The Mental Game: Running Tips for Beginners or Anyone Else Struggling for Consistency
Building an enduring running practice starts with your mind
Maybe you’ve tried to start a running practice, and it got waylaid by family demands, the busy-ness of life, the hot weather, or thoughts like “I just can’t get motivated.” It may also have been waylaid because you had unconscious blind spots that interfered with your efforts to make the practice stick. If this is the case, or you have a running practice that is plagued by inconsistency, this blog is here to help!
Why can’t I just get motivated?
Mel Robbins answers this question beautifully when she says, “At some point we all bought into this lie that you gotta feel ready in order to change…at some point you’re gonna have the courage, at some point you’re gonna have the confidence and it’s total bull $*##…it’s complete garbage.” She goes on to say that our minds are not designed to do things that are uncomfortable, uncertain, or scary; our minds are designed to keep us safe, which means operating within the realm of what we have already experienced (and survived!) The paradox, of course, lies in the fact that in order to accomplish the goals we have or have the new experiences we desire, we must go outside of our comfort zones.
So if you have been feeling resistance, and have found yourself making endless excuses why you can’t start running or get back into running, know you are not alone. This resistance will be your inclination until you replace the desire for “motivation” with an awareness of the nature of your mind and move forward from this new level of consciousness.
Why would my mind feel “unsafe” when I’m just trying to get fit and healthy? Wouldn’t that make my mind feel more safe and comfortable?
You’d think so, but no, at least not initially. Your mind covets stability over everything. It wants things to stay the same. Changing habits does not fall into this category, as like a kaleidoscope, one small habit change invariably shifts many other parts of our lives. This inclination of the mind to keep us safe is what I like to call the “uncomfortable comfort zone.”
In his book The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level, psychologist Gay Hendricks compares this comfort zone to a thermostat which is set to a particular temperature. Whenever we do something that stretches us beyond what we have already experienced, even with the intention of improving our lives, Hendricks says that we will do something to bring us back down into our comfort zones, or “limited tolerance.” He refers to this as our “Upper Limit Problem” and he discovered this early in his career when he was working as a research psychologist at Stanford University. He realized that when he started feeling good about something, he would begin to manufacture a stream of painful images or unpleasant thoughts to deflate himself. These thoughts were guaranteed to make him do something (or not do something) so he could return to a state he was more familiar with: not feeling so good.
Why would we “sabotage” ourselves like this? Doesn’t this just create more pain and suffering?
Hendricks states that our species had been accustomed to pain and adversity through millennia of struggle: “We had millions of nerve connections devoted to registering pain and we had a huge expanse of territory in the center of our bodies dedicated to feeling fear. Certainly we had pleasure points in various places, too, but where were the mechanisms for ongoing, natural good feeling? I realized that we were only recently evolving the ability to let ourselves feel good and have things go well for any significant period of time.”
Believe it or not, this inclination to upper limit ourselves (in the case of running, this may look like procrastinating on our training, sleeping in for that early run we had planned, or deciding not to run when our running buddy cancels) is protective in its intention. Afterall, if we don’t run, we don’t have to deal with the physical discomfort that invariably comes with a new running routine: breaking in shoes, dealing with sore muscles, melting in the heat, or feeling like our heart is beating out of our chests or our lungs will explode. If we don’t run, we don’t have to worry about feeling embarrassed when our neighbors see us, winded and sweaty, after circling the block twice. If we don’t run, we don’t have to deal with the disappointment in ourselves if we can’t finish that 10K we’ve set our sights on. If we don’t run, we don’t have to deal with the unconscious fears we have around raising our self-confidence, losing weight and getting in shape.
Woah, hold on–why would anyone have fear around gaining self-confidence, losing weight and getting in shape?
The core beliefs laid down during our younger years play a huge part in this. Because our core beliefs reside in our unconscious mind, which controls 95% of our decisions, they have a huge amount of power over our lives unless they are brought into our awareness and consciously processed and shifted.
Core beliefs vary depending on our childhood experiences. Let’s explore this concept using the example of “Jenna,” whose core beliefs run interference with her desire to get in shape by developing a sustainable running practice. As a child, Jenna was regularly criticized by her father for his belief that she was drawing attention to herself. As a teen, both of her parents told her that she was “showing off” or “grandstanding” when she dressed up. When the weight issues of her family members came up, she was told that “it’s in our genes–it’s just how we are. There’s more to love!” Consequently, Jenna learned that in order to feel emotionally safe and loved she needed to disappear into the background and put others’ comfort ahead of her own needs and desires. She learned that being heavy was a part of the family identity that signaled “you belong–you’re one of us.” Based on the example of Jenna, you can see that there are very intelligent, protective reasons why she would make unconscious choices that led to her lifelong struggle with her weight and fitness level.
In this case, being a healthy weight and in good shape is perceived by Jenna’s unconscious mind as a threat; making changes triggers fears that those closest to her may criticize or embarrass her or believe that she thinks she’s better than them. In this particular scenario, the unconscious perceived threat of rejection and abandonment is registered the same by the brain as a real, physical threat, and this leads Jenna to make choices that will keep her in her “comfort” zone, overweight and inactive, even though on a conscious level she believes that she wants to be healthy and fit.
The combination of our evolutionary predisposition to avoid venturing out of our comfort zones, combined with limiting beliefs laid down in our early lives, therefore, often work together to throw up significant roadblocks in our efforts to make positive changes.
What can I do to calm my “critter brain” that’s threatened by change and trying to hold me back?
The following process may be helpful in moving through resistance-based patterns around establishing and maintaining a running practice:
- Acknowledge that resistance is there around the new habit you are trying to establish and have the courage to see the forms of resistance for what they really are, rather than falling for the games your mind may be trying to play to keep you safe. Realize that while your thoughts may be real, they are often untrue. Is it really “too late” to go for a run, or can you just wear your light and take a safe route? Would you actually be “a pain” if you asked a family member or close neighbor to watch your kids a few times a week so you could go for a run? Are you watching another episode on Netflix because you really “have to” or because it will give you an excuse to skip your morning run?
- Allow any difficult feelings that arise with this acknowledgment to be felt in a space of non-judgmental awareness. Maybe you feel anger, frustration, sadness or shame around your forms of resistance, such as procrastinating or making excuses, as well as the roots of this resistance. Whatever you feel belongs; it can be confronting and painful to recognize that it’s actually our own patterns and unprocessed trauma that are at the roots of our suffering. Avoid gas-lighting yourself by thinking you should be thinking, feeling or behaving in a different way; all of these are part of your journey to understanding yourself and making positive, empowered changes.
- Practice self-compassion. Remind yourself that the thought patterns or habits that are interfering with your ability to establish or maintain a consistent running routine are simply outdated programming–there is nothing wrong with you! Understand that you are not alone in your avoidance or derailing patterns and that we all have this evolutionary predisposition to do things to maintain the “status quo” in our lives. As Dr. Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Once we have awareness, we can make better choices.
- Turn towards that “inner saboteur” aka protective part of your brain and tell it that you understand what it is trying to do, but that you don’t need it to protect you, as you may have needed it to in the past. Reassure it that you are safe and you are taking care of your health, well-being and best interests at this point in your life. Remind it that these are your priorities, not what others may say or do in response to you making these healthy choices.
- If any of the fears that had been holding you back do come to fruition, consciously deal with them from today’s version of you–not the child who was afraid of being rejected and unloved if they showed up as their unabashed self. It can be easy to fall into pattern when triggered, so if someone says or does something that has the potential to undermine your weight or fitness goals, pause, understand that they too may be in pattern and fearful of change or rejection, and approach the conversation with compassion, kindness and confidence. You may be surprised by how few of your fearful premonitions come true, and how supportive others may actually be of you!
The bottom line
While having a plan to access good running gear, locate good running routes, gradually and safely get in shape, and track your biometrics and results are important when beginning or re-starting any running routine, the power of understanding and using your mind to achieve your fitness goals cannot be underestimated.