We’ve all been there. You sign up for a big event, and before the confirmation email hits your inbox, those internal conversations begin:
What did I just do? What did I just sign up for? Why??
I’ll never be in shape in time!
What have I done?!
Or you commit to your friends that this is the time you are going to get in shape/complete a triathlon/qualify for Boston/PR a 5k … and then you panic!
Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
There is something about actually registering for an event – or just choosing to take the next steps towards a big change – which can prompt anxiety, even fear. Stepping outside of your comfort zone is a big deal!
Anxiety anywhere in our life usually does one of two things: It’s a huge motivator or it’s completely paralyzing.
If you waited for it to be the perfect time, when you’re perfectly in shape and the planets are aligned, would you ever do it?
With any goals that push us, there are so many seemingly insurmountable aspects that it can be overwhelming. Almost immediately our brain starts to create background conversations which should help but usually hinder our efforts.
Some of these panicky thoughts might actually be based in fact, but chances are, you aren’t the best judge of your abilities when your head is in the spin cycle.
“Registration anxiety” and “what-have-I-signed-up-for fear” are extremely common, but the trick is not to let them interfere with your training. How best to cope with these difficult thoughts?
The Yellow Duck
At ChelanCamp this year, Mental Skills Coach Lynda Lahman spoke about “The Winner’s Mind” and how anxiety and negative thoughts can creep up on us. We often get told to dismiss negative thoughts and only focus on the positive, she said, but that’s nearly impossible to do. She had us try it in a series of exercises, and most of us struggled to stay purely positive.
So, it was time for the yellow duck.
Lynda presented a giant rubber yellow ducky and challenged us: Don’t think of a yellow duck! And what happened? All we could think about was a yellow duck. Go ahead, try it. Your brain automatically pictures one, right? Research has shown that the harder you try to suppress a thought, the more it persists. So what if there’s a better way?
Luckily, there is.
Lynda says, “Rather than trying to avoid the yellow duck, it’s okay to let it tag along, while turning your attention to the actual task at hand. The good news with sport is that there is almost always something to be focusing on, and as you train your mind to keep coming back to that task, the duck will fade into the background: amusing but no longer distracting.”
The first step after clicking that “register now” button is acknowledging the anxiety (your Yellow Duck)! It is going to be there. Be honest with yourself about the time and energy you have available to spend preparing and working towards your goal and go from there. This part of the journey is all part of the process!
Break it down.
Start with breaking down all the parts of what it will take to meet the goal.
Be realistic. To help leave that duck in the background, the goal will be to look at your schedule and block out periods where you know you can add more time for training. Get creative with this and find ways to include family and friends. If you can make them feel a part of the journey, they’ll be happier about you doing it and more invested in the outcome.
Do your homework. The event itself is another part of this picture. Do your homework about the event. Learn about the course and logistics. Will it be hot and should you incorporate heat training? Is there elevation? Do you need to think about travel and how to get equipment there? Can your family be there and see you?
Control what you can. Learn about the aspects of your event that are within your control (hill training, nutrition) and get planning! Realize that anxiety and fear will be there, but you are in control, not your emotions. Or the duck.
We’ve done our research about the event, we have some ideas how to fit in the training, so now is the time to engage Coach to help you create a realistic training plan.
Some of us make it past registration regret only to hit training-plan panic head on: Swim an Ironman distance!? Impossible!
Think about it this way: OK, I can’t do the distance YET! Lynda helped us add another qualifier: “AND I am working on it.” Instead of focusing on the negative, add the “and” rather than a “but” and see how the framework of your training can change. Don’t get overwhelmed. Trust your coach to give you manageable steps towards your goal.
Remember: more training is not always better. Yes, you need to work towards being prepared for your event, but look honestly at your goals. Maybe it is not realistic to go for a huge PR if you’ve had some injury concerns or are starting a training cycle late.
Can you be satisfied with doing your best work – making sure your body can handle the demands – and see what comes on the day of the event?
OK, your body is ready to jump in and start training, but how about your brain?
Turning around the scary, negative self-talk is a skill that needs to be developed, and it starts as soon as you sign up or commit to a big event.
When you are in the middle of a big goal race or event, things can happen – and they do. We try our best to have plans a-z and to predict as many unpredictables as we can, but with every event I do or a client does, there is always something we didn’t plan for.
The goal therefore is not to predict or plan for every possible scenario but to come up with strategies to deal with any scenario that’s not what we planned. We can’t always know what will happen, but we can practice how we’ll react to what does.
For example, during training, many of us practice with the fuel that we plan to use on race day. We think we have it dialed in, and that this is one piece we no longer need to worry about. Then race day comes and our stomach is sideways from the start.
Now what? Go into a tailspin and think the race is over, I screwed up, I didn’t practice enough, I should have somehow known this would happen, I’m not good enough or strong enough for this kind of event, I should stop!!??
Or...do we say well, this sucks, but what do I know about fueling, and how can I make use of what I know? Can I find other options at aid stations, can I take some plain water or salt and see if my gut calms down, do I simply need to let go of my time expectations and slow down so my system can process better?
After we cross the finish line we can try to dive into why this happened, but trying to process it all just before the gun is rarely productive.
Mental skills training is something we've delved into before, many times! Think of that anxiety as a reminder that training is also about planning, practicing and preparing!
I bet you have a friend or family member who has seen you tie yourself in knots a time or two, and who always asks, “Why do you keep doing this to yourself?”
If you’re like us, you do these events because they are fun and you enjoy the challenge. The skills we develop to make it to the starting line are the same skills we use in any endeavor we undertake, not only as an athlete but in our personal and professional lives too.
If you can get to and through a tough race without letting the yellow duck drag you down, chances are you can do nearly anything.
What are you committing to now?!