Another Fast10 blog from Welsh marathoner Natasha Cockram that’s just full of great advice. It’s not just running that will make you a better runner, reading this might too. 

Talent obviously plays a role when it comes to sport but what sets talented people apart?

I’m sure most runners have heard about “the zone” but what really is this? I’m also sure I’m not the only runner who has been asked “what do you think about when you run?” most of the time I can’t give an answer, or I just brush it off with the answer “nothing, I just zone out”.

What really got me thinking is when I then got asked “How do you think about nothing and what do you mean, zone out”. Maybe zoning out is “the zone”, the state when we are not concerned about ourselves or our surroundings, in fact the state that we just don’t think!

What got me thinking even more is the thought that I am perhaps just weird, as running 40 laps of an 800-metre reservoir for a Sunday long run sounds terribly boring and even a little insane but somehow, it’s over before I know it.

I have lost count of how many times someone has told me they waved to me when I passed them on a run and I ‘ignored them’. More often than not I am completely unaware of passing someone whilst on a run or passing a car I know. 

Why is this?

Sports psychologists often refer to elite sportspeople as someone who thinks differently to their competitors which then sets them apart.

However, psychologist Dr. Beecham put’s it differently suggesting ‘the reality is not that they think differently, they simply don’t think. There is an absence of thought, cognition and emotion’. It’s as if the unconscious mind moves faster than the conscious mind forcing us to run in “the zone”.

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The mind is controlling the body, almost as if the brain is the computer system and your belief system is your software. So, you could be gifted and you could be in great shape, but if the way that your mind is functioning is counter to that, you’ll never realise your physical potential.

How do we get in “the zone”?

I think the healthier your mindset the more likely you are going to be able to go into “the zone”. Whilst I experience it on a lot of my runs it is still something I am yet to consistently experience in races.

This is probably because my conscious mind takes over, not giving my unconscious mind a chance to take control. 

When we aren’t in “the zone” and our conscious mind is in control and we are thinking, this is when we need to think differently. Thinking of doing things differently to the average person is necessary to be better than average. We live in a culture and society where we are obsessed with ‘better’ no matter what area of life we are referring to.

The problem with ‘better’ is it is only about the future, not about the now. Performance and everything you do is in the present moment. Whatever situation you are in, even if it’s not an ideal situation you can still make the best of it.

Comparison is the thief of joy

In one of my previous blogs I talked about how comparing yourself to others can be detrimental as it takes you away from your current self. The comparison game also applies to comparing your current self to your previous self and future self.

I know I have underperformed on several occasions because I have been thinking about the things I still needed to do to build myself; the miles, the speed work, the weights etc. that I still needed to do to get faster, when I should’ve been thinking “this is me now, this is now, so let’s do this”. This way of thinking means my conscious mind is more active, disabling my unconscious mind to take charge thus preventing me from going into “the zone”. 

It is impossible to be “ready” or perfectly prepared for every race you stand on the start line for, especially with marathon running.

You can only peak and be ready a couple times throughout the year. Instead of trying to perfect everything, sometimes it is better to think about optimizing everything which will then in return get you closer to perfection.

If we strive for perfection all the time and constantly compare, it will drive us insane. If you consistently do your best in the present, overtime you will develop and ultimately get better and get closer to perfection. 

Photo credit: Porthcawl 10km

Don’t play the comparison game

Hopefully we can all say we are in a better place than our previous self but sometimes things happen along the way that can set you back. For example, you might be slower now than last year, but this doesn’t necessarily mean you are not a better athlete now. This is why we should not use the comparison game.

Perhaps you have had an injury or illness that has set you back or perhaps you have tried a new training method which you haven’t yet adapted to, or you have tried and realised it isn’t the right method for you. There are always going to be barriers along the way, we are human, we are dynamic and we are always changing.

Even the best athletes will go from having a lot of confidence to having little. Instead of comparing or thinking we aren’t good enough we should ask ourselves “How do I get back?” or “How do I improve?”. It goes back to looking at the bigger picture and reminding ourselves that everyone has a bad day, or even a bad month or year. 

The training diary

This then brings me on to the importance of keeping a training diary and also setting goals. Keeping up to date on my training logs has not been my strongest point over the years, however it is something I have realised is so important to optimise myself.

It can be a great tool to figure things out such as what works for you, what doesn’t work and can also be a reminder of the good work you have done and a reminder of why you are doing what you are doing. I try to record as much as possible in my training diary including mileage, workouts, paces, recovery, how I felt, the weather, occasionally my weight and any other factors that I feel necessary including sleep and hydration (two things I am trying to improve on so are often a written weekly goal).

Goal setting should be one of your goals

Goals are another important part of being an athlete. Training your mind is just as important as the physical aspect of running, and doing so can begin with goal setting. They help to keep us focused and driven by giving a sense of direction and meaning.

It’s important to set short, medium, and long-term goals so that we have direction and measures to follow and motivate us. It’s essential that when setting goals, they are SMART meaning- specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time- based.

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I have found goal setting a lot easier to do since working with my coach. My coach knows what is realistic but also challenging and the fact that I trust him and we share the same goals helps to maintain the accountability and the belief that they are possible. 

No matter what level you run at, it is possible to go into “the zone”. Don’t let your conscious thoughts get in the way. Enjoy what you are doing and instead of trying to think your way through your running route, allow your subconscious to be your guide. 

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