Training for a Spartan Race? While you’re building up your body’s capabilities, take some time to sit and think.
People who forget the crucial part that the mind plays in getting them to the finish line faster and stronger are generally the ones who flop out of the race halfway through. Not because they’ve reached their limit, but because they’re telling themselves that they have and decided that it's OK to ditch their race-time dreams.
But the savvy racers are the ones who know that their body will only get them so far. The smart tactic is learning how to think themselves faster. And lucky for you, we’re going to tell you how to do it.
But first, let’s have a quick lowdown on why the mind can be your worst — and best — tool in your race pack.
Functions and Focus of the Mind
“The mind has several basic functions,” Lindsay Nixon, founder of coachingconeXion and a registered ACUK coach who works with entrepreneurs and competitive sports teams and their trainers around the world, says. “The first one is survival, and after that, it’s the most optimum use of resources. So when we’re feeling a little bit fearful, thinking that we’re going to fail or we can’t go on, the mind starts focusing on what it feels it needs to resolve and how it can best use whatever resources that it has left in the tank.”
Most of us are already aware that when our bodies face a stressful situation, our mind, by default, is programmed with a fight, flight, or freeze response. This is rooted in prehistoric man’s daily dance with extinction. But while these days we’re not worried that we’ll end up as a bear’s breakfast, our minds still perceive threats — whether it’s a hungry carnivore at our door or a Spartan rope climb from hell.
So how do we pull back our fear and stop our minds from mucking up our race plan?
Thinking Tactic No. 1: Stay Present by Distracting the Mind
“In a critical situation when the mind has perceived fear (which in modern times can be stress or extreme doubt) and is trying to come up with a solution of where best to place its resources — i.e. fight, flight, or freeze — we need to distract it," Nixon says. "One of the best ways to do that is through active mindfulness.”
Active mindfulness involves coming into the external environment from the internal one.
“It’s about using your five senses to become totally aware of what’s around you,” Nixon says.
For example, jumpstarting your hearing sense may make you suddenly aware of spectators’ cheers or the shoutouts of support from fellow racers. Focusing on the sight of others crushing challenges that are making you queasy can give you the grit to get moving again.
By being fully present in the sights, the smells, even the touch of your sweaty t-shirt, the sound of your feet on the trail or the taste of fresh air (likely mixed with a little mud), “you are,” Nixon says, “using external stimulation to get you outside of yourself and your fear.”
However, active mindfulness takes practice. When you’re feeling beat or fearful, it’s not a button that you can just press.
“But you can strengthen your ability to distract the mind in your workouts and training,” Nixon suggests. “Every time it starts feeling tough and you want to call it a day, focus on becoming present to all that you can see, hear, and smell around you, and continue your training at the same time.”
Thinking Tactic No. 2: Use Motivation and Activation
Nixon, who has worked with several professional basketball players and other athletes through her exclusive high-impact M.V.P. training program, claims that a key component to getting your mind race-day ready is knowing your motivation and then activating it.
“Motivation and activation are two very different things,” she explains. “Motivation is your reason for doing something, your ‘why.’ It drives you in a deeper way, but you have to understand it to utilize it. Your motivation to race could be to provide a good example of healthy living to your children. Or you might be racing to raise money for a charity close to your heart.”
“Activation is remembering that ‘why’ and initiating it," Nixon continues. "It’s often the mantra or statement you make to yourself such as “I’ve got this!” or “I can do it!” These statements aren’t always effective unless you have that extra layer of what’s motivating you to hold them up. Thinking of your child’s proud face when you cross the finish line gives the statement, “I can do this!” the power that it needs to make it true for you.”
Thinking Tactic No. 3: Work on Your Mental Diet
‘We are what we eat’ is a maxim that serious Spartans and other athletes all know to be true. That’s why nutrition is such an important part of training. But as Nixon sees it, “What we consume through our minds is as important as what we consume through our mouths.
“We measure and determine the right nutritional needs to meet the physical demands of training and performance, but we often don’t consider that the information that we’re taking in from the world and the people around us can limit our abilities,” she says.
Are the people in your life supporting what you’re doing, or are they undermining your confidence? Does the data that you consume daily through television, movies, music, or what you read bring you down, disturb you, or even make you angry?
Nixon explains how the ribbing that you’re receiving from your best buds about your Spartan goals or the hour-long dose of global news that you’re devouring just before you hit the sack might actually be hurting rather than helping.
“The mind only works with certain ingredients,” she says.
- Beliefs, which can be limiting or empowering;
- Emotions, which, simply put, are either love or fear-based;
- Values, which highlight what is important to us;
- Facts, i.e. real information, such as “I’ve trained for this,” or “I’ve run this course before; I know I can do it.”
“If we’re consuming data that is impacting our beliefs in a limiting way or making us value what people who don’t really matter to our lives think of us, or causing us to forget real facts about what we can actually do, then we need to make changes to our mental diet,” Nixon suggests.
That doesn’t mean ghosting our friends or cutting ourselves off from what’s going on in the world. But it does mean recognizing where we might need to pull back from a negative information overload or from people who leave us deflated rather than pepped up and determined.
“A poor mental diet can affect our motivation,” Nixon says. “It can affect our ability to get fully present and it can affect how we show up. And here’s what is really important to know: How we show up on race day is actually a reflection of how we show up and live every day.”
And if you can truly grasp that, then you'll have no problem thinking yourself across the Spartan finish line.