Still working on my NYC Marathon race report (part 2 here!), but this week has been a little crazy/abnormal since I’ve been working 12-15 hours a day since Sunday facilitating a week-long training course in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. Don’t feel too sorry for me, though – although I’m waking up at 5am every day so that I’m able to get materials/logistics set for the participants to start at 8am, other times I get to do fun things like supervise the Tai Chi sessions in gorgeous settings like this:
The program is really cool – it’s one that I went through a few years ago and was really life-changing in my approach to work-life balance. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to sit in on a session about Managing Energy, based on principles in Tony Schwartz’s Be Excellent at Everything. The discussion was about different energy quadrants, and how the ultimate goal is to keep moving between the performance and renewal zones, depending on whether your energy is high or low. (No one can be all high energy all the time!) But if you do end up in either the survival or burnout zones, the way back to performance is always through renewal. I thought that was a really useful message, and a great reminder to stay aware of how you’re feeling in order to figure out how to improve your performance.
One thing I found really interesting about this (and very applicable to running as well) is that unless you have positive energy, you’re not performing – you’re just surviving. I see so many runners get into this survival zone in the latter miles of a marathon, and in fact, know many who think that it’s inevitable when you run 26.2 miles. But with proper training, you don’t have to be shuffling your feet in a survival death march at mile 22. I have usually found that last 10K of a marathon to be some of the most fun miles of the race – you’ve accomplished a lot and the end is in sight, but you’re not quite into that final stretch where you need to give it every single ounce of energy you have (and probably end up grimacing and getting crazy out of breath to do so). If you’ve trained properly, a positive attitude is the only component left to turn that final stretch from a survival march into a glorious victory lap.
So how do you go about getting that positive attitude? Well, the results of a new study published last month in Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise may have one answer. The study found that giving yourself a motivational pep talk could significantly reduce participants’ rate of perceived exertion and enhance endurance performance. In short, the proverbial “tank” of energy that runs low when runners hit The Wall (or otherwise slow considerably) may still exist, but it can be significantly affected by psychological factors – it’s not just physical.
This immediately made me think of a technique I’ve frequently used in later miles: motivating others. I love doing out-and-back races where I get to see all the runners in front of me and behind me, in large part because it gives me an opportunity to cheer everyone else on. While it does take some of my energy to cheer, I’ve found that I usually get a lot more energy back than I’ve given out, in that I feel so much better after being supportive. Even just smiling at someone else across the way subconsciously makes me feel like I’m doing okay and have plenty of energy (serving a similar function as the positive self-talk in that study) – and then I find that I do suddenly have plenty of energy to keep going.
This is one of the first studies that shows a concrete link between psychological factors and physical performance, so there’s definitely going to be much more research to come – and I’m really excited to see how this “fake it till you make it” approach will stand up to scientific testing! There’s a lot still to be discovered about optimizing performance, but I’m guessing we’re going to start learning a lot of counterintuitive things – like the idea of expending energy to create energy. For now, I think it’s a great idea to experiment with mental training and also different methods of psyching yourself up during the race to see what works well for you.