Do your acting skills help or hinder your athletic performance?

As an athlete, when you enter a competition, do you ever think of yourself as giving a performance? In a great little classic book called, The New Toughness Training for Sports, the author, James Loehr, makes the connection between great acting and “performing on demand”, a common catch phrase in sports these days.

When the best actors and actresses show up for work to do a scene, if they feel off, tired, have a headache, or are just under the weather, they still have to bring all their physical presence and emotions to the part they need to play! Great performers can act their way to the precise emotions they need to portray. There is plenty of research showing that by simply moving the muscles of your face in the direction of the desired emotion, genuine emotional responses can be elicited.

I’ve personally experienced this when mountain biking. As a beginner, I would often tense up when riding something that scared me. While I didn’t feel like it, if I forced myself to keep smiling while riding, my body would soon follow by beginning to feel genuinely more relaxed and happy and in turn ride more smoothly and more confidently! In other words, the physiological changes from acted-out or faked emotion are the same that occur in spontaneous, genuine emotion!

As an athlete, you may have many descriptions for how you are need to feel to perform your best such as confident, energetic, relaxed, excited, positive and challenged. If you are a bad actor on the athletic stage you probably just act out whatever emotions you happen to be feeling at the moment even if they are detrimental to your performance such as anger, frustration, disappointment, helplessness or high nervousness. On the other hand, if you have worked hard at mastering your “performer skills”, you can act out the positive emotions you need bring to the performance regardless of circumstances. And this takes practice, as James Loehr writes, “Emotions respond much as muscles do. The ones you stimulate the most become the strongest and most accessible.”

Just remember if you feel like doing this…

Act like this, and you will feel AND perform better…

Finally an acting quote, that highlights peak performance, regardless of the arena:

The difference between nailing a scene and turning in a mediocre performance is all about “being present in the moment” while “really being outside of yourself.”   – Judith Light, Actor and Activist

Paradoxes of the Athletic Life!

Listen to your body but don’t listen to your body. This is the paradox every one of us who strives to discover our potential as an athlete must live.

In the last month, despite the fact that I actually enjoy swimming the majority of the time, I had to spend a lot less time in the pool due to a sore shoulder, it was the kind of pain that was saying something is wrong here versus just “feeling it” due to the usual muscle aches or soreness from training fatigue. After making time for some physical therapy I have been back on track, fingers crossed for a little while longer! Being sidelined, even temporarily, from my normal training routine got me thinking about the fact that no matter what your sport or your goals, if you are trying to go faster, stronger, higher, or longer than your previous best, consider that you have to be smart enough to deal with the many parts of the athletic life that are paradoxical….

1. The Physical Paradox: You need to learn and know the difference between when to push through your training and when to back off if you may be edging dangerously close to injury or illness. You need to be open to pushing your limits so you’ll improve, but also how to pace your overall progression over the long-term to avoid over training or injury. There are times when you need every ounce of focus and mental detemination to overpower your body’s screams to slow down and stop like during full out interval training or a race, and other times when you can just let your body decide on and set the pace such as recovery workout or a long, easy distance training!

2. The Recovery Paradox: You need to know how to eat well enough so your muscles can recover and rebuild after training. If you are a cookie monster like me it takes the ongoing goal to practice awareness of the difference between my muscles’ need for increased calories and my body’s craving for unnecessary fat, sugar, and salt – everything in moderation is my motto! It is also being able to read your body well enough to know it is okay to push it close to its limits for training volume, but also being disciplined enough to throw an occasional training day out in order to avoid injury or sickness and recover properly!

3. The Mental Paradox: You need to know the difference between temporary (normal!) slumps in motivation and feelings of burnout. Sometimes you just need to kick yourself out the door and get going and other times you need to be aware that you need a serious break with activities that are restorative mentally and physically,things you find relaxing and fun! And ultimately perhaps the toughest point for some athletes – being aware enough to recognize when the competitive fire has burnt out and it is time to move on to something else in life and/or change direction in some way!

4. And of course I can add The Parenting Paradox: Listen to your kids but don’t listen to your kids: give them unconditional love, listen to their needs etc but don’t give into every demand and want for candy, toys, or every outburst for attention!

Of course, navigating all of the above apparent contradictions takes plenty of trial and error, patience, and self-awareness but the better you become at perfecting the balance, the more fun you’ll have discovering your potential while staying healthy!!

Limited by your number??

When I first got serious as a competitive runner back in junior high, I remember saying to myself I would compete until the age of 30. I’m not sure why I chose that age, maybe because I’d read somewhere that runners peak around that age, or maybe I figured that was the age to stop, and focus on other things like a family. Either way, competing as a runner on the track only lasted until I was 24 years old due to an injury. With no regrets I switched to mountain bike racing, and then Xterra triathlon racing at age 29.

In my late twenties I thought I would race seriously until I felt it was time to try to start a family….of course slowing down after a baby didn’t happen thanks to the support of the LUNA Pro team….and then I thought maybe I’d want to call it quits after two children….but here I still am training and about to start another competitive season! It helps to be inspired this week at the LUNA team camp surrounded by my amazing teammates, most of us all in our thirties now, still pursuing our athletic goals, among other things!

I also read an interview with Clara Hughes, a multiple summer and winter Olympic medallist, this past week. She is about to compete in cycling in her fourth Olympic Games this summer in London just before she turns 40. In that interview she talks about being in her prime physiologically as an athlete, and how she is still improving and stronger than ever. One of her goals is to show women and girls what is possible and to “bust the ridiculous imposed limitations”.

I know now I will always have training and competitive goals as long as I am healthy enough regardless of my age because I love physical exertion, pushing my previous limits in some way, and working towards new challenges. One day when I stop competing at the professional level my training and racing goals will move down my priority list but that day will come when I stop having fun, lose my competitive fire, or my body tells me it is time to slow down. And that’s the important part – to listen to yourself, be true to yourself, and follow your dreams, no matter what your age, and no matter how many children you have – physical limitations, imposed by yourself or the status quo of society will only get in your way if you let them!

Parenting Confidence?

How can I increase my confidence? This question is pretty common with athletes I work with these days. Whether it is the search for confidence in general, or striving to maintain confidence through injury, illness, poor training or disappointing competition results. Is confidence something we’re just born with or does it develop over time? Or both?

A book I’m currently reading was recommended to me by a colleague and sheds some interesting light on the development of confidence. The book is called The Self-Esteem Trap: Raising Confident and Compassionate Kids in an Age of Self-Importance by Polly Young-Eisendrath, PhD. In the beginning the book mentions a study that labels anyone born in the early 1970s through to the 2000s as the GenMe generation.The researcher of the study stated, “Born after self-focus entered the cultural mainstream, this generation has never known a world that put duty before self.” Yikes! Words like narcissism and entitlement have also been used to label this generation, I guess I have to reluctantly say this is my generation. And for many reasons, which can be found in the book, “GenMe’s” are more likely to suffer from symptoms of the self-esteem trap characterized by obsessive self-focus, restless dissatisfaction, pressures to be exceptional, unreadiness to take on adult responsibilities, feelings of superiority (or inferiority), and excessive fear of being humiliated…..hmmmmhmmm.

After an interesting history of parenting presented in this book, the author indicates that part of the problem has been the shift towards the belief that parents and children’s rights and needs are nearly equal, that parents should be friends with their children, and that children’s self-esteem should be protected at all costs. In practice, well intended parents may offer laid-back or inconsistent discipline, feel the need to show off children’s successes and accomplishments, provide excuses for their children’s behavior, want to be friends and avoid conflict with their children, unrealistically want their kids to be happy 24/7, overpraise children, over serve children’s needs, or follow the chlid-centered belief that “if you just give children the right nourishment, open affection, a lot of freedom and encourage their inner genius, they will flourish.”

So what have some parents unknowingly lost touch with, that can contribute to raising self-confident kids? Perhaps it is the exposure to a little more healthy experience in adversity as well as less interference with opportunities for children to develop autonomy. As the book explains, it is finding the right balance between the best of Eastern and Western Culture. For example, one fundamental teaching from Buddhism is that human life always includes discontent and adversity. No one can escape difficulty, pain or loss and we all need to learn how to deal with the inevitable parts of life, such as illness and death, realistically and compassionately. Part of the path to self-confidence is based on our skill to relate to and understand our interdependence with others, as well as the planet!

On the Western or Individualistic cultural side of the spectrum, we need to recognize the importance of autonomy in developing self-confidence. Autonomy is our ability to self-govern and to guide ourselves by our own decisions. So in a nutshell, the basis of this book is founded on an approach based on the above two principles, as described on page 34-35:

“Robust self-confidence, self-determination, self-compassion, and resilience are founded on learning early and repeatedly that true happiness comes principally in two ways: being able to relate to others in a caring and kind manner (since we always depend on others, we need to sustain our connection to them), and knowing how to be responsible for ourselves and our actions.”

Like most parents these days who want to give everything and every opportunity to my children, this book reminds me of the importance to let my children fail, fall down and make choices, as well as develop age-appropriate independence and responsibilities as they grow. This will prepare them to one day leave the nest, like the quote, “we have them to raise them, not to keep them.”

As for athletes, we often hear the cliché, “You’re only as good as your last race”, which I have a love-hate relationship with. All too commonly, an athlete’s confidence and self-esteem can go up and down according to how his or her last training session or competition went. But real confidence comes from finding solutions to difficult problems, persisting through setbacks, overcoming disappointments, and committing to working on the process of mastery no matter how big the ups and downs of competition go! Parents and coaches, who “run interference” with this process will only thwart the healthy growth of a self-confident and self-determined person or athlete!

In the runner-up book in the Canada Reads 2012 contest, author and famous NHL goalie, Ken Dryden finished his book The Game with this poem, titled, I am a player…

I want to win

It matters to me if I win or lose

It matters to me how I play the game

I want to win without injustice or bad luck or regret

I want to own every pleasure and disappointment

I want to get lost in play

I want time not to matter

I want to do something more important than me

I cannot win alone

I need my teammates and my opponents to make me better

I trust, because I have to trust

I forgive, because I need to be forgiven

I play a game, not only a game

I try because that matters to me

I try because it’s more fun that way

I don’t quit because it doesn’t feel good when I do

I play with others, but I play against me

I learn when I play

I play when I learn

I practice because I like t0 be good

I try what I’ve never tried before

I fail to fail smarter

I want to be better than I was yesterday

I dream

I imagine

I feel hard and deep

I hope, because there is always a way.

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!

Hello Trainer! How can we get along this winter?!

On the first super cold, not really worth going outside day in Calgary the other day, I hopped on my trainer for my first ride heading into winter training. With no real

A garage ride my first year on the LUNA team, Photo by Mike Flynn

structured training plan in place yet, I had enough motivation to ride for about 45 minutes. Enough time to think about the fact it was only the beginning of the 4-5 month indoor riding season, sigh! For those of us triathletes and cyclists who live in the more northern latitudes and parts of the world where sub-zero temperatures, ice and snow are the norm for the winter months, riding with a trainer, rollers, or on a spin bike are usually the only options to giving cycling specific muscles a workout. Ever since I have called myself a cyclist or triathlete I have lived in the land of snow and ice, far from balmy Vancouver Island where I grew up and one can ride outdoors year round!

Over the last ten years, I have also experimented through trial and error as to how much and what kind of indoor riding works best in order to make it to spring still physically fresh and not mentally burned out! Here are a few things I’ve learned to do in order to keep pedaling nowhere as exciting as possible…

1. Learn and respect your indoor riding threshold! During my first winter training for mountain bike racing I was living in Ottawa and rode my rollers in the dingy basement of a rental house I was sharing with other students. Midway through the winter I found myself burnt out of indoor riding and had to take a little time off to refresh my physical and mental motivation to ride inside again. Although I’ve known a few mentally tough (or crazy?! :)) athletes over the years who seem to actually enjoy and/or can tolerate many hours per week of indoor riding, it’s best to respect how many hours per week you can personally handle mentally in order to optimize your time on the trainer and pace yourself until the snow finally melts!

2. Use every motivational tool you can. If you’ll be riding the trainer for several weeks or months at a time, it can be worth getting a lactate test done with a coach to find out your training zones with heart rate and watts. That way you can gauge your efforts, and monitor whether you’re overdoing it as well. While riding nowhere, rides that focus on your heart rate, cadence, and wattage can be welcome “distractions” to pass the time productively. Add in your favourite motivational music mixes and you’re ready to go!

3. Have a detailed ride plan. When I ride at home solo, a 90 minute plus trainer ride takes a lot less mental energy when I have a detailed down to the minute plan to follow. I’ll use one of my workouts after teaching spin classes for many years, or get one from my coach. With a variety of efforts (heart rate or watts), cadence, standing, sitting, and one-legged exercises to all taped to the wall beside me, the time goes by much faster with a quality, focused plan to follow.

4. Choose TV/movie watching or radio listening wisely. Some rides are meant to be just steady aerobic rides, and these ones can be the best ones to choose to watch a movie or TV or listen to the radio instead of rocking out to motivational tunes. I also like to spend time on my rollers instead of the trainer for these types of rides which also helps improve balance and pedalling coordination, as well as being closer to simulating outdoor riding. However, I usually don’t choose to watch TV during intervals since I associate it with relaxing and chilling out and I think my legs subconsciously start to pedal slower when I watch it – one exception would be watching Tour de France type footage where you can focus on matching the pedaling cadence. When first learning French I also learned that listening to French radio while riding to work on my comprehension skills only made me fatigue even faster while indoor riding because of the brain power depletion it took to focus!

5. Train with a group as often as possible. There is always more energy and motivation in numbers! If you can join or even teach a spin class for a ride or two a week, it keeps you accountable to keep riding and is a good change of scenery from riding at home. Group movie rides in a friend’s garage or basement are great. In Calgary, our Critical Speed triathlon training group does famous bimonthly 3-5 hour indoor brick sessions (a mix of riding, track running, stairs, and core conditioning) during the winter, which I could NEVER do on my own!

6. Cross-train! As related to point number one, when your indoor riding threshold is maxed out, cross-country skate skiing is my favourite method of cross-training. Even one day per week, things like snowshoeing, stair running, or even stairmaster and uphill treadmill running if you’re still stuck inside can be a nice change to the trainer while also still working on cycling specific muscles and strength.

A gorgeous, mostly vertical, snowshoe day up Sunshine in Banff

Skiing in Canmore with Zoe when she was 16 months old

7. Remind yourself of the few reasons indoor riding can be superior to outdoor riding. You can always periodically pump yourself up to ride the trainer with fun facts like it beats riding outside in 5 degree rain, its more bang for your time bucks, you can often push yourself harder than you might be able to outside by locking in the watts for intervals, and one-legged work, high cadence riding, and roller riding can improve your pedalling efficiency for when you hit the road again. It’s also not a bad time to remember the long-term perspective as to why you’re doing it in the first place, hopefully to prepare for a big event or some big races you have planned for next season! And of course it is our northerners secret to building mental toughness in the off-season!

8. Plan one (or two!) midwinter escapes to a warmer climate to train.  If you are able to, planning a welcome break to a warmer destination mid to late winter is always a great way to break up the indoor monotony and have a shorter term goal to work towards and look forward to enjoying the fruits of your indoor work. When I lived back east, a big group of us from Ontario would pile in our cars every year at the end of March, and drive down to South Carolina for a week of riding in Table Rock State Park. It was beautiful riding and great motivation to keep the winter riding up in order to be fit enough to handle the miles ridden that week. Now I enjoy occasional winter escapes with my kids to my hometown on Vancouver Island. And if you can’t escape winter, even a midwinter excursion to back country or xc ski for a few days can be just as refreshing!

9. If all else fails, ride outside anyway! If you’re lucky enough to have an old mountain bike that can potentially get covered in snow, slush, and salt, throw on some studded tires with extra low pressure, and on those slightly warmer winter days – called Chinooks in Calgary – take a spin on the bike paths on lightly covered single track trails and have fun practicing your balance. If you can ride where there is not too much ice, blasting down a snow-covered hill and trying to stay upright is a blast when falling into the snow won’t hurt one bit either!

Post-season blues or bliss?

Whether you’ve finished the one main event you’ve been training for, or several races as part of a season, it is completely normal to come down with a case of the post-race or post-season blues. If your “A” race is done, or the main event is over, no matter how well you did, there is a period of letdown. The event is finished, the race stories for the day are written, everyone has gone home and the party is over. You may feel as a child does, or you still do  :), after all the presents have been opened on Christmas morning. With the feelings of excitement, anticipation, planning and preparation for the big day suddenly dissipated, it is easy to feel temporarily lost.

Crossing the finish line for the last time in 2011

With my last race of season complete last weekend, I got thinking about what are the best ways to handle any feelings of post-race blues and make the beginning of the “off-season” as blissful as possible. Expecting and preparing for a bit of letdown time is half of the battle. Here is what has helped me enjoy and get the most out of this short period of re-balancing, renewing, and refocusing on what’s next….

1. I take some real time off training. I give myself permission to do absolutely NOTHING physical for at least a week to 10 days other than walks to the park with my kids and stretching. Usually, I get physical withdrawal symptoms earlier than that and feel like doing something. But I just wait until my body says, “I can’t stand this any longer, take me out the door for a little run at least!”

2. I indulge a little in all the forbidden foods I usually cut way down on when in serious training and racing mode. After a maximum of a few days of eating too much chocolate, chips, donuts etc the yuckiness I feel is enough to remind me why “everything in moderation” is the way to go and return to asap!

3. Before the off-season officially begins, I have a list of things I’m looking forward to doing, any projects I’ve had on the backburner all season. All those, “if I wasn’t training/racing so much, I’d take more time to….” Things like projects around the house that have been pushed down the priority list for several months as well as spending extra time with friends and family.

4. After some real time off, I start a fun “active rest” phase for about a month. When my body is itching to start moving agian, I do what feels good. I enjoy some “training” that might not be a regular part of my structured training routine, things like yoga, pilates, hiking, or fun social runs with no pacing/distance agenda. And I do enough so that the transition back to full on training again isn’t too painful.

5. Of course, part of the post-season blues are related to a sudden lack of goal focus. So it can be a fun time to take some time to plan out any events I’m going to compete in next season. I reflect on any races I’d love to do again, new ones to try, or ones I swear I won’t do again!

6. Once I’ve had a good body and mind break from sructured training and am feeling recharged, renewed and fully motivated to get back to work, it is time to sit down with my coach and get into the serious details of week by week training plans again. Of couse, I like to make sure this is well underway before the holiday season, so I can afford my beloved eggnog lattes and other occoasional goodies (in moderation of course) around Christmas!

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