Friday 15 March 2013

Marathon des Sables: mental preparation

Even if you are the most positive person in the world, all runners know there are periods in races or training runs where your mind will tell you negative things like "you can't do it", "you don't want to do it", "it's too painful", "I can't go any further".

Out in the desert, staring down the barrel of another 15 miles with a feet looking like mincemeat and your heart hammering in your chest, you'll probably experience a few negative thoughts here too.

Preparing mentally for MDS is slightly different to a shorter race. Shorter races tend to be based on speed. I'm then more concerned with the lactic acid pain that comes with that, combating nerves in the first part of the race, and keeping on going when my body is screaming to stop. Preparing for MDS is more about dealing with carrying on and coping with possible physical pain, dealing with boredom, and the biggy, just finishing running 155 miles carrying 10 or so kg. It's quite a feat that does make your head pop!

You probably already have a way of dealing with any negative thoughts that may pop into your head. Here's my tuppence;

1) Thoughts of pain. I try to concentrate on exactly what the feeling is all about - I become curious about it rather than fear it. Is it sharp, dull, does it hurt all the time, just on weightbearing etc. I try to imagine pain as not to be something that is feared, but to embrace it as part of the spirit of feeling alive and doing something bonkers like MDS.

As well as the somewhat mumbo jumboness of thinking about what pain really is, I also deal with pain on a practical level. If I can manage it as best I can, I will be in control. Pain will not beat me. I win. Positive thought.

2) Thoughts of not being able to finish the race. This happened a few times to me out there, usually when it was combined with thoughts of pain (see above). I was lucky enough to run with my better half. If you can stick alongside a few MDS buddies, they will pick you up mentally throughout the race. A bit of banter lasts for miles!

Otherwise I tended to break down the race into much more manageable sections and plan "rewards" when I reached points. MDS has checkpoints roughly every 10k, which were rewards in themselves. Otherwise rewards could mean listening to a song or having something to eat. Goal setting is often used by professional sports people too.

The other "technique" I used was to think, well I always have a choice. My choice here is I can carry on, or I can not carry on. Carrying on always would win. Funnily enough, the thought of having to come back and write on this blog that I hadn't finished was usually enough motivation to keep going!

I do like to daydream, and MDS was a nice excuse to dream away. One of my favourite daydreams was finishing stage 6. I used to plan it out in detail, and go over and over it in my head. I think I lot of top sportspeople also use a similar technique called "visualisation" where they spend periods of time visualising the perfect throw, jump or sprint start.

Daydreaming like this is a positive thing, and it always gave me much more self belief that I could finish the race too. Positive thoughts encourage further positive thoughts.

Finally, through I tried to recognise when my little brain was telling me bad things, and replace this with a simple "I can do this". I would just repeat the sentence over and over for a while to try to ignore any bad thoughts.

3) General worrying. I do like to worry. I think worrying can be useful because it can alert you to things you may not have considered or planned for. Worrying becomes annoying when you either can't do anything about the problem, or you haven't done anything about the problem. My main worries out in the desert consisted of

"Can I feel a blister?"
"Why is my ankle hurting?"
"Why is my heart hammering so hard?"
"I think I saw a camel spider"

For all of these I could do something active to limit them happening or getting worse. Then place the worry into a box, wrap it up and send it down the sandy sand dune never to be seen again!

Be interested to know how others deal with any negativity during races.
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