By Cheryl Miller
I want to be strong.
My Uncle Teddy was an avid bodybuilder, and I remember sitting in the corner of his room, watching him carefully arrange different weights and lift them. It was impressive. From the bench press, to curls, to squats—he would calmly make his way through each set, sweat dripping from his brow as he showcased his strength.
One day, I summoned up the courage to tell him I wanted to be as strong as him. He laughed, saying I better get to the gym if that was the case. And I did— almost to an obsessive degree. For most of my youth I associated strength with physical qualities and characteristics, such as speed, agility, and endurance. I focused heavily on my physical strength, believing that building my body each day would make me the best athlete I could be. I never missed a day of training, and I saw incredible results as runner. Each practice received my all, my top effort, and I constantly pushed my body forward. Physically I was often the fastest runner on the starting line – yet I still lost races – it made no sense and I could not understand why.
No one trained harder than me. I was working out twice a day, tackling hills, beach drills on sand dunes, lifting weights, and always shaving my times down in practice. But something in my performance was lacking—my strength was not at 100 percent. One day my coach told me we were going to check out a different track. So I packed my gym bag and met him at the high school parking lot. We drove past several high schools before I finally asked, “hey Coach where we goin?”. “You’ll see, “ was all he said back, smiling ahead at the highway. When we pulled up to the Belmont Racetrack in NY, I was completely confused. “This is a horseracing track,” I said, shooting him a puzzled look. “Yep, it’s Belmont, one of the most amazing racetracks in the world,” Coach responded.
I followed him inside and watched the bustle of people and heard the announcer call out the names of jockeys and horses. The track smelled like sweat, dirt, and mud, and the horses were phenomenal to see—the pure definition of strength. We found a spot close to the rail to watch the race, and each horse walked up to the gate with a smaller horse trotting alongside them. “Those horses help to calm the racers,” Coach explained. Then he asked, ”What do you think those horses are thinking about right now?” I laughed—what a ridiculous question I thought. I mean—they were horses. “I dunno,” I shrugged.
He persisted, “Cheryl what is going through their heads?” I didn’t have a clue, but Coach wanted an answer. “Nothing,” I said. He clapped his hands together and exclaimed, “Exactly!” My confusion continued to expand. “What goes through your head when you race,” he asked me. The question made me feel immediately defensive. Tons of thoughts made their way into and out of my mind before a race. I never fully analyzed them, they were all a part of the experience. The gates flew open and off the horses went, the ground vibrating from the sheer force of their bodies pounding the track. As I watched the Thoroughbreds head into their first turn, I realized where my strength was lacking. I had not taken care of my mind prior to my races, my focus was only on my body’s performance.
I realized one of the things that made these racehorses so incredibly strong was the way their minds were conditioned to race. They were not thinking about the tests they had to take, or what colleges to apply to – their minds were clear. Their running flowed naturally, uncluttered by stressful thoughts.
It took me years to fully understand the necessary relationship between mental fitness and physical fitness. Competing in sports is 80 percent mental, 20 percent physical. So much of our preparation for competition focuses on physical preparation, yet it’s crucial to prepare our minds as well. How do you train your mind? Well there are many ways, but here are a few exercises that I love to utilize to strengthen my mental fitness before a race:
- Think positive thoughts—as humans we sometimes allow the worries and the what-ifs to overtake out thoughts, especially when we set out to do hard things. Leading up to race day I remind myself that I’m great at doing hard things and I recall past races I’ve won and great moments I’ve had in training. I also listen to positive music to get myself pumped, read my favorite quotes, and watch inspiring movies.
- Visualize my best race scenario—Having a race plan is key, and part of that plan is to visualize how I will achieve it. I visualize how I will attack tough portions of my race, how I will manage my pace, and how I will cross the finish line. This type of visualization helps to increase my confidence and give me an “I’ll crush this” mentality.
- Gear up—while it may seem silly, having my gear laid out and ready to go helps in my mental prep before a race. Making sure my kicks feel good, my race day clothes are on point—these small things put my mind at ease and they are little things within my control.
- Acknowledge my fears—at every stage of my life as an athlete I have had legitimate fears about the run itself, my own ability, the weather, et cet—I acknowledge them and move past them. Hiding them, or pretending they don’t exist only causes me more stress later down the road, but dealing with them up front and in the open is helpful.
In my quest to be strong—and yes, to this day I still work hard at being strong—I constantly balance my mental and physical strength. I make sure I am giving both sides the attention needed for successful performance and for a long career of doing what I love to do—run harder, better, faster, stronger.
Cheryl is a Mom, Wife, Traveler, Writer, and Running enthusiast. If you want to connect with her you can find her on Instagram @gypseejourney.