Updated: Feb 14, 2020
In the fall of 2013, I registered for the Vineman Full Distance Triathlon in Santa Rosa, CA. The race consisted of a 2.6 mile open water swim, a 112 mile bike ride, and a 26.2 mile run. While I’d done many endurance races prior to this, getting to the finish line (still standing) was one of the biggest challenges I’d chosen to complete.
It was obvious my body would undergo serious training and conditioning. The workout schedule included anything from brick workouts (switching from cycling to running or swimming to cycling), to back to back long runs and bike rides, to training weekends when we’d complete ⅔ or ¾ of an Ironman distance triathlon. While nervous, I felt elated. I’d signed up for all this! I was ready to work my body hard.
Throughout the months leading up to the race, I followed my training plan to a tee. My body became stronger and better equipped for longer and more intense workouts. I became fearless on open water swims, I experimented with increased speed on bike descends, I mastered the Lyon Street stairs; in short, I developed some major swagger. But suddenly without warning something happened: a seed of self doubt took root in my mind.
Irregardless of how my body performed or the number of weekly workouts that passed successfully, its nagging hit hard and below the belt: “You aren’t going to finish this workout. You still have another (x) amount of miles left today. Why did you sign up for this race? What were you thinking?”.
At first, I scoffed at my self-doubting thoughts. With shorter workouts, it was easy to ignore them and push on. However, as the race drew closer and I spent long hours training by myself, I started to listen.
The more I tuned in and leaned into the self doubt, the worse I felt. Mere minutes after I leaned in, I’d feel irritation and hopelessness set in and I’d quit my runs early or hop out of the pool with 20 laps left. Weeks after I’d leaned in, workouts that weren’t especially long or physically taxing became difficult and occasionally, I'd skip them altogether.
Worse yet, I truly started to believe that signing up for the race was a mistake. There was no one way I was going to finish. Frustrated and confused, I sought support from my training mentor.
After investigating everything from nutrition to running shoes to sleep, he asked an important question. “What are you thinking about during your workouts?” I paused a moment, then looked down. He prodded me gently, and I told him about my new training companion, self-doubt. He smiled kindly and responded, “looks like we’ve figured out the problem.”
What he explained sounded simple enough: stop leaning into the self-doubt and choose an empowering thought to replace it.
As he talked more about the brain-body connection, I felt embarrassed. I’m a licensed psychotherapist, I teach similar concepts to clients regularly. But my mentor stated it eloquently: the thoughts we experience significantly impact our lives. The way we think impacts the way we view the world, how we feel, how we act, and our outcomes. The physical piece of training is half the equation, but the mental and emotional training is the crucial piece that gets you across the finish line.
From my professional experience and education, I knew there was a ton of research on the relationship between one’s thinking and the impact it has on their emotions, behaviors and outcomes. Aaron Beck, the founder of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, developed this treatment based on his findings. But still, I was taken aback. Could my thoughts really impact my athletic performance to this extent?
Prior to my next workout, I sat with a pen and paper. How did I want to think? After a few minutes I wrote down three words. Shake it off.
To me these words signified many things, but the most important was a reminder to lean away from self-doubt and to metaphorically shake off anything negative that came up during my workout. Of course, this was also the year of Taylor Swift’s hit, “Shake it Off”, so it was easy to remember and (as a bonus) came with a catchy melody.
Hopping into the pool, I primed my thinking with my phrase and waited for the self-doubt to rear its head. After an hour, it still hadn’t appeared. The laps came and went and a half an hour later, the only thought in my mind was “Shake It Off”. The strategy worked.
Throughout the rest of training, the self-doubt reappeared from time to time. As opposed to leaning in I simply reminded myself to “shake it off”. Sometimes the reminder worked the first time, and other times, it needed repetition. In any case, I crossed the finish line of Vineman singing these three words to myself. More than a thought, this phrase became my mantra.
Fast forward to 2016. I was in a car accident that caused a brain injury. The result of this injury meant trading in my running shoes, clips, and wetsuit for countless hours of medical appointments and physical rehabilitation. While my medical providers were nothing short of amazing, I found my old friend self-doubt creeping in often, accompanied by hopelessness, despair, and at times, the desire to give up on treatment.
A year in, I looked back at my Vineman finishing photo. Studying my face, my mentor’s wise words struck me: the physical piece of training is half the equation, but the mental and emotional training is the crucial piece that gets you across the finish line.
I’d learned firsthand addressing the brain-body connection helped me successfully complete the race. My current rehabilitation plan was merely physical in nature. I hadn’t even considered the crucial other piece.
Once I took steps to address my mental and emotional health, I experienced shifts in recovery. While my mind did not heal my body, the relationship to my injury changed. I began dealing with pain and functional changes in a new manner, I became more positive during physical therapy sessions, and most importantly, I began to think optimistically about the future, whether I reached my prior level of abilities or not.
As these shifts happened for me, I wondered if others recovering from injury or managing a medical condition had the same hole in their treatment plan. If so, people were only receiving half of what they needed to get through the challenge in front of them.
Society often dissuades us from getting help, especially when it comes to our mental and emotional health. However, most often when we’re confronted with a challenge we have an expert in our corner- a teacher, a coach, a trainer- that supports us in strengthening the muscles needed to accomplish our goals.
When you are injured or managing a health issue there are experts tending to the physical aspect of your condition, but that’s only half the equation. Therapy supports you in reinforcing pre-existing mental toughness, developing thought patterns that optimize treatment, offering opportunity to rebuild identity, and facilitating practices to reduce stress, anxiety and improve your mood. A therapist is an expert to train your mind and heart.
While the finish line may look different than an endurance race, rehabilitation and treatment takes just as much perseverance and grit. Wherever you are in your health journey, don’t give up on your goals. And when you’re ready for an expert in your corner to help you address the crucial other piece, please contact me here or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.