Why it matters what I tell myself when I run
I reconnected over the summer with a woman I first met when I was living outside San Francisco and our daughters had become friends. We were having coffee in Palo Alto late one afternoon when she told me she had lupus.
The subject came up because she was apologizing for meeting me in her workout clothes as she was just coming from the gym.
Really? Everyone in Palo Alto looks like they’re in exercise clothes.
She told me that one of the ways she copes with bouts of extreme pain in her joints is by exercising regularly.
This memory popped into my head a few weeks ago as I woke up after sleeping nearly 12 hours. The last of my Thanksgiving guests had left late on that Saturday, and I practically passed out within minutes.
My plan had been to do a longish run that Sunday morning, but when I stepped out of bed, my sides and lower back were so sore and stiff that I nearly crept down the stairs to make myself a cup of coffee.
I assumed I had suffered a sleeping injury by being in bed so long.
But after nearly two hours of moving around and gentle stretching and still no improvement I wondered whether my stomach had expanded from all the food I ate over the holiday weekend and busted my ribs.
By then I only had time to run three miles. There wasn’t anything I wanted to do less than put on my sunglasses, hat, and gloves, and push myself out the door.
But here’s the thing.
I’ve never regretted a workout or a run.
Like my California friend, exercise always makes me feel good.
Even if my muscles are sore and I can barely get in and out of a chair after a long run, exercise — even a long walk — makes me feel simply awesome.
I remember asking my friend about her lupus and wondering why she would want to exercise when she was physically uncomfortable. Wouldn’t she want to do the opposite? Rest?
I don’t know, I remember her saying, it just makes things better. We didn’t dwell on the topic but her comment about the benefits of exercising when she was uncomfortable lingered with me.
In fact my lupus friend was only one of two women I knew at the time who had a meaningful exercise regimen. The rest of us practiced yoga here and there or went out for a walk occasionally or a hike or maybe a bike ride, but we did not schedule our workouts the way we scheduled our hair appointments and manicures.
So how do you do it?
Even if you’re committed to finding the joy in exercising and running, how do you get yourself out the door to exercise when you don’t want to, or, if you have an exercise habit, how do you finish a run when your brain tells you to stop?
When I was in New York City a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to ask this question to Turia Pitt, an ultra-runner who suffered life-threatening burns over most of her body when she got caught up in a fast-moving brush fire during a race in Australia. Because she was an athlete before the injury she said getting back to exercising and competing made her feel like she was re-gaining her sense of self.
But what about the rest of us?
I was having a conversation with author Chris Friesen, my go-to sports and performance psychologist, about this, when he reminded me that our brains are thought-producing machines and it’s the brain’s job to shoot us thoughts one right after the other a million miles a minute. And most of the time those thoughts tend to be negative, Chris said, so we’re really good at telling ourselves to stay inside when it’s cold out or to sit on the couch after work instead of exercising or to walk 10 minutes into a run.
The idea is to recognize the negative thought when it comes in, acknowledge it, thank your brain for doing its job, and then re-focus on what you need to do to get yourself out there or to stay on the trail. Over time, Chris said, your brain will get more familiar with what you’re doing and take longer to tell you to stop. I was thinking this might be one reason why you need to continually push yourself in order to progress in your training.
Self talk is ultimately a benefit of mindfulness and apparently a critical part of training in the sports world. For Turia, this means reminding herself how achieving her big goals will bring some normalcy back to her life. At the same event in New York I was talking with triathlete Stephanie Middleton. She told me her self talk either focuses on the important causes she is supporting and not wanting to disappoint donors or on her four children still asleep in their beds when she’s out the door training at 4:45 in the morning. The kids are just getting ready for school by the time Stephanie’s back in her kitchen. She told me she wants her children to witness her living a healthy lifestyle and following through on achieving her goals.
Of course self talk needs to be grounded in reality, Chris pointed out. It’s not a good thing to tell yourself you can jump off a building, for example, if you’re not wearing a parachute. And you need to know the difference between discomfort and pain while you’re exercising and when you really do need to stop, especially if you are experiencing an acute injury.
For me I’ve begun to arm myself with cue words I can pull out when my brain is telling me not to do something I now know is good for me and will make me feel great. Chris said at a certain point, especially in endurance exercise, you don’t want to think about technique, because that’s not motivational. Chris is a guy and a Canadian who played hockey growing up so it makes sense that he uses “explode” when he’s pooping out during endurance exercise.
What’s helped me is reminding myself during a run or when my alarm goes off at 5 am how great I will feel when I’m finished and how much better my mood will be for the rest of the day. And I think about not wanting to disappoint the fitness professionals who’ve worked so hard to keep me in one piece. Sometimes I just need to say “Kevin,” my physical therapist who’s famous for telling me, “You’ve done this before” when I’m anxious or less than confident before or during a race.
During my 45-minute swim last Saturday — my first swim since my finger surgery in July and my first since the Cape Henlopen Triathlon — when my brain began sending me negative thoughts after 30 minutes, the cue word that popped into my head was “Instagram.”
No joke crafting my own posts in my head while I’m exercising is great motivation for finishing what I started. I remember posting on Facebook the day I was a Did Not Finish (DNF) at the Bethany Tri, and although DNF is a fact of sport for practically everyone, it’s not an experience I’m anxious to repeat — or share.
A few months ago when I was home with the flu, my mother, who follows me on MapMyFitness and logs some of her own walks and routes, even if it’s too hot to walk outside in Florida and she’s walking the aisles at Wal-Mart, left me a voicemail.
“I haven’t gotten any of your notifications lately,” she said, “And wanted to see if you’re ok.”
My running partner Micki Hultquist says she thinks about good food and how much better she’ll feel about indulging after she exercises. And there’s lots out there about people who use exercise — and running in particular — as a form of therapy because whenever you accomplish something hard you just feel better about yourself. It’s as simple as that even without all the science backing up this idea.
I was doing incline push ups on the Smith Machine a few weeks ago when I was telling my trainer Zach Schumaker about my conversation with Turia. After I finished my story, and the set, he dropped the bar more than a few notches.
I’m never 100 percent confident Zach or Kevin is actually hearing me when I’m speaking during our sessions even if they are observing me with intensity.
“Big goals,” he smiled.
He’s listening, I thought.
And so am I.
It was my first trainer Reuel who introduced me to the concept of supersetting, where you go from one exercise to the other without resting.
I was telling Zach about my experience over the Thanksgiving weekend and we decided I was experiencing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) from carrying boxes of plates and cups back and forth from my kitchen to the garage.
It was around that time that Zach had me doing 200m on the rowing machine in under 57 seconds and then immediately completing a set of seated lat pull downs.
I asked Zach about this.
"Active recovery," he said. "It's a kind of superset," he explained. "Where you can use the second exercise to help recover from the first." But by being active, instead of resting, he added, you can progress in subsequent sets.
Kind of like my lupus friend.
And my run after waking up stiff and sore.
I got this.
See you next time.