Just Breath, Relax, and Focus!

Just take a breath. All you need to do is relax. Its time to focus now! You can hear this advice often, in your own mind, from a coach to an athlete in sport, or in any other performance situation. But breathing deep, relaxing, and focusing well on demand is a skill like anything else.

Over the weekend, I watched the World’s speediest long track speed skaters at the World Long Track Sprint Championships in Calgary, and I was marveling at how efficient, relaxed, smooth, and powerful the best performers were. It was the perfect display of what appeared to be “Easy Speed.” In a sport when races can be won or lost by 100ths or even 1000ths of a second, every ounce of physical strength, speed and power, technical efficiency, tactical (pacing), and mental ability to push through the pain counts!

While physical strength, speed, and stamina aren’t built overnight, the mental ability to just breathe, relax, and focus when the stakes are high takes deliberate practice and experience as well. Many of the athletes took a deep breath, and relaxed their shoulders down as they toed the line. While racing it was apparent that the majority of the racers were putting 100% of their mental focus and physical effort into what they were doing. With a large crowd, high expectations, pressure to do your best when it counts the most, pressure to win or even win again, is it easy to just breathe, relax, and focus?

Plenty of research these days shows that the mind can activate the brain’s circuitry in ways that change the brains structural connections.  In other words, athletes can build the right neural circuitry to allow racing to evoke their ideal emotions, muscular tension, and mental focus under pressure. Mental activity can get the brain to fire off in specific patterns, and in turn send the right messages to the muscles. For example, its well-known that musicians and athletes who imagine practicing their instruments or sport, not only can maintain or enhance their physical skills, but demonstrate alterations in brain growth! Mental imagery is often practiced in conjunction with breathing, meditation, and muscular relaxation exercises, all which take time to master!

On a parallel note, I approached my first experience giving birth as the ultimate test of my ability to mentally prepare. Although I could physically prepare through keeping my body in shape, I obviously couldn’t physically simulate the effort or intensity involved ahead of time.  Since the majority of us associate the word childbirth with pain, I wanted be as ready and as mentally tough as possible to get through it. To prepare I followed a program called Hypnobabies for about 3 months. For 4-5 times a week I followed progressive guided, relaxation meditations. As a bonus each session left me feeling very relaxed and refreshed. In the end, the training certainly didn’t take away the pain, but it allowed me to focus through it, to focus on using only the muscles I needed to, to relax the muscles I didn’t need to be using, and relax and recover much better in between the highest efforts of increasingly intense contractions!

It is fascinating and empowering to realize that our mind, our mental, subjective side of reality, has the powerful ability to change our brain, the objective, physical/neural side of reality!

The Biggest Parenting Muscle?

Like most relatively new parents, I tend to think of my life in terms or pre-kids and post-kids. My husband and I joke about how pre-kids we were in control of our time – we determined when we could relax, when and how long to sleep, or when we could just chill and watch a movie. We also thought we were busy pre-kids!

And while it is always a challenge to get back in physical shape and workout consistently with all the extra (but rewarding!) demands of children, another big muscle gets extremely challenged to grow much bigger when kids come along. It can grow via many different stimulations: a child waking the middle of the night while you’re in a deep sleep, children waking up for the day much earlier than you would like, trying to get kids out the door and in the car in order to be somewhere on time (and then whining in the car while driving!), constant cleaning and picking up food off the floor for the third time in 5 minutes, waiting out a toddler’s tantrum, dealing with sibling squabbles over toys, reading a favorite story for the 5th time in one day, endless questions that begin with “Why”….the list goes on! 🙂

As defined by the dictionary, you know this muscle has grown, stretched, and been strengthened if you’ve increased you’re ability to:

1. Bear or endure pain, difficulty, provocation, or annoyance with calmness

2. Exhibit calm endurance through pain, difficulty, provocation, or annoyance.

3. Be tolerant and understanding.

4. Persevere

5. Calmly await an outcome or result without haste or impulsiveness

Yes, this muscle is called Patience! And I know I’ve had to work on it! Pre-kids, I could easily say I’ll never be THAT parent – the one raising their voice a few octaves too loudly at their kids, pulling them by the arm a little too gruffly in frustration, offering them candy or other junk food, allowing extra TV time – we all lose our cool or drop our intended standards at times – but like anything, we can learn from our mistakes and get better with practice.

Recently I’ve realized this “training” in building patience has transferred over to my athletic life as well. I don’t get as frustrated as I used to if a workout doesn’t go as I’d expected. I’m less of a potty mouth when I screw up technically on the mountain bike. I’m better at dealing with deviations from my pre-race routine. Heck, I’m happy to make it to the start line healthy, prepared and on time! I’m grateful for every OPPORTUNITY I have to workout, train and race. It’s not that I’ve dropped my standards as to what I expect from training and racing hard, but these tests of my patience have just put a new perspective on it all! And yes, mental toughness in sport can be improved and strengthened in quite creative ways if we are open to it!

Un Nouveau Monde: Focus and Persistence will Pay Off!!

It takes a big commitment. You must start with the fundamentals and be prepared to go through hours of basic repetition. You’ll have to break it down and be sure you understand all the rules. You’ll spend hours learning from the masters of it before you’ll be even close to putting it all together fluidly yourself. You can’t fake it. You can’t pretend you’re better than you really are. In a way, your current ability is the ultimate test of the focused effort and work you’ve put into it.

After our recent Christmas vacation in Montreal, I once again appreciated my persistence to learn the French language. It started in earnest while studying as an undergraduate when I spent one summer in France and another summer in Chicoutimi, Quebec as part of my studies. It demolished any anxieties I had about public speaking in English. Without it, I wouldn’t have much of a relationship with my mother-in-law, who only speaks French, or as much interaction with others from the culture of tourtière pies, fudge, poutine, the selection of choice of cheeses and wines, dramatic hand gestures, and pursed “O” shaped lips 🙂

When first dating my husband, I would struggle to follow the conversation around his family’s dinner table, and often what I thought they’d been talking about was totally wrong! Meanwhile J-F accused me of being shy around his family! I would also be exhausted from “comprehension concentration” after hour-long lab meetings in French in my Psychology lab at the University of Ottawa.

But with continued practice, I’ve come out the other side into what feels like a whole new world at times. I don’t panic when someone addresses me in French. I can catch and completely understand a passing French conversation. I can follow a lively dinner conversation, pitch in my own two cents easily, and even catch most of the jokes now. Watching television in French is relaxing and enjoyable. I can differentiate the Quebec and France accents and even some differences in the accents around Quebec. I can make myself understood easily enough in French. I am FAR from perfect but I am confident enough to call myself bilingual at this point.

As with the challenge of learning a new language, there are many parallels to striving to reach our most challenging goals as an athlete….

1. You have to be motivated and be able to answer the “WHY are you doing it question! I live in Canada, and I think it would be great if everyone could communicate in both official languages, my husband’s family is French, I want to be able to communicate with and understand, and fully experience the French side of my country. I also love the challenge of learning it! “Life is a journey, not just a destination” – Aerosmith

2. You have to be okay with stumbling and making mistakes. You can’t master a second language as an adult without being comfortable with making plenty of errors. You’ll repeat them often, learn from them, and eventually get it right. You need to spend many hours of focused concentration to comprehend the language before you can even begin to speak it and make coherent sentences. Nothing comes easily, especially at first. As in sports it takes countless hours to solidify those neuromuscular connections for the coordination needed for any given skill, as well as the time needed to build endurance, strength, speed, and power! Patience is needed for both!

3. You have to persist when it gets hard. Like physical mastery in sport, language mastery takes hours of practice, and it often gets tougher (e.g. converting all those classroom grammar lessons into conversational ability) before it becomes easier. Even at the highest level, the best athletes are always working to improve something when every edge in ability can count! And persisting at improving weaknesses is a challenging task! And if you’re getting into shape again, you may feel more sore and fatigued for a few weeks before you start to feel stronger and fitter!

4. You may never reach your ultimate goal but it doesn’t make the pursuit of it any less worthy! I have the goal of being perfectly bilingual, but my French accent will never be perfect. I will continue to make grammatical errors, and have difficulties expressing myself as well as I can in English. But its been worth it!! I have richer relationships I wouldn’t have had without it, it’s pushed me out of my comfort zones, I’ve learned about French culture from the “inside”, it has opened doors in many ways given me confidence that I can achieve things I set my mind too, even when it feels impossible at first. Similarly in sport, if we don’t win the race, make the team, or reach our highest goal our efforts are not in vain!

What to THINK so races go by in a BLINK!

It was early June in Buffalo, New York during the 1500m heats at the 1998 NCAA Division 1 Outdoor Track and Field Championships. As I ran I heard my 800m split time – 2:10 – only 2 seconds slower than my best 800m race time that season but I didn’t care. I just went with it and was feeling great. Then we were through the bell lap, around the bend and with 300m to go, usually too early to start kicking I couldn’t hold back any longer. My legs were begging to unleash another gear and I started a long kick towards the finish. The entire closely matched pack seemed to surge towards the finish together and it was a photo finish between five of us. It was the most effortless 4 minutes and 18 seconds I had ever run.

I recently finished a popular and well-known book in my to-read list called Blink by Malcom Gladwell. His well researched stories site examples of “thin slicing”, snap judgments, listening with your heart, and following your intuition in contrast to deliberate, fully thought out decision making. It got me thinking about how peak performance in sport is related to the ability to just trust what was termed in the book as our, “adaptive unconscious.” On race day, the work is done, the pre-race thinking and strategizing should be mostly decided. It is time to trust all the hard work, the training, the “studying” you’ve done and trust your experience to take you through each moment. When we can tune into that zone where we let our adaptive unconscious guide us, we make decisions before we’re even conscious of why we’re doing them.

So when is it important to really think about what you’re doing in sport? And when is it important to just go, keep things as simple as a blink, just trust your feeling?

I was observing the short track speed skaters in Calgary the other day as they were focused on praticing starts, which are particularly important for the 500m distance they race. They had instant video feedback on top of coach and teammate suggestions for how to tweak things. It was a practice they could break down their body position and try different things. A time to really THINK about what they were doing. Of course, come race day, it will not be the time to be adjusting race start position, it will be the time to just “put it all together” and GO when the gun goes off.

Achieving peak performance more consistently in sport is much like becoming an expert on yourself and your sport. To know yourself and your sport well enough to be able to make decisions in a blink during performance means doing much of the thinking beforehand. Thinking beforehand means preparing yourself mentally and physically for race-like conditions in training, methodically experimenting with technique, equipment set up, and pacing while training. At a race it means getting to know the venue, having a plan A, B, C etc for race day, being prepared for ANYTHING and ANYONE! Unfortunately, potential great performances sometimes get interrupted by unexpected scenarios or conditions that cause over thinking and overanalyzing, instead of just quickly refocusing, and maybe even resetting the goal for the day with the most positive focus possible.

Focusing on a few key, simple things on race day can get you in the zone to get your best effort in, AND be over the finish line in what CAN feel like a blink! When I think back to my 1500m race at the very end of my track running career for the University of Washington Huskies described above, it was after 12 years of running and racing on the track. Peak performances like that didn’t happen every day but with enough practice and experience – I’m guessing I’d run at least 100 1500m races to date at that point – it was the perfect opportunity against optimal competition to run a personal best. With the right preparation I was able to focus on many of the ingredients that characterize a peak performance -confidence, optimally relaxed and calm yet focused and alert, positive, looking forward to the competitive challenge, ready to trust my instincts in the moment, and perhaps most importantly – ready to have some FUN!!

One of the few times an Xterra run has felt almost effortless, the 2008 World Championships

When Less is More!

My coach and I finished our second workout of the day today keeled over and sucking wind. At the top of the narly, steep hill in the rain soaked woods Cal exclaimed, “I am VO2 maxed!”. Once we caught our breath and started heading back down the hill, we chatted about how it is that time of the season, now under 3 weeks out from the Xterra World Championship, when it is mainly about high intensity and getting sharp. Hence, the reason I was feeling pukey for the second time in one day, first on the bike and then running! It is the transition time where training takes less time, but the effort is more, maximally more some days!

The race season can be long. With my first race each year being as early at late March and usually finishing up by the end of October, there are many ways I’ve followed the principle of “less is more” in order to arrive at the end of the season at the most important races feeling as fresh (mentally and physically) and fit as I possibly can. Here are the top ways I like to apply the “less is more” motto as an athlete….

1. Its not the end of the world to throw a training day out! This is what my brother Geoff reminded me of every so often when he coached me in my mountain bike racing days while at grad school in Ottawa. Whether it be due to the accumulation of outside stresses, feeling on the edge of getting sick, losing too much sleep as the parent of young babes, or feeling under recovered, throwing a day of training out never hurts once in awhile, and is WAY better than losing up to a week due to being sick!

2. Applying “Less is More” is a personal thing! Learning to respect when less is more for you personally takes some trial and error, good self-awareness developed over time, and trust in the purpose behind the type of training you’re doing (another reason a coach can help you maximize that time!). Unfortunately a number of athletes believe if they just do more than their competitors, and do the maximum amount of training that they can then their “hard” work will pay off. Learning to balance the quality of training versus the quantity at the appropriate time of the year on top of balancing the overall training load with work, school, life, and/or family is a fine art that takes practice, and wisely erring on the side or “less is more” from time to time can be the key to staying healthy and seeing overall improvement.

3. Racing less for more motivation! I’ve definitely had race seasons when I reach the final month or more of racing and I’ve felt like I’m just going through the motions. The drive to compete and push maximally at the end of a long season of racing can be tough if you don’t pace the race season. Figuring out what is optimal for you as far as number of races to enter, and how much time to spend away from home racing can make the difference in ending the season without feeling like your competitive fire has burned out! Pacing the season sometimes means opting of fun local races (since there are SO many in the Calgary-Canmore area!) in order to take real breaks from the emotions of racing.

4. Sleep – less can be more! If there is anything I’ve learned since becoming a parent its that I’m capable of a lot more on less sleep than I ever thought I would be! In my early days with my firstborn, Zoe, I often felt like I’d rather take a nap than get out the door and train. But once I got going, most of the time I would feel great. And the workout would leave me with more energy than I started with! Of course, in line with point number one in this post, once in awhile a nap is more important than completed a training session. I’ve learned not to sweat it when I’ve been up feeding or changing diapers too many times in one night, and because I no longer have control over what time my “child” alarm clock will go off in the morning! 🙂 And as for sleep before races we all know that how much sleep you get the night before a race isn’t nearly as important as the sleep you get two night’s before! And getting up early on race morning can be a good thing to wake up your body!

Embracing Pre-Race Nerves

I’m in Ogden, Utah. The weather is beautiful and sunny, about 25 degrees celsius, and the leaves are turning beautiful colors of red and yellow along one of the most beautiful Xterra race courses. Here is a sample of what the scenery looks like as we wind our way up the trails riding and running…

If I flashback to exactly one year ago, I would say the same things at this point. The only difference was I started vomiting all night before the race, and instead of starting the race at 9:00am with everyone else, I was heading back onto the Interstate northbound to start the long 13 hour road trip home. A big bummer!! So I must say, I am rather excited to be back again, fitter and a heck of a lot healthier condition than a year ago!!

And going into races these days, excited is often the word I use instead of nervous to describe my feelings. Of course, it hasn’t always been so…I’ve had my far share of bundles of pre-race nerves over the years! But maybe now that I’ve been racing for almost 25 years, and that I know every single race is a personal choice, I don’t like wasting any time being nervous in a negative way or dreading the race in any fashion. So here are my reminders to keep races fun, and nerves on the excitement end of the spectrum:

1. Accept any physical signs of nervousness as N-O-R-M-A-L! Everyone is unique as far as nervous symptoms but when I get dry mouth, lose my appetite a bit, get testy with my family, and start taking extra trips to the bathroom, I just go with the flow (excuse the pun!) and remember it is just my body getting ready for “go time”, and let it do its thing! No need to freak out when you start to feel a few butterflies.

2. Keeping investment-return worries in check. Yes, I’ve trained hard, yes I’m hoping to do well, but as I always like to remember and remind others, racing is only about 10% of the time you spent doing your chosen sport. There are just as many victories to be celebrated in the other 90% of the time you spend training, developing relationships and living the lifestyle that goes along with your sport. If you’ve done your best to make it all come together on race day, and can say you gave your best effort and focus at the end of the day then a “result” is icing on the cake!

3. Its your choice to race so you might as well enjoy the experience. What if I said you’re not allowed to race tomorrow? Or you’ll be sick? Or you’ll get injured or in an accident and won’t even be able to attempt your sport for awhile or forever? If you’re lucky enough to be in the position to choose (e.g. fit and healthy to go the distance as a start!) then don’t give yourself any excuse to hold back! Have a few perspective reminders in your back pocket in case excitment tips towards dread from time to time – also normal!

4. Stay focused on the “controllables”. As related to the above, if you’ve done everything in your control to be as prepared as you can for any given race including training, equipment checks, course scouting, strategizing etc within the time you have to do so then you can just enjoy the countdown to race time! And this also means sticking with what you know works for you as far as pre-race routines. I’ve seen and heard too many stories of athletes full of pre-race adrenaline thinking they need to make changes, and suddenly try something new right before a race, not always the best time to experiment – save that for training!

5. Finally, at the end of the day it is just a race! If you put all your self-esteem eggs into your racing basket then your life might be an emotional roller coaster! If not, you can give it your all and no matter how it goes, you can have lots more to look forward to when its all said and done. When I remember to smile during races it is because it takes way less muscles, helps relax the rest of my body and is because I’m looking forward to unconditional love at the finish line from my favourite little fans 🙂 Nico is with me at this race, but I’ll look forward to getting home to see “Princess Zoe” on Sunday….

Zoe, wearing her new Minnie dress, every day this week and counting since receiving it on her recent 4th birthday!!

Finding Flow with a Family

I’ve always loved the term flow, as opposed to its other synonmyms such as “in the zone”, fully focused or peak performance. In sport, or any other context in life, flow can be described at the times you feel completely absorbed in what you’re doing and totally in the moment (For a great book on it check out Flow in Sports). As an athlete, you may experience those rare training or racing days where time seems to slow down, your efforts feel effortless, and you feel in total control of what you’re doing. It is often the moments where the challenge is optimally matched with your skill level.

I think of mountain biking as a great example to illustrate flow in sport. If you are riding trails that are way beyond your ability level, you’ll end up walking more than riding, while likely throwing out many choice words in frustration. If you ride trails that are too easy, you could end up bored with nothing to challenge you. On the other hand, if you’re riding trails that are the optimal challenge to your present physical and technical abilities you’ll be fully alert and focused on what you’re doing, loving the thrill, and whooping with excitement!

Through working with many different athletes and from personal experience, it seems that our ability to find that challenge-skills balance in life in general can relate to our ability to experience flow in sport performance. Experiencing flow generally happens right in the middle of the continuum between boredom and stress or feeling overloaded. And for everyone that balance is completely individual. Some athletes perform optimally when they can focus 100% on their sport, and taking on any other commitments sends them into the stress zone. Others feel more focused when they are pursuing other goals such as school and work (and I could add for some of us raising a family!) at the same time. Everyone has to find the balance that works best for them, and it can be an evolving pursuit.

School is back in this week, and with all the nostalgic feelings of going back to school comes renewed enthusiasm to start new projects, study something new, sign up for classes, and buy new clothes! There are so many things we could do!!!  Just as we as athletes strive to find flow more consistently in sport performances by balancing all the demands optimally, we can also practice some of the same principles as we parent and figure out how to balance a family by remembering things like…

1. “Over-reaching” from time to time is okay. Over-reaching is the type of fatigue an athlete may feel after a hard training block or competition, and is readily reversible after a few days. Some weeks of training or life in general are crazy. We can get through them if we can see a rest time to look forward to at the end to reset the balance.

2. The art of saying “No.” It is unbelievable how many activities I could sign myself or my kids up for these days! Between lessons, birthday parties, work commitments, training schedules, social invites, and day to day life it is easy to feel overloaded. I’ve had to work hard at saying “no” especially to fun things that I know will impact too much on my recovery as an athlete, my ability to be fully present at work, or on family time.

3. Prioritize what is important. Whether you’re a stay-at-home mom or a full time career mom, or somewhere in between, it takes just as much work to prioritize what is important for you and your family. Experiencing flow in life means being true to your values regarding career choices, family choices, and lifestyle choices! As moms, it is easy to get caught up in the so called “mommy wars” but the most important thing is striking the right balance between our needs and wants and time spent with our kids. If we are true to that balance we’ll likely be a better, more present, and hopefully patient mom to our children!

Finally, flow reminds me of the image of a river. A river keeps flowing smoothly. When it runs into obstacles like rocks or logs, it doesn’t resist them, it just reroutes and finds the best way around them. Those obstacles may be the days or moments we feel temporarily overwhelmed, but with proper time outs to unplug, to breathe, and to relax, we can get flowing again with our balance restored.

Motherhood motivation to keep moving!

My most recent running interval session was hard 800m repeats with very little rest. Often during such tough workouts, I say to myself at least once, why am I still putting myself through training that hurts so much?! Then I remind myself to refocus and just get through it one interval at a time. I also think about how satisfying the nice leisurely paced cool down jog will be if I hit all my pace times or even better! When I have temporary moments of self-doubt about why I continue to train and race or on the days when others make me feel like an oddball and say, ‘when are you going to slow down?!’, I remind myself of all the reasons that keep me pushing the pace….

1. Life is too short! When I was twenty it felt like I had an eternity of years ahead of me to train and compete. As the years roll by faster and faster, especially since my children have come along, I take being healthy, injury-free and simply having the time and support to get out and train and enter races less and less for granted. I do it because I can! And I will continue to keep fitness a priority at some level as long as my body allows me too!

2. I really do love it (most of the time!) After 25 years of year round training and competing I can admit how much I truly enjoy the athletic lifestyle! With the odd time off from injury and breaks from hard training during pregnancy, I’ve realized that I do enjoy pushing hard and testing myself in competitive races! For me personally, just going easy all the time can’t compete with the endorphin-high following a hard training session or race! Also, nothing compares to those moments of total absorption I experience while riding sweet single track on a mountain bike, during a run that feels effortless, or a swim where I feel like everything clicks!

3. I like doing something that scares me at least once per week! Training and regularly pushing my mental and physical limits is thrilling and makes me feel more alive! Coach Cal regularly throws workouts at me that make me wonder how I’m going to get through them. I may fear the intensity level or the length of the workout, but once I break it down and get through them it feels amazing and they are always money in the confidence bank! The same goes for things like riding a scary technical trail on my mountain bike, open water swimming in new conditions, entering a new race, conquering a new race distance, or getting in shape again after a baby. Every new barrier that is pushed is a motivational growth-spurt! So just go for it, what is the worst that can happen?!

4. The social bonds of sweating together! Some of my best friendships have developed through running, cycling, and now “triathloning” together with others. There is something about running, cycling, skiing, or racing along side others that forges bonds of friendship quickly! As a busy mom, it also kills two birds with one stone – socializing and working out at the same time! While at least half of my training is done solo if I didn’t have at least a few social training sessions per week my motivation would drop pretty quickly!

5. The satisfaction of setting and meeting goals! Improving is always fun! Even though my speed and endurance will eventually diminish over time, I still get excited by working on improving my swim technique, technical skills on my bike, flexibility for running, and ways to train, eat, and recover better. I’m lucky to have a coach that is creative and keeps training fun with lots of variety and new ideas. For those of us that compete, time spent racing is only a small percentage of our time spent in any given sport. Enjoying the daily training performance victories are just as important as meeting race day goals for long term motivation!

6. Role modeling an active lifestyle to my kids. Being a role model is a bonus motivation for me to stay active. My husband and I want to be able to be active alongside our kids in whatever activities they enjoy growing up. I also admire my parents physical fitness levels now in their mid-sixties, an age where taking care of yourself over time really starts to pay big dividends! I love the fact that I can still go for a mountain bike ride with my dad now, and he really doesn’t slow me down much at all! All my favorite coaches have been people who compete themselves, have trained with their athletes and so have motivated me through their role modeling.