.

This is where you as a coach need to have a certain skill set to not only identify but also approach this topic in such a way that the athlete can accept it, and grasp the implications.

A lot runners’ define themselves via their successes in their sport. Means, the race result that they achieve is used internally as a definition of how they are perceived. If right now you are thinking, what? What is he talking about, congrats this obviously doesn’t apply to you. But, you, you that immediately paid attention when the word achievement came up … this is important to you. I once was invited to my neighbors 45th birthday party, and met a lot of people. When my neighbor introduced me to a couple as “Heiko is a run coach”, and immediately they shared with me their Strava, their distances this week, last week, last year. The races they had, and their times. Wow, I was flabbergasted.

2. Achievement

What happens here is that a 10K time, or Marathon time is used to determine the runners or the persons actual worth. This especially with people that have a certain need for self-worth and affirmation from others, eventually this builds up huge pressure. Yes, there is some good to be found… in a way, because obviously the performance might improve. But like ice cream, it is good if consumed in moderation, without any overexaggerated tendencies.

If not, the side effects are, that the idea of valuing themselves as a runner, in term of fastest time, start to lead to demotivation. The brain or body just cannot keep up this constant drive, this striving to grow.

Usually this is a easy one to spot in a athlete. The typical runner who has a strong training regime in place, does the hard work, but the enjoyment is not where it is supposed to be.

I said that I will mention four, so let me continue.

3. Perfectionism

Similar to the previous one. It is the runner who defines him or herself with a unrealistic level of expectation.

I will wait until I can run the 5K, 10K half marathon at the desired pace. Before I cannot do that, I will not attempt the race. And once she does the race, and is off target, the athlete will beat himself up about it. Will fall into negative self-talk, and reason as follows: If I admit it was still a good race, I might become complacent, or admit that I am satisfied with second best.

Now we have to be careful here, who are we to decide what is realistic or what not? And are limiting beliefs not meant to be discouraged even broken? I am confused right now…

As a coach or trainer, don’t let yourself get fooled by these pseudo arguments. Number one, the athlete came to you, seeking help. So yes, he or she does want there to be a reflection of their performance and their ability. Wants to get a clearer definition of “realistic”.

What you want to look out for is that in striving for perfectionism, there is a huge level of expectation which does every so often lead to a fear-of-failure paralysis.

And this leads to a knife edge kind of situation… desire to improve, and critique. How do you identify that, well simple, if I get a less that perfect result, I am going to criticize myself, and beat myself up about it. Perhaps even share a sad or frustrated Facebook post. This perfectionism or striving towards perfectionism needs to be identified and addressed with upmost urgency, as it can lead to a huge fear of failure and eventually opting out of the sport.

The perfectionist… this is the bad news.. there is no PB … ever… so how do you know if you are a peefectionist…?

Are you highly critical of your mistakes?

Do you always want to be the best?

You set black and white goals? Means you talk in absolutes?

You are a harsh critic to yourself…

You mull over outcomes.

You get extremely defensive if criticized.

4.) Blame game

This one I want you to try it right now. Tell me, just for a second: recall the last time you took part in a race had trained for a specific time. Took part in the race, and didn’t even get close to your time.

Got the race, that moment? Yes, sure you do. Now tell me, what was the reason you didn’t achieve the time you trained for?

Because the story you tell yourself serves a purpose. And sometimes we tend to respond:

The weather turned bad, I couldn’t keep up.

Or, the route was not marked clearly…

My personal favorite… I love hearing this after crossing the finish line: “my Garmin, or my Polar says that the course is two kilometers longer…something is wrong, that messed up my strategy”.

Social science has a name for that, its referred to not as blame game, that’s my definition, no its called recency effect. It has got to do with your own internal bias to give reasons for failure to something outside of our area of control. Its usually the athlete who likes astrology, UFO, crop circles….no, just kidding.

This type of reaction impairs a otherwise good performance.

The blame game basically states that you are not in control of how you perform–other factors determine your success or failure.

Think for a minute, this type of mindset minimizes your part in your performance.

This mindset is:

No matter how hard you work, your results are ultimately determined by other people or factors your can’t control.

The opposite of this mindset is taking responsibility for your results.

Sure, there are some circumstances outside of your control like playing time, weather and injury but the majority of your results are under your control… and that’s the way you should want it to be.

If you take personal responsibility for your success, then you have the power to improve your performance, consistency and attitude.

If you take personal responsibility, you will put forth more effort in practice…

You will pay more attention to the little things that can greatly impact your performance…

In the next episode, I will talk about the famous quote: “Whether you believe you can, or believe you can’t. you’re probably right”. – Henry Ford.

This is where I will reveal ways to unravel such beliefs. And who knows if you stay tuned you might just discover one you didn’t realize till then you had.

Thanks for tuning in, my name is Heiko…

Happy running and take it easy.

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