Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mental Skills Series: Self-Talk

Part four of the mental skills series covers Self-Talk. Self-talk is the internal dialogue you engage in with yourself. It can be giving yourself instructions and reinforcement or how you interpret what you feel and perceive (Hackfort & Schwenmezger as cited in Williams, 2006). I've mentioned one of my own experiences with self-talk before in a previous blog here, as I was working my way back from my stress fracture.

The dialogue can happen out loud (e.g. mumbling) or inside your head. Self-talk is an asset to performance when it is enhancing your self-worth, it can help change your thoughts, regulate your energy levels and anxiety, stay focused and cope with difficult situations. On the flip side, self-talk can be detrimental when it's negative or distracting to the task you are working on or if it is so loud and frequent it is disrupting the automatic performance of your skills (Williams, 2006).

Self-talk can affect self-esteem. If a person consistently ascribes positive labels to themselves, they may begin to act in a positive way--and likewise if they ascribe negative labels.

Self-talk is really common! It can be an interesting exercise to become more aware of the type of self-talk we are engaging in, just how much--and then how it really is making us feel and act.

There are several ways to identify self-talk including retrospection and self-talk logs.

Retrospection: Retrospection is basically reflection on situations in which performance went particularly well or poorly. You then re-create those thoughts and feelings that happened prior to and during the performances, and then identifying the common themes in both types of performance (Williams, 2006). Focusing on the thoughts during these performances is the goal, including expectations and feelings of self-esteem.

Using a Self-Talk Log is another way to become more aware of both positive and negative self-talk. Writing down what you say at practice, competitions, work etc but also reflecting on what was said before, during and after good and poor performances and how frequently you said those things. When things were frustrating did you depreciate yourself and what did you say? When things went well--what did you say?

As identification of self-talk happens, what's next?

There are several techniques that sport and performance psychology consultants may use to help with self-talk that is also self-defeating including thought stoppage, and changing negative thoughts to positive.

Thought Stoppage: Thought Stoppage is very much like it sounds, it can involve telling yourself "Stop that thought!" or a physical action--snapping your fingers when a negative thought comes.

Changing Negative Thoughts to Positive: While it would be nice to stop negative thoughts all together, that may not be the most realistic of solutions--changing negative thoughts to positive thoughts offers a nice alternative. Working to throw out the negative thought as it happens, and then replacing it with a positive thought takes pressure off the idea of controlling all the thoughts that pop into your mind. While you might not be able to control that very first thought--it may be easier to control your next move, and to set a goal to gradually reduce negative thoughts over time (Williams, 2006).

It's important to remember that negative thoughts and anxiety aren't unusual. Tom Courtney, who won the 800 meter run at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne was quoted as saying, (photo courtesy of

"As I stepped onto the track I felt my legs go rubbery. I saw over a 100,000 people in the stands, and before I knew it, I had collapsed onto the infield grass. "Can it be," I remembered thinking, as I lay there gazing up at the sky, "that I'm so nervous I'm not going to be able to run?" Then I realized how ridiculous I'd look, flat on my back on the grass as they started the race. I guess the humor of that image made me lose my nervousness. I was able to recover, get up and jog to the starting line" ( It's important to see that even though athletes may get nervous and have negative thoughts, they don't hold the thoughts in a place where it creates a mental block--that impedes their physical performance.

Here is another example, a clip from one of my favorite running movies--"Run Fat Boy Run."

Dennis hits the wall, he hears the negative talk that has been holding him back up until this time, he acknowledges that he hears it but he doesn't let it stop him. Instead you can see Dennis physically "Stop" the thoughts, and push through--breaking the image of his wall.

Here we are, at the end of part four of the mental skills series, remember, self-talk is the internal or even external dialogue we engage in that reflects how you interpret what you feel and perceive. It's a normal process! It can be an asset to performance when it builds self-worth, regulate energy, help keep you focused or cope. It can also be detrimental to performance if it takes away from your self-esteem, or is distracting. Using retrospection and or a self-talk log are two ways to become more aware of when and what types of self-talk you engage in.

Thought stoppage and turning negative thoughts to positive thoughts may help control negative thoughts.

Even the best athletes and performers have some negative thoughts, but it's their reaction to those thoughts that ultimately may affect their performance, it may be helpful to make the final thought in a string of thoughts positive!

Remember that this is an introduction to these skills, and working with a trained sport and performance psychology professional and working with a trained sport and performance psychology professional provides many more resources and an individualized plan that is suited for the sport and the person.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Mental Skills Series: Imagery

Today's topic in the mental skills series is Imagery.

In performance situations, "seeing is believing." This can be literal: as in actually watching something happen (watching Lance Armstrong win the Tour de France or Dara Torres win a silver medal in the Olympics) or physically accomplishing something yourself: running further or faster or reacting to a strong tennis serve. Of course when you physically experience an event that belief is right there. You saw it, or you did it!

With imagery practice, you don't have to physically experience a skill before you believe you can do it. Imagery is different than visualization in that it uses all your bodily senses (think: seeing, hearing, smell, taste, feeling) to create or re-create a positive experience in your mind, whereas visualization focuses on your sense of sight. What is amazing about imagery is that with practice, imagery can become controlled and vivid. During a vivid imagery session a performer's brain activity can look very similar to what it looks like when they are physically performing the same task (Holmes & Collins, 2001; Jeannerod, 1994).

Imagery is a great skill to practice simply because it is applicable in many areas of performance. It can be used to help learn and practice new skills, aid in concentration, help solve technique problems, aid in energy management (get psyched up or calm down) and even help recover from injury.

When you are physically learning a new skill--the adage "practice makes perfect," comes into play. You have to physically do the skill over and over and over again. I like to think of when I was learning to snowboard--and I spent an entire weekend falling down the mountain trying to learn what toe-side and heel-side were. The result was I was completely sore, but also physically and emotionally exhausted! With imagery, when you are learning a new skill, you can practice it perfectly in your mind, with the added benefit of no physical fatigue. So, while nothing takes the place of physical, deliberate practice (even taking a tumble down a mountain)--mental practice is better than NO practice whatsoever, and it often complements that physical practice (Williams, 2006).

(photo courtesy

When practicing imagery there are two main ways in which the scene may be viewed.

Internal Perspective: when you view see yourself from the inside looking out--or just as you would normally perform)


External Perspective: when you imagine yourself from the outside looking in. As if you were watching yourself perform from the stands or on television (Williams, 2006).
(photo courtesy of

There isn't a right or wrong perspective, but it is interesting to take note of your dominant perspective and try the other one to see how it feels for you.

When integrating imagery into a routine, a performer or athlete can create scenarios in which they see themselves mastering the situation. This is called mastery imagery.

Another way to create a routine is to imagine a situation which has caused difficulty or anxiety in the past. The focus in this type of imagery is not the situation itself, but your reaction to it. Your reactions to these difficult situations is optimal, integrating the skills and preparation into a good performance. This is called preparatory imagery.

I have used both mastery and preparatory imagery.
One thing I like to do is think back on a race that I had where everything seemed to go well for me. I use all my senses to re-create that moment in my mind. I see the course, feel the road under my feet. I can feel the temperature of the day and I definitely can feel the positive emotions I felt as I was going through the process of the race. I focus on what helped me perform well and why they were there that day. I think about how I got ready for the race. This image is obviously pretty positive and it helps give me energy on those days when it's hard to get out the door. It reminds me of why the hard work is worth it to me.

At the beginning of this entry I mentioned imagery practice. Imagery, like all the cardinal skills and the physical skills of optimal performance takes consistent and organized practice Once proper imagery techniques are learned they can take as little as 10-15 minutes to practice and there can be many benefits to performance! Imagery, like the other skills is also quite individualized. What works for one, may not work for all.

And here we are, the end of part three of the Mental Skills series. I hope everyone is enjoying it so far and finding it helpful. As we move towards the end of the series I want to continue to remind everyone that this series is an introduction to the skills and working with a trained sport and performance psychology professional provides many more resources and an individualized plan that is suited for the sport and the person.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Mental Skills Series: Concentration

(Photo courtesy of

Part two of the mental skills series will focus on concentration.

The ability to concentrate is not only important to sport performance but performance in general. Doctors, musicians, lawyers--you name it all must have the ability concentrate on the task at hand in order to perform at their best.

When things don't turn out the way we wanted them to, a frequent comment may be, "I lost my focus," or "I just couldn't concentrate!" But what does that mean exactly? Well, the major component of concentration is the ability to selectively attend to appropriate cues in the task at hand such as environmental stimuli or internal stimuli while also being able to screen out those distracting external OR internal stimuli (Williams, 2006).

When you think of external stimuli that might be distracting, it could be the audience booing, a bad call from an official or...say for example focusing on what other runners are wearing and deciding if the they are fast based off their outfits . (Photo courtesy of

Internal distractions may include distracting body sensations that lead to thoughts and feelings such as, "Gahhhh this hill is so hard, my legs are dying!!" or, "That girl looks pretty fast while doing her warm-up drills..." Even though it may seem like internal and external stimuli might seem to be different, they are always working with each other, holding hands and affecting one another (Williams, 2006).

When thinking about strategies for building concentration skills, an athlete can work with a sport and performance psychology consultant on techniques such mental rehearsal, mindfulness and attentional cue training.

The reality is that with all these mental skills there is a component of individualization that must be taken into account. The goal is to find a positive level of concentration during performance.

Mental Rehearsal: Mental rehearsal is a lot like visualization. In this instance mental rehearsal is used to practice competition concentration skills to learn to not react to intentionally induced external distractions.

Mindfulness: Mindfulness is defined as an "open-hearted moment-to-moment non-judgmental awareness" (Kabat-Zinn, 2005. pg. 24). Mindfulness is a bit different than other techniques in that instead of attempting control or attain an optimal state of performance, mindfulness based techniques suggest that optimal performance does not require control, but instead is looking for non-judgment (ie. not good, not bad) moment-to moment awareness and acceptance of one's internal state--no matter what that state is--and furthermore a focus on the task-relevant external cues and behavioral choices that will support one's athletic endeavors (Moore, 2009). It's a little bit different than what we are normally taught, but it's an interesting way to think of athletics--and life. A way that I have used mindfulness to help maintain concentration is at races. As I have said, this is a place where distractions abound for me. I try to tune into how I feel at the present moment, be aware, and even if I AM anxious--I try to tell myself that doesn't have to affect the outcome of the race.

Attentional Cue Training:
If you do lose your focus or concentration, visual, verbal, and kinesthetic cues can help bring you back to the present moment
(Photograph: Murdo Macleod/Guardian)

("see it, hear it, feel it") and avoid those distracting thoughts and feelings. Much like mindfulness, it is helpful to find cues that are positive, are present-centered, and focus on the process rather than the outcome (Williams, 2006). Attentional cues are an interesting thing, because they are pretty individualized. Some athletes work very well with a lot of cues, but some people only need a few.

One attentional cue I use all the time is when I'm going up hills. When hills are long and drawn out--it's easy for me to get distracted on the pain, the length--and well..the pain and the length.
It's also easy for me to want to go fast up the hills (who doesn't want to get them over with right?) but I've learned pacing is important and on hill climbs that are say, more than 3 min, when I start to feel that distracted feeling, wanting to quit--I tell myself "Just go your pace, your pace, your pace." It sounds strange but saying that helps me focus on the process of moving and nothing else, and it actually works well for me, but as you can tell--it's very simple and individualized for the setting and goal.

So, there you have it a bit about concentration, and an introduction to some techniques for improving concentration. As before there are a lot of great resources out there for learning more about concentration, including working with a professional sport and performance psychology consultant.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Mental Skills Series...

(Photo courtesy of

Recently I've been thinking about doing a series on some basic mental skills that are applicable to running, so the next five posts will be an introduction to mental skills that can be used not only in athletics but also daily life. The topics I'm going to introduce are Relaxation, Concentration, Imagery, Self-Talk and developing a Mental Routine. These skills can be learned and may help towards achieving a specific performance goal. I hope this series is interesting and helpful!

The first topic is Relaxation

Athletes use their muscles for strength, movement and stretch. Muscle tension can be caused by a number of factors including muscle fatigue, anxiety, worry and stress. If the muscle is tense, the amount of power, movement and stretch is limited. Developing awareness of what level of muscle tension, fatigue, anxiety or stress is best for individual performance is key. If one is too relaxed they might feel sluggish while if one is too tense, their performance also suffers. Athletes and performers are looking for that place where they are appropriately excited, and maybe even anxious about their event--moderate levels of arousal has been shown to be best (Williams, 2006).

Relaxation techniques take two different forms:
First there is mind-to-muscle. Mind-to-muscle relaxation includes techniques that as the name suggest begin with your mind and in a trickle down effect move to your muscles. Meditation is actually a form of mind-to-muscle relaxation. Visualization is also a mind-to-muscle technique that can be used for relaxation (Williams, 2006).

The second group of techniques is called muscle-to-mind. These techniques start from a specific, targeted muscle or muscle group and help increase the relaxation response in the mind. Breathing exercises and a technique called progressive relaxation are common, but not the only muscle-to-mind exercises.

When thinking about runners, they need a lot of energy and endurance from their muscles to propel them in practice and in races. If their muscles are tense, that’s diverting energy into that “tension” that could be used for propulsion. It’s very common to see runners of all levels pull their shoulders up, arms in and then drive their arms across their bodies. Two other common "tense" moves in running are either leaning forward or backwards and also what I like to call "the turtleneck." Which is basically super strain in the neck muscles. These things happen as runners get tired. It takes energy for the body to be tense like this and it’s essentially wasting that needed energy for movement forward. The ability to be aware and identify overly tense muscles and then systematically relax them is a skill that can be quite helpful for runners in all of the phases of training and competition.
While many of the techniques are best practiced after a workout or competition, some may actually be utilized during a run. (photo courtesy of Coastal Hills Running Club)

When doing relaxation techniques in running, I have found Progressive Relaxation to be helpful.
Progressive relaxation is an exercise in which specific muscle groups are contracted and held for 5-7 seconds and then relaxed. This exercise progresses from one muscle group to another. The contraction phase helps develop awareness and sensitivity to what muscular tension feels like, while the "letting go" phase teaches an

awareness and sensitivity to the absence of tension. Through regular practice, athletes can become proficient at recognizing unwanted tension wherever it may exist and then know how to release that tension (Williams, 2006).

I use an abbreviated form of Progressive Relaxation while I'm running. Basically I do a quick body scan. I quickly "check-in" with myself, scanning my body from head to toe. I only stop at muscle groups where my own tension level is too high. I consciously release that tension and then continue to scan my body. Usually, when I'm tense--I start to carry my arms higher, and my neck and shoulders are tense, so I know to focus on those areas.

So, there you have it. A brief introduction to the mental skill of relaxation. There is lots of information available about relaxation and various techniques out there. When first learning and then practicing it is best to work with someone who has been trained in the techniques to learn them properly--but then practicing on your own increases the benefits.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dear Smartwool Socks...

I wanted to take a moment to talk about a product that I'm oddly sort of obsessed with: socks.
Okay, it's not really just socks, but really footwear in general. I will put out there right now, Exhibit A of why I am interested in footwear: I've got some serious bunions going on. I know, hot huh?
These puppies are inherited and my brother and my mom have them too. My brother actually got them fixed and I've been to a doctor about the same surgery. The type I have are called Hallux valgus. What can happen and actually does happen with me is that there is some pain over that lovely little joint you see there. The pain makes me very interested in footwear--which brings me to these socks.

In the past I've been a fan of a variety of types and brands of socks, and while many running experts will tell you that it's best to have some sort of synthetic fabric rather than cotton because it wicks moisture away and helps prevent blisters, I've even gone against that grain and worn the cotton. What I'm really looking for are some specific things:
1) "micro" height--Okay, so this probably isn't the most important "performance" aspect, but aesthetically I won't wear anything else. I like my socks tiny. I'm not a fan at all of ankle length and I don't really understand calf length (yes, I understand what compression socks are).

2) Thickness--or lack there of. I like my socks thin. Like thin mints.

3) In terms of fit, I'm looking for lower and upper instep bands and arch bands. I like my socks to grip my feet and over time I've really grown used to this, also this somehow helps prevent odd slippage of the socks down into my shoes.

So, like I said over the years I've tried out many types of socks and most recently I've fallen in love with the Smartwool PhD Running Light and Ultra Light Micros. I think they are the best socks I have ever worn. These socks are a combination of merino wool and nylon. They fit my criteria of being "micro" (they even say, "no sock tan here,") and they are not only fitted for the foot, but they advertise they are fitted for a woman's foot (I don't really know what that means--wouldn't it be cool if it was fitted for a "bunion foot?" No such luck though). I love that the socks come in two weights--light and ultra light. I've tried out both and while the "light" has some padding they are still light and comfortable. The Ultra's are my favorite. Light as a feather. They have a little ankle padding on the back that helps with the odd blister that happens on your Achilles which is nice. To be a super nerd about these socks, when they come up in my sock rotation, I get excited to wear them.

If I had one downside about them, it's cost: they cost $13.95 for ONE pair. I've found them on sale before at REI and tried to stock up. However, even at regular price they are phenomenal.

Okay, the socks don't exactly make my bunions NOT hurt (they are good, but not that good!) but I love how they feel on my feet, and I love that they perform so well. They wick moisture away (something I didn't even know I cared about) and most importantly, they grip my foot from the top of the sock to my toes. Both these have prevented blisters, which in general, suck. So, without further ado, here are my feet, modeling my precious Smartwool Ultra lights, and then my Light running socks.
Today on my run I wore the Ultra Light blue pair. They were fabu.
See how they have that upper band that grips my foot? I'm in love with that, you can see my ankle poking out (low cut) and yes, they even hug my bunion nice and close. Also, if you spy closely you can actually see the love on these puppies. I ran through mud and well, sometimes mud stains happen--even with your shoes on ;D

and finally, hot foot model. Did you know that "body part" models can make up to $5,000 dollars a day? It's true.
So, now you know one of my most favorite products that makes my runs happy. Is there a product you love? A certain shoe, or shirt--even socks that you put on and even if the run is tough--hey, at least you are comfortable!?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Such a Slacker!

A couple weeks ago the coach and I decided it was time to do a tempo run. For fun and practice we decided to do the tempo run at a race. See the thing is, while working on tempo run pace is important, it is also important for me personally to work on what I like to call "good race behaviors." I tend to get pretty anxious at races. A little bit of anxiety is good, but in some ways, my nerves are affecting my ability to perform at my best. I like to think of it as messing with my "zone of optimal performance." In sport and performance psych it's called, the IZOF or Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning. I get nervous enough I'm not always focusing on the right things (take for instance the time I was at a race and I was looking around at the other racers determining who was fastest based on their outfits--see, not optimal functioning). Anyways. I signed up for the Slacker Four Mile and decided that I would not only use the race as a chance get in a good workout but also practice finding and staying IN my zone of optimal functioning.

A quick summary:
The Slacker offers a 1/2 marathon, a relay 1/2 and a four mile option. The 1/2 marathon starts in Loveland Ski area at 10,640 feet and goes to Georgetown at about 8,400 feet. It is a distinct downhill. The four mile race is the final four miles of the race course and let me tell you, it is definitely downhill! The course is along a frontage road, bike path and then through the town of Georgetown.

My goals for the race/workout were:
1) Create a "starting box" for myself. This included me finding a space near the front and in general making space for myself.

2) Getting to the race early with plenty of time for the bathroom, and warm-up routine

3) Running the first mile conservatively

4) Maintaining a tempo run pace the entire time, this involved being able to turn to anyone near me and have a mini-conversation

5) Have fun

What happened:
Well we got there super early. We had to leave our house at--wait for it: 5:15 am. I got up at 4:30. I won't say much about that part. We definitely got there with plenty of time. I was on one of the first buses to the starting line, and had over an hour to mill around, do an awesome warm-up, go to the bathroom and even basically "relax" at the start. So--goal 2 definitely accomplished! I was in the second row...and I tried to create a "box" for myself. This involved basically just squeezing to the front and holding my own. Honestly, I'm still working on how to start out at these races--I totally know how to start a cross-country race and a track race...thank goodness for starters who give directions...road racing is so self-directed.

When the race started I popped out in the front with three guys. I remembered to be internal, focus on myself and my goal of relaxing the first mile. The race was extremely downhill and it was important to race how I felt: relaxed, smooth, easy. Goal 3 accomplished.

While I didn't speak to anyone near me, part of tempo run pace is being able to maintain conversation, and I definitely knew that I could turn to the guy next to me and tell him what was on my mind (go Goal 4)

As for Goal 5....Well, I was having a total blast. Running downhill is hard. I'm not going to lie but it's also fun. I also was in the front. I mean I won the race for the women and I was the 4th person over all. I'm not going to lie, it was awesome, all while maintaining a good tempo run pace of an average of 6:14 miles.

I think the best part was really doing a race and a workout at the same time. I loved having so many concrete performance and process goals to focus on in this race. I found that to be extremely helpful for me in calming a lot of my anxiety as well as giving me something measurable to work towards and look at at the end of the race.

I've never done the Slacker race before, but I thought it was really well put on and organized, and I loved running through Georgetown at the end.