Before you form an opinion of this post, or dismiss it, purely because of the title, I would ask you to read a little further. Here are my disclaimers, if you will. What I am about to explain does not reflect on anyone I have run with, currently run with or might ever run with in the future – this is me and my brain, not any of you. I want to make that clear. Secondly, I need to explain something from a book I have read that I use a lot in my life to explain and control (if that is the right word?) my feelings and sometimes my actions. That book is The Chimp Paradox by Professor Steve Peters.
My extremely brief explanation I need to give for you to understand the rest of the post, although I highly recommend you read the book anyway, is this. Your brain has 3 primary psychological areas: the parietal (the computer), the frontal (the human), and the limbic (the chimp). The computer stores and remembers information for you to use again, the human is you, and the chimp is your emotional part, who likes to be the first to react. He (or she) is the one I want to emphasise on at this point – he is your knee-jerk reaction, your first impression, and most predominantly for those of us who exercise, the one who puts those negative thoughts in our heads that make us want to stop.
Now I can rewind a little. I had been off work sick the day before, where I was run down with a cold. I hadn’t been able to run or attend a pilates session at the club. Still feeling the effects of the cold to an extent, I felt a little snotty and tired, but as I explained to everyone – I tried getting rid of it with a curry, so it must need a run to blast it out! I wanted to keep my legs ticking over, as it was now a week and a half until the marathon – eek! So, off I went, running a beautiful route through footpaths and down by the river.
That’s when it started. “I should have run alone.” It was The Chimp, he had climbed out of his box and was trying to get the better of me. I said to him, “No, I’m running a lovely route, enjoying nature, blasting the last of this cold out, and I’m tapering for the marathon.”. The Chimp went on to tell me that I was holding the others back, that I wasn’t good enough to be running with them, and in an effort to make me grumpy, he screeched, “You should have run alone!”. Those words hit me hard.
I am sure – no, I know – that every runner, or any athlete for that matter, experiences at some point in their training that negative voice that says, “You can’t do this. You’re rubbish and you should just stop!”. I urge you all to ignore it. When the going gets tough, The Chimp gets scared and anxious, and thinks he is protecting you by letting you admit defeat. Don’t listen to him.
I have developed my own way of dealing with my chimp when I need to ignore what he says. Whether you are running, cycling, swimming, surfing, skiing, playing tennis…. whatever your sport is, this is relevant to you! I put him in his box, he can screech away all he likes, and I might hear him, but that doesn’t mean I have to listen to him and give in.
At first, you are required to look into the past. Use your computer in your brain and look at what you have achieved. More often that not, you will have completed the distance you are trying to achieve when you start to struggle, so there is no need to listen to that negativity. ‘But this is the first time I am running 10 miles’, I hear you say. ‘I have got to 9 miles and this is as far as I have gone before, and I’m struggling, so I should give up’. To which I would say, “Can you run a mile?”. The answer is yes. You can run a mile. Tell your body (and your chimp) that although you have run 9 miles, it is only one more, and you know you can do that. I deploy this technique when completing longer training runs too. When you need to squeeze a 20 mile run out, I find the best way for me is to get to halfway and try and tell my body that actually, I haven’t just run 10 miles, I’m just heading out on tired legs from the week – it’s almost like a little reset button.
You are also required to look into the future. Alright, I haven’t taken my crazy pills this morning – make all the jokes you like – but I know what I mean. In this instance, on that particular evening where The Chimp has said that I should have run alone, I know that I need to look into the future and see how I think I will feel after the run. Obviously the future is not definite, so there will always be several possibilities ahead. Here, we have the first option, which is where The Chimp wins, tells me to stop and I have to drag myself slowly back to the club alone, in the dark. This will be a miserable experience for me and one I would regret. Option two – I continue running with the people I set out with, pushing hard to keep up, but listening to the chimp moan that it’s too hard and it’s going to ruin the marathon (he loves to be a drama queen!). Or, I can choose the third option. This is my favourite and the one that I was lucky enough to know to select that night. I continued running at a pace I found more comfortable, allowed myself to drop back a little and let the others go on ahead a bit. We are all aware I am tapering, no one is offended or upset by it, and in fact, later on I would be of use on “poo watch” down the trails where it has got a bit darker!
The final part to silencing the negative voice is hindsight. Now you have completed the run, The Chimp has calmed down, realised no one has died, and has been returned to his box, you can reflect on the possibilities of how the evening could have unfolded. So maybe I didn’t run with the club and I had headed out by myself. The Chimp is still grumpy because of the cold that is blocking up my airways and instead of flipping out about running with other people, he now gets the hump about running altogether. I end up run-walking the distance I wanted to complete, possibly even cutting it short and I feel unsatisfied and disheartened by the whole experience. Those few moments of doubt in this case, were managed and pushed away, and I could complete my run comfortably and in good company.
So, my point to all of this, is that if you can apply this reasoning to the negative ideas that appear in your head during any training, then you will hopefully find things going a lot more smoothly on the mental side of things. Training with another person, or with more people, can give you the support that you need to reach an end goal. Yes, you may be able to achieve it alone, but I wonder whether it would be with the same mental stability as if you were training with a group or in a pair. When I train in the pool with my friend, The Chimp might screech to slow down because you’re blowing and it’s difficult, but having that other person there stops you from ‘wimping out’, and forces you to push on. There is a certain amount of bravado about soldiering on when you are suffering, because you don’t want to look weak, or let the others down. You can use that to your advantage – harness it and use it to silence your chimp.
Although I was almost afraid to admit it the other week (until a friend pointed it out to me), I started to get tired 17 miles into a 20 mile training run. He said, “you get tired like normal people”, and he was right. It didn’t matter if I was tired, as long as I finished it. I knew I had to just keep going, not only because I needed the run for my training, but also because everyone around me was counting on it. I didn’t want to stop, but I went quiet because I was tired. I was looking forward to the end and a drink of water. I pushed on, I completed the mileage, and I didn’t die. Proof to the negative thoughts that they were wrong yet again. I took that one, and logged it in a little box in my brain for another day when I would need to fight the good fight again.
Just remember – everyone gets tired, everyone can get negative, but everyone can come out clean the other side. And do you know what? I shouldn’t have run alone.
Thank you for reading as always!
P.S. All rights to The Chimp idea are obviously to Steve Peters. I hope he doesn’t mind me explaining a bit and how I use it!