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6 aspects of mental fitness and how to exercise them

by

Jonathan Hobbs

When talking to non-endurance athletes, I am often questioned about the mental capacity to keep going for 4 hours or more. In particular, the technical demands of race walking make it a serious mental challenge as well as an obviously physical one. How do you stay focussed? How do you not get bored? Are you tempted to stop/break into a run? Well, the mind can be trained just as we can train the muscles and energy systems.

 

The fact is, just as long distance running helps to improve strength and speed as well as endurance, it also helps develop the mental qualities. However, nearly all serious runners do specific strength and speed training to train those aspects more effectively. I believe that brain training will soon be another such ubiquitous component of athletic training. This doesn’t just apply to endurance – I happen to possess a good mental condition for long distance but all physical activities have their own mental demands.

 

 

At present, mental training techniques are not well-discussed. Some sports psychologists are conducting research on various methods but it is kept mostly private for now. Otherwise, there is a lot of talk about general motivation and wellbeing and tools such as creative visualisation. These are used to boost performance but focus on controlling the mind rather than improving its capacity. Hopefully, brain training methods will receive more attention from these professionals but in the meantime I have come up with 6 key aspects of mental fitness and practical exercises for each of them. They can variously be done in isolation, as a warm up for a physical session or during one.

 

Focus

 

The actual degree of necessary focus or concentration depends upon the activity. Very complex activities require complete concentration, but if the movement is repetitive then it can become more automatic or instinctive. The mind may wander without negatively affecting performance and, for example, I often let my thoughts drift to digressive topics like friends, current affairs or food. Though I have never intentionally listened to music besides that which is played in the gym, I have recently started listening to audiobooks and am currently enjoying Rosamund Pike’s performance of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility on occasional longer sessions.

 

However, while this mind-wandering is fine, there are times when it is necessary to be consciously in the moment and in control. Without a certain level of focus, it is easy to slow down and lose purpose. The brain must be able to avoid distraction and engage in a singular task. Simple repetitive mental exercises are good for developing this ability to focus.

 

Exercise

 

Counting. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6… Count every number. When you just read those numbers, did you focus and read each one individually or did you just see a sequence of 6 consecutive numbers and skim over them? Focus on the counting and don’t let other thoughts enter your mind.

 

You could do this before you start, say count to 100 on the start line before you get going. Alternatively, count steps. You might need to be able to focus for a prolonged time so keep it going. Eventually, it becomes difficult to concentrate on this boring task, you get distracted and lose count. I can currently get to around 600-700 before I start losing count.

 

A slightly more complex variation is to count things. For example, look at the list below and count every word, in your head. Then count all the ones, then all the twos etc. This increases the level of focus as you need to identify what to count as well as keeping track.

 

One four nine four four five six nine nine six seven five seven five nine five six four one two two eight five three five eight four one four one five.

 

Rhythm

 

Rhythm is essential for efficiency of repetitive movements. If you can keep rhythm then you can sustain a pace and if you continue moving to the rhythm then you must continue moving. Cadence is talked about in all endurance sports, whether it is running or walking steps, cycling revolutions or rowing strokes per minute. The optimum rate depends upon the activity, the intensity and the individual’s biomechanics but whatever it is it needs to be maintained. This is also relevant in other activities, such as with tempo in weightlifting.

 

As I mentioned earlier, I do not intentionally listen to music while training, however I do sing tunes in my head. It can be helpful to catch a beat externally from a piece of music but it needs to be kept from within, and hopefully for longer than a 3 minute pop song.

 

Exercise

 

Sing to yourself. Ideally, find a piece of music that has a tempo that corresponds to your desired cadence. For a long time, I have used the rhythmic line from Can’t Stop by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. This song has a tempo of 91 beats per minute which means for my cadence of 182 I take two steps per beat. I find it a very fitting song and Flea’s bassline, in particular, is almost trance-like in its repetition.

 

Relaxation

 

Conversely to focus, tension and stress need to be avoided for prolonged exercise and for mental health in general. Relaxation is at once mental and physical – a relaxed body causes a relaxed mind and vice versa.

 

This is something that is currently popular in a wider context beyond just exercise. Mindfulness – contemplating and appreciating what is going on both within the body and all around it – is very widely discussed as a way of dealing with stresses of everyday life.

 

Aside from this, there are a lot of techniques to help manage acute stress, such as the breathing technique I was taught by Daley Thompson. Simply put, breathe in through the nose for a count of one, hold it for a count of four, then breathe out through the mouth for a count of two and repeat. Such exercises can be very effective for dealing with episodes of stress. I am fortunate to be of such a disposition that I can usually remain in a fairly steady state of relaxation. However, it is important to remain as relaxed as possible during exercise.

 

Exercise

 

Relax the face and relax the hands. Tension in either the face or hands can cause tension throughout the rest of the body so it is crucial to keep these relaxed. With the face, a soft smile is ideal as evidence suggests this can also help with positivity (see below). (Sometimes I close my mouth, breathing only through the nose, and I’m quite sure this makes me look intimidatingly at ease but it is mainly for show.) The lips should be parted to allow enough air flow but not gaping exaggeratedly. As for the hands, a common technique is to imagine holding something delicate, such as a daisy, between the thumb and index finger, being careful not to crush it nor let go.

 

Positivity

 

A positive mindset is a powerful thing to have. But popular discussion on this topic ranges across rigorous psychology, common sense, empty platitudes and superstition. Henry Ford’s quote, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can‘t—youre right.” is a great thing to have on top of a pretty picture of the sky, but there is actually a bit more to it than this.

 

 

With exercise, your limits are determined more by your perception than your physiological capacity – you always hold something back and training rarely ends up with complete exhaustion. This is not to say that you should be hospitalised at the end of every session but it shows that you could probably push yourself a little bit harder. This is where a positive mindset comes in, because it can alter perception of things like effort or fatigue. Research shows that various positive-thinking exercises can reduce perceived effort and thereby increase performance.

 

Exercise

 

Talk positively to yourself. The language you use is important – you should use words with good connotations and avoid negative words. For example, “I will finish.” rather than “I won’t stop.” (let’s ignore my choice of song, for a moment). Simple words tend to resonate more but whatever you say it should be your choice. However, it is very easy to simply say some words but the important thing is to consider what they really mean.

 

Perseverance

 

This is where it starts to get a bit unpleasant, because you need to be able to persevere through discomfort. Otherwise, it’s hardly perseverance at all. At some point, it will be tough to keep going but, as Billy Ocean sang, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

 

A kind of this mental toughness training is an essential component of any military training. As a spin-off from this, there is a craze of ‘military style’ bootcamp training and assault courses which (as I have mentioned in a previous article) seems to me to be more about looking tough than actually practising mental perseverance. When it comes to improving the mental capacity, I find better inspiration in the stoic philosophers.

 

Stoicism (in oversimplified terms) prizes the virtue of self-control and fortitude in the face of negative emotions. To develop this, they believed that they should subject themselves to these negative feelings. In other words, this means subjecting yourself to unpleasantness, however it should not be simple self-flagellation but controlled testing of your limits. A popular suggestion is to take cold showers, but I doubt whether this is really likely to help when exercise becomes tough. Nevertheless, it is useful to practise battling through unpleasant conditions, for example foul weather. We are therefore at a potential advantage in this country.

 

Exercise

 

Negative visualisation. Rather than necessarily suffering unpleasantness, it can be more useful to imagine it. What is the worst that could happen? How will you cope if it does? Keep it relevant to the exercise, for example visualising a rival pulling ahead, and train yourself to remain composed. Conversely to positive self-talk, this is not about willing the worst to happen to but about being prepared if it does. Seneca said, “Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation.”

 

Discipline

 

This is the greatest mental challenge, to be disciplined – to exercise good judgement and to employ your best efforts. To be self-disciplined requires self-awareness so that you can assess what you should be doing and hold yourself to account. If you notice yourself losing focus or lacking in positivity you need the discipline to take measures to correct this, rather than allowing yourself to be overcome.

 

Discipline is crucial in endurance events because it is more complex than simply going as fast as you can. You must trust your pace to get you a good performance while avoiding premature exhaustion. In race walking, this is even more the case because there is the discipline of maintaining legal technique. When people ask, “How do you avoid breaking into a run?” the answer is discipline.

 

Exercise

 

Take a regular self-assessment. Consider both your mental state and your performance. My father has forever drilled me with giving ‘marks out of 10’. This simple rating can apply to your focus, your pace, effort level or anything else relevant. This must be honest and you should try to be objective about it. This is difficult, but remember not to let a negative assessment cause negative feelings. The next step is to do something about it. If your pace is too slow, put in the effort to speed up. If your focus is dropping, work on this. Do what you need to do – this is the meaning of discipline.

 

 

Endurance is a mental sport and I am sure that the mental aspect is critical in other physical activities too. I sincerely believe this type of training, perhaps with more or less scientific methods, will be taken seriously by athletes just as strength training now is.

 

In our modern world, it is quite popular to suggest that we are becoming mentally feeble – being dependent on technology and lacking attention for anything that is not quick and easy to digest. By internet standards, this is a long article and I wonder if you were able to keep engaged throughout. Therefore, even if you are not a competitive athlete, it might be useful to try and develop your mental capacities. It is yet another aspect of your overall fitness that you really need to exercise.

 

 

Further reading:

Brain Endurance Training – Alex Hutchinson

Can’t Stop – Red Hot Chili Peppers

Can positive thinking actually make you a better runner? – Karien Potgieter

When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going – Billy Ocean

 

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