The Little Voice in Your Head.

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Athlete Kat Badham. Photo by Paul Petch.

The main difference between a classic auditory hallucination and a thought is the manner in which they are perceived. A hallucination is perceived as coming from an external source, as if someone is speaking with you but you are alone in a room.

A thought is perceived as originating from within our heads, and is most often (although not exclusively) perceived as our own voice. Whilst certainly runners may experience both auditory, visual, tactile and olfactory hallucinations at times during an event (usually when there is significant fatigue, or some homeostatic imbalance) it is more common, and arguably more pernicious, for our own thoughts to get the better of us

I would suggest to you that it is not just the enthusiast runner, those in the euphemistically named ‘mid pack’ that suffer negative cognitions. Runners of all ability suffer from crises of confidence whilst at a peak of exertion, in trying conditions or when the competition is fierce.

Runners who perform to a high level are usually masters of managing the dialectic of distress vs. performance, that is, feeling the fear/distress/discomfort and maintaining exertion. I would suggest that as the weight of expectation from self/others increases so does the potential for negative self talk. The greater the potential for glory, the greater the potential for psychological distress.

During competition our thoughts can be crowded and negative, especially if things are not going our way, or if we are in a negative space: “You should be able to do this but you’re not good enough” “Your heart rate is too high, you should just slow down”  “You don’t belong here” “This hurts this hurts this hurts”. There may be the temptation to “just let this person pass you” at the top of the next hill, or perhaps even paying more attention to muscle soreness or discomfort in an attempt to bring forth an injury, thus giving us a reason to stop.

When we race it is easy for our thoughts to get away from us, with practice we can restore a sense of balance and calm. Here are some techniques I use:

Tune In. Try to listen to what your body is telling you. Pain or imbalance? Perhaps shift your stance. Heart rate too high? Take some deep breaths, slow momentarily. Thirsty? Drink. Responding simply to our bodies requests is helpful in restoring calm.

Interim Goals. It’s a truism but it works. You truly can break down any into the distance between individual trees, especially when you are going through a bad patch psychologically. Stepping away from the overwhelming whole and focusing on smaller goals is a proven way to help reset the system. Achieve the goal, move forward. Repeat.

Focus Through The Senses. Mindfulness works. Focus your attention onto other senses, How does the sun feel on your skin? Can you feel the ground through your shoes?  What can you hear? What can you see? Stepping out of our critical mind into the immediate surroundings is a sure fire way to increase your wellbeing. More than likely you are running somewhere marvellous, There is beauty in suffering. Take it in.

You Are Not Alone. No person is an island. We may feel alone when we race, however those around us are exerting themselves as well. If it’s happening for you, it’s more than likely happening for them. Being integrated within shared experience can lessen our distress. Using this strategy can be powerful, Pass with your head up, smiling. Even this simple thing may give you a psychological edge over your competition.

Originally published at James Kuegler Coaching.
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