Comfort in Discomfort: Why Mental Practice Matters

Rob Krar's mental toughness is second to none. Photo: Glen Delman

Here’s why mental preparation should be part of your training routine.

Rob Krar had a secret weapon for his wins at the 2014 Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run and the Leadville Trail 100 Run. The Flagstaff, Ariz., pharmacist was certainly fit to run the distance—you’d be hard-pressed to finish races like that if you weren’t—but the sole reason he was able to calmly outrun all the competition and win both races in the second-fastest times in course histories was not because he was fit or because he is a gifted runner.

It was because his mind was fit to win.

So how can you transform basic self-motivational skills into focused intention and the mental fitness needed to reach your most sought-after running goals? Turns out, that much like running, practice and consistency makes perfect.

RELATED: How Rob Krar Won The Western States 100

Practice Mental Rehearsal

While you’ve likely heard the adage athletics are 10 percent physical and 90 percent mental, you may never have ever put it to use. A 2003 study conducted through Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute in Cleveland, Ohio, did just that by observing two sets of volunteers–one set performed a strength routine and the other thought about it. The group that performed the strength-building exercises noticed a 53 percent increase in strength while the thinkers experienced a 35 percent increase in muscle strength without ever lifting a finger. So yes, actually performing the activity did result in a greater improvement, but only by 18 percent.

Thinking about doing an activity means mentally placing yourself in the situation. Rather than observing yourself performing an activity from an outer body perspective, mental rehearsal is a first-person kinesthetic viewing practice that allows you to really feel what is happening and sense everything around you to the point that you feel like you’ve already run the entire race and crossed the finish line.

“I try to imagine the physical layout of the course, my competition, and then internalize how I’m feeling so I can be prepared for anything the race throws my way,” says Andy Potts, a professional triathlete who regularly finishes at the top of the podium. “The more mental preparation I do, the more comfortable I am with the unknown on race day.”

Learn to Meditate

Much like stretching, meditation is one of those things we know we should do, but the lack of immediate results can make “why” feel vague. New research points to meditation’s power to alter not only performance ability, but also brain chemistry.

Further, according to a study led by sports psychologist Frank L. Gardner, when athletes develop a mindful-based approach to performance, in which they accept how they feel during difficult moments, they were able to perform better than athletes who suppressed feelings of discomfort.

Take Krar’s 2014 Western States run for example. “In the past I used the approach of trying to ignore the pain and push through. Now I accept and welcome the discomfort and work with it, not against it,” Krar says. “The last quarter or so I am able to go to what I call the ‘dark place’ when the pain is more of a comfort than a hindrance. It’s something I can’t replicate in training and I feel lucky to be able to experience it.”

Elinor Fish, a women’s wellness coach in Carbondale, Colo., suggests starting with 10 minutes of meditation practice per day. According to Fish, meditation lowers stress hormones and blood pressure while also reducing inflammation in the body. “A key component to meditation is observing the thoughts that pass through the mind without identifying with them,” she says. “Rather than the goal being to stop your thoughts, you simply observe the thoughts and let them pass.”

Practice Positive Self-Talk

You have to believe in yourself and be your own cheerleader. This isn’t to suggest you take a narcissistic approach to your training. Instead appreciate how amazing you are for attempting challenging  goals.

“Positive self-talk cannot be understated,” says Potts. “No matter how good or bad the previous stretch of racing was, I always tell myself that I’m doing my best and to keep on pushing because it is worth the feeling at the end.”

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Ashley Arnold lives in Boulder, Colo. and won the 2013 Leadville Trail 100 Run. Follow her on Twitter.

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