Mental Roadway Congestion

By | Coaching, Thoughts, Triathlon | No Comments
[Disclaimer: I am not a professional in the field of psychology. All blog posts are pure opinion from my personal coaching, triathlon, and life experience.]

If your brain were likened to a highway would you consider it jammed, pothole-laden and confusing, or open, smooth and straightforward? Is it clogged up with rubberneckers and parked cars, stuck in a dead-end or roundabout without exit? How would you think differently if you had more space and clarity in your mind? How much more capability could you uncover by changing the thoroughfare of your thoughts?

Neural Roadblocks

In many respects, what you can’t change and what you can’t control are a waste of your time, energy, and precious mental space. Focusing on these things often leads to a sense of neurological stickiness. Shifting your focus to yourself and what is in your control will not only free up storage in your head; it will allow you to access the power of clearly focusing on your personal growth and purpose in life. This heightened sense of purpose can be a major force multiplier.

Avoid fixating on past performances to predict future results. This goes for your own performances and others’. You don’t know what would have happened “if only _____” and you don’t know what might happen next. All you can do is to prepare yourself in the best way that you know in order to have the best possible outcome…regardless of what happens outside of your control.

Let’s look at a hypothetical example…

Tony vs. Bobby

Tony and Bobby are both competing in a marathon. Tony recalls that Bobby only started training for marathons relatively recently and was not nearly at Tony’s level in their local 5k last summer. Tony has already envisioned himself crossing the line minutes in front of Bobby.

When Bobby passes Tony in the race, Tony has not mentally prepared for the possibility of this outcome. He had expectations based on previous results which were no longer relevant. He was stuck in the past rather than showing up to the race in front of him. He mentally falters and his pace slows as he watches Bobby fade into the foreground. Tony feels progressively worse and comes across the finish line physically, mentally, and emotionally defeated.

Tony was looking at his past self in comparison to Bobby’s past self, failing to see that both Tony and Bobby were no longer the past versions of themselves! He was so focused on Bobby’s progress (something out of his control) that he neglected to celebrate his own growth; he failed to learn from and improve his personal process and mindset (things in his control).

Don’t be like Tony. Instead, recognize that others have their own story and path to navigate. It’s a waste of your mental space to focus on their trajectory or to form expectations for their performance based on their past. Let them focus on them. Your process is enough of an adventure to pursue and merits your complete attention!

Tony vs. Tony

As with the comparison-to-others roadblock, it’s equally ineffective to focus on your own past performances as a means of predicting your future results. Taking Bobby out of the equation, Tony was still basing his expectation on his own past performance, which weakened his ability to fully focus on and race in the present moment.

Re-Routing

Each time we approach a new day, training session, or start line, we can create a new outcome regardless of what’s happened in the past. Step into each situation anew. Practice approaching each moment with your full focus rather than allowing your thoughts to drift toward uncontrollables (e.g. other people, the past, etc). Show up and meet the specific demands of the day–race day, training day, or recovery day.

Train in the moment to race in the moment. Train your mind and body for all potential challenges that race day may bring by showing up to training with the same focus. You’ll gain confidence in your ability to make smart decisions in the moment by practicing this skill daily. Then, you have the luxury of familiarity on race day and the freedom to race as if it is “just another training session”.

Focus Pocus

By | Coaching | 2 Comments
Have you ever felt that you would be so much more productive, efficient, successful, if you were able to focus better?

I have been thinking about what “focus” really is, why it might be important, and how it is cultivated. I wrote a draft of this post on Halloween, hence the themed blog title.

[Disclaimer: I am not a professional in the field of psychology. All blog posts are pure opinion from my personal coaching, triathlon, and life experience.]
What does it mean to be focused? 

I think that a person who is focused on something is able to block out distractions–to turn on their tunnel vision–during critical moments in pursuit of the object of said focus. The technical definition of the noun focus is: “the center of interest or activity” while as a verb, to focus means to “adapt to the prevailing level of light and become able to see clearly.”

The verb “to focus” as described by the above definition involves adaptation. To focus is something that is done on purpose, not at random or by accident. I also like that focus involves the unveiling of our object as it becomes increasingly clear to us.

If we want to make something our focus, we have to choose to fix our eyes on it, and to adjust our eyes to see all of the finer details. 

How can this focus be applied to athletic pursuits?

I liken my focus to a goal. I want to purposely keep my eyes on my goal. At first my goal may seem vague, but as I take each step to sharpen my line of vision and cut out the peripheral distractions, it comes increasingly into focus. Eventually it is perfectly clear to me. I must keep it in focus or risk getting off track.

The geometrical definition is equally cool– the focus is:

one of the fixed points from which the distances to any point of a given curve, such as an ellipse or parabola, are connected by a linear relation.

If the focus is an athletic goal, it becomes a goal toward which every aspect of your life must draw a line to. To me, this means that if I proclaim something to be my goal I must align everything in my life toward that ultimate goal. For example, if my goal is to finish an ultra-endurance triathlon, I have to train my body and mind, sleep well, eat well, have a plan, sign up for a race, etc.

I believe that we are all focused on something at any given time, whether it be ourselves, others, possessions, power, politics, problems, gratitude, wonder, dreams, etc, our mind grabs onto something that it can fixate on. I admit that most of the time I am in a state of mental ambiguity and distraction, or am trying to focus on multiple things at once, having no clear focus. Pure focus is difficult! But, when done right, we can enter the gloriously productive and creative “flow state” where we become so purely present with our work that we seemingly become the work itself.

I like sport because it allows us to put away other life things to be fully present with our physical task. Breathe. Step. Kick. Pedal. I like the simplicity of it. Athletic goals challenge me to improve my ability to stay in the moment even when my mind wants to run off and consider how nice it would be to be back in bed. They challenge me to make the small and seemingly insignificant decisions everyday that are connected by a linear relation to my goal: Pack your bag. Wake up. Put on your socks. Walk out the door. Dive into the pool. Kick. Exhale. Eat. Go to bed.

Now that we have a working definition…

Why is the ability to focus important?

If we can’t see our goal clearly, how will we know what our desired outcome looks like–let alone how to arrive at it? Without the ability to focus on our goal, all of the distractions of life (and there are many!) are going to get in our way. We are going to get off track. We will end up in the wrong place and not even know where the right place was to begin with; shooting at an ambiguous, ever-moving, target.

How can we improve our ability to focus?

By practicing it. We don’t suddenly end up in the most critical moments with magical laser-focusing capabilities. If the goal is clear and in focus in all of the small things everyday, it is more likely to be in focus in defining moments. If it is out-of-focus more often than not, we may walk off the course and straight to the hamburger stand in the middle of our next Ironman competition when we have no logical reason for not finishing (not to mention any names…).

Focus takes practice!

When things get blurry, look again. Change your angle. Squint your eyelids. Adapt to the prevailing level of light and become able to see clearly.

Meet the Athlete: Chris Frias

By | Fitness, Meet the Athlete | No Comments

A Throwback Post

Last summer, I published a “Life Stuff” piece on my friend Chris Frias, Cal Poly 10k school record holder and 2016 Olympic Trials marathon competitor. He is currently training to qualify and compete in the 2020 trials. There’s a lot of good insight that comes with such high quality athletic experience. Chris has kindly packaged up a good chunk of it here in this “Meet the Athlete” interview format for you to enjoy. Thank you, Chris!

Current place of residence: Ventura, CA

Best Event (running): 5k/10k

Day job: Manager at Mile 26 Sports

Favorite hobbies (besides running): I love coaching.  I helped out with Buena’s cross country and track teams last year and have been a VYBA (youth basketball) coach the past two years.  I also like hiking and going to the beach.

Favorite non-sport accomplishment: Getting my Master’s degree from Cal Poly.

Current race goal: Sub 14 5k, sub 29 10k, sub 64 half/sub 2:18 marathon

When did you start running? Initially started running to get in shape for basketball my freshman year of high school.  I found out that year I was surprisingly pretty good at it so I decided stick with it. Thankfully I did too, because playing ball at the collegiate level probably wouldn’t have been realistic with my 5’7 frame.

What gets you out the door to go for a run? My dedication and love for the sport along with my strong desire to get better each and every day.  Running has been my passion for the past 14 years now and it will continue to be for the rest of my life.     

Who inspires you and why? My mom is my greatest inspiration.  She battled stage 4 pancreatic cancer for 17 months and never was negative or gave up hope.  She fought until her very last day. He strength, willpower, and bravery are things I truly admired.  

Best athletic encouragement you’ve ever been given:  The best encouragement I’ve been given throughout my running career has always come from Cayla.  She always tells me she’s proud of me after every race no matter the result. I’m usually pretty hard on myself if I’m not running up to my standards, but I can always count on her to give me the positive feedback I need to lift my spirits back up.   

What is your most significant “success” in sport thus far, and what did you learn from it?  Breaking the 10k school record at Cal Poly (which had stood for 31 years) is what I view as my most significant success.  I learned that all the sacrifices I had made leading up to that brief moment in time knowing what I had just accomplished had all been MORE than worth it.  In that moment I found out how much I truly loved the sport.

What is your most significant “failure” or setback in sport thus far, and what did you learn from it?  Last track season I probably had the biggest setback of my running career due to life circumstances.  My times and performances weren’t up to par with my expectations by any means. It’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally come to the realization that no matter how hard or how smart you may train, sometimes the ups and downs in life will ultimately determine how well you’ll actually perform.  I know things will get better, and therefore my running will improve, but for now I’m just doing all I can to continue to compete at the highest level possible.

Hardest race you’ve ever completed: Completing the marathon at the 2016 Olympic Trials was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life.  It pushed me to my limits physically, mentally, and emotionally. I had to stop at least 15-20 times to stretch to ease the cramps I was having in virtually every muscle in my body (or at least that’s what it felt like).  There were also times after stopping that I would have to just start walking to keep my momentum going. My ultimate goal was to finish the race so I was determined to cross the line by any means necessary.

Pre-race ritual or superstition: Be done eating at least 3 hours before my race.  And if I eat a sandwich, it’s GOTTA be from Subway.  

Training tips: Consistency in training leads to consistency in racing.  Not much of a secret but a very important concept to understand.  

What are 3 habits that you believe have helped you reach and maintain an elite running lifestyle? I get at least 8 hours of sleep every night, I drink in moderation, and I take care of my body on a daily basis (stretch, roll, etc).

What is the first thing and last thing you do each day? First thing I do is wake up and get ready for my run every morning; the last thing I do is get in bed, watch Netflix, and KO every night.

Pick one:

Dirt, Pavement, Grass, Sand, Treadmill, or Track? Track

Hot or Cold? Cold

Snot rocket, sleeve, or tissue? Sleeve

Solo or group training? Group

Chocolate or cheese? Chocolate

Watch on your left wrist or right? Left

Morning or evening workout? Morning

Hat or visor? Hat

Cheerios or Wheaties? Cheerios

Coffee, tea, or hot chocolate? Hot chocolate

Any other fun facts about you? I’m a fantasy football and basketball NERD.  I spend way too much time doing “research” to try to win in leagues I’m in with friends.  

What is your first thought when then alarm goes off for an early workout or race? Man it’s way too early to be doing this.  

Second thought? Don’t lay in bed any longer or else you’ll never get up!

What is the last thought in your head before the gun at a race? Try to relax.

First thought after the gun? Get out hard and GO!

Any final thoughts on mental game? Positive self-talk can significantly influence performance and can be the difference in having a great race or a poor one.  Negative thoughts can be very detrimental to performance and can ultimately lead to mentally checking out of a race/workout.  I feel like running is about 70% mental and 30% physical. You can be extremely fit yet never perform well in races if you aren’t mentally tough.  

With so many obstacles in my life right now, I’ve found having positive thoughts and positive self-talk to be even more crucial to my success in my training and racing.  I find myself having to use positive self-talk more frequently now than I have in the past to help me keep an honest effort in workouts and in races.    

Life Stuff with Mike Shaffer

By | Fitness, Life Stuff, Swimming, Triathlon, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

If you’ve enjoyed reading about how fellow athletes have overcome adversity in this Life Stuff series, you are in for another treat! Mike Shaffer is a lifelong high-performing athlete with an impressive competitive resume in swimming, triathlon, and aquabike. His journey has not been without its share of valleys, though.

In 1994, Mike was nearly killed when he was struck head-on by a drunk driver during a training ride. After hitting the hood and going through the windshield of the Ford Escort, his injuries included a severed left quad, broken right foot, and knees that required reconstruction. In a 2006 interview with USMS Swimmer, Mike recalls that he returned to the pool 3 months after the accident using a one-legged turn and buoy to keep his legs afloat.

From there, he used small, realistic goals in the pool to keep himself motivated and incrementally improving.

“I was determined. I kept setting goals: 40-second 50s today…It refreshed me. I think it helped to light a fire again. Every week I was trying a new challenge.”

The following month, he completed his annual One Hour USMS swim relying almost entirely on his upper body. Another 6 months later (10 months post-accident), Mike completed Ironman Canada, setting a personal best time and a race swim course record of 43 minutes and 54 seconds. During the same season, he was awarded the USA Triathlon Comeback Award as well as gold and silver medals in the FINA Masters World Swimming Championships.

Mike claims a positive outlook and refusal to give up were the key ingredients in his return to competition. “It may take time, but stick with it” he says.

About a decade after his “comeback” into triathlon, Mike was all but forced out of the sport again. In 2004, his doctor told him to ‘stop running now or we can go ahead and schedule your knee replacement surgeries.’ Mike’s triathlon career ended soon after that discussion. However, just a few months later USAT would announce an aquabike pilot program starting in 2005. “It was a perfect transition for me” he recalls.

Mike claims 1st Overall at Aquabike Age Group Nationals in Miami, 2016

Since aquabike’s official launch, “Aquabike Mike” has earned national and world titles in the sport. At the same time, he has remained competitive in the pool where he regularly wins national titles and sets national standards on the way. As someone who has witnessed many of Mike’s training sessions and competitions first-hand, I can say that to observe him in the pool (and ocean) or on a bike is to see a masterpiece being painted. His chosen canvas is the water and the road.