A Winning Vocabulary

When considering how you feel about your last week of training (or life), be sure not to limit your vocabulary to simply “good or bad”.  I understand that there is otherwise a potentially utility to keeping the language that simple, and I admit that I sometimes remind my athletes to think of their training program as keeping a scorecard for each week in terms of whether the week was a “win or a loss,” and so I recognize the potential contradiction I just offered. However, my point in encouraging athletes to think about their training in terms of a win-loss record is related to zooming out and looking at the week as a whole, instead of focusing on the one or two aspects that didn’t go 100% according to plan.  

When you consider the entirety of the week, using both objective and subjective data points, then the overwhelming majority of your weeks should be "good weeks”…a win!  You could even use a word other than “good,” as in reporting that the week went “great!”  If you don’t believe that it was a great week, or even a good week, then why not?  To take it a step further, just because it wasn’t a good week, does that automatically imply it was a bad week?  Probably not. 

Even if you don’t think it was a great/good week of training, expanding your vocabulary in that regard means you’ll have many more words to choose from that have a positive connotation from which you can label your week.  The practical application of the bigger vocabulary is that you won’t be so quick to label a training week negatively, and then you get to score one in the Win category!

Our thoughts are framed by the exact words we use.  “We think in terms of language”—George Carlin.  Elite athletes who frequently use mental imagery and develop such “scripts” for races demonstrate this element of psychological skills training.  Specifically, they practice the exact words/phrases (cue words) they want to say at various points in the game/race/course to keep the self-talk positive and task-specific.  It is a skill that takes deliberate practice to develop.  Bottom line: Develop a bigger vocabulary.

Train hard!



Fall Running - Faster & Safer

With the fall season coming at the end of a yearly training cycle, it's likely that most runners are feeling their fittest.  Therefore, you might find that your regular/easy pace is significantly faster than it was back in the winter.  First, this is certainly due to your work ethic paying off.  Second, the weather is best at this time of year (minus some warm weekends we had for key races, like Army 10-miler).  Third, you’ve likely been doing more speed work in the fall and have probably been racing more often, so subconsciously you have been primed/triggered to pick up the pace.  In any case, as you set out for a regular jog you might notice that you’re running “fast,” even though you’re not mentally in “workout mode.”  Should you slow down?  Nope!  I say go with it!  As long as you’re not beating yourself up out there and the legs feel fine, then go with the flow and let it ride.  

As a second point with fall running, stay alert out there on the wooded trails that are littered with leaves on the ground.  The underbelly of some of the leaves are moist and can cause you to slip, and some patches of leaves are covering up little potholes or oddly shaped tree roots.  Autumn is a gorgeous season and a fun time of year to run through the woods and I encourage it, but for safety's sake, make sure you’re not spacing out too much on these runs.  Most of the time, you know the trail like the back of your hand and you’re strong enough and athletic enough to be perfectly fine in terms of it being uneventful.  But since I also want to encourage you right now to add some adventurous running into your mix and get off the beaten path, you have to keep your eyes alternating between the ground immediately underneath you and 10-15 feet in front of you.  If you're running through a place like Rock Creek Park, then stay alert and plan your footing in advance.

A small percentage of runners are timid when it comes to running on these natural trails.  My short answer is this: Strength training (ST) is a major guardian against a rolled ankle, so continue to do your ST shoes-off for improved foot and ankle strength.  Make your ST dynamic and functional and you’ll have increased confidence on the trails, allowing you to enjoy the gorgeous autumn scenery.

Train hard and enjoy the foliage!



"Be Water, My Friend."

The main coaching points I’ve been giving my athletes this summer have been reminding all of them to continually adapt and adjust to the weather conditions.  Rather than fighting against Mother Nature’s undefeated streak, adapt and adjust to what the conditions allow you to do that day.  This requires much self-awareness in terms of being in-tune with your body (in the moment), as well as the phrase we’ve been using recently, “managing expectations,” which sometimes means, “managing your personality." 

The more weeks, months, and years you train, the quicker you should be able to identify the conditions around you and know how to adjust accordingly.  Bruce Lee left an enduring message that is very much akin to this idea of adaptation to your immediate environment (see short video link below).  Water works with the shape and contours its given and always finds its natural balance, and so must you work with the heat, humidity, wind, hills, etc., and find the appropriate balance for that day’s workout.  I’m aware of how overly commonsensical this Tip sounds, so (collectively) let’s prove it! 

Rise up to the level of Master during your workouts so that you can report success, optimism, and confidence in your recaps, rather than letting summer weather conditions kick you around.  Kick back Bruce Lee style by adapting and finding a natural balance on that day.  Just as the drop in temperatures did this past weekend, the fall weather will reveal your fitness, so keep your mental fortitude.  Overall, the athletes I train are doing well as a group in this regard, so I want them to view this as healthy reinforcement, not as negative feedback.  We’re on the same team.

A final note on this topic would be to also see the occasional OPEN days in your program as a “let the water find its own natural balance day.”  What this means is that your OPEN days allow you to do whatever you need to do to reset/balance your mind or training for that day or week.  It’s a catch-up, get-ahead, or OFF day.  Listen to your inner Lee and use sound judgment.

Spoken by the legend Himself, “Be water, my friend.”



The Sound of Two Hands Clapping

Does anyone else ever finish a run with a handclap or mini fist pump in the air?  I do that quite often and it puts a fabulous exclamation point on any run, and makes the lasting impression of the run as one of confidence.  Cognitive psychology can teach us many tactics and tricks about how to put a positive touch on any situation, so the handclap is an example you can try, and it might be especially meaningful in the face of summer heat/humidity that could otherwise sabotage your feelings of progress.  More importantly, what makes the handclap work is that I believe it to be true. 

As I shared in the final chapter of my book on run training, virtually every run I’ve ever done has had a positive element to it, and that’s far from lying to myself.  It’s the truth.  I don’t have negative experiences when I run.  When you finish a run in 90-degree temps with high humidity and every square inch of you is drenched in sweat, you better believe a run like that gets a “WOOHOO!” <CLAP> at the end of it.  SUCCESS!

Moreover, make sure you are proactively adjusting your workouts to account for the summer weatherProactively adjusting means “sit down before you fall down” and prevents negative self-talk from entering the picture and then having to pick yourself up mentally post-workout.  Some runners don’t adjust by their own volition; rather, they run slower and slower as the workout goes on because their body is slowly shutting down.  One of my favorite coaching expressions is: "Foresight is a more powerful tool than hindsight."

With more heat and humidity coming our way, be sure you are still fine-tuning your mental skills to stay optimistic and confident.  Here is what one of my runners wrote to me regarding his recent weekend long run: "Long run went great.  Went out with the [running store] weekend group and did the first half with a few folks, second half on my own with headphones.  You would have been very proud of my pacing decisions if you saw me and others at the end of the run.  Despite the heat, I finished with a big smile on my face, only to meet up with a bunch of others in the parking lot complaining about how their runs were terrible.  I found myself repeating your advice, that it's all about perceived exertion and managed expectations in the heat!

Anyone can fool him/herself at the beginning of a workout in hot/humid conditions, but the cumulative effects don’t take very long to reveal themselves and spike your heart rate too high, too soon.  Remember that summer running is about perceived exertion/ intensity, and not pace.  For instance, the average runner doing a tempo workout on the track might have to adjust the pace by as much as 30-40 seconds per mile!  If you’re a data-driven runner, then that workout has the ability to “suck” in your mind because the numbers are your focal point.  We don’t want that.  We want a superb feeling of accomplishment when we’re done.  Perhaps solidified by a handclap as you cross the finish line on that final rep (or arriving back at your front doorstep).

Yes, I know, it feels weird for your legs to move at a pace much slower than you’re used to, but “train smarter, not harder” is one of our mantras.  Remind yourself that you hit other process goals that day, and again, you’ll be likely to honestly believe the positivity that you throw at yourself.

Run Happy!




As Einstein once said, “Whether or not a race course or trail in the DC area is ‘hilly’ is relative to the individual.”  This is your reminder to have your own rating scale for hills and courses based on your own running experiences and perceived fitness.  

As I remind the runners I coach each year that head up to Boston for the marathon, Heartbreak Hill is overrated if you’re a DMV area runner.  Relative to us (DMV area residents), that hill isn’t too daunting. Relative to someone from most parts of Florida, then sure, it’s a doozy.  I address this topic in my book “The Art of Run Training” in a few sections; most notably the section titled “The DC Advantage for Runners,” as well as the section “Long Hills Don’t Exist.”  For more advice, you can click those links and check out the respective Blogs for both of those points.  

Additionally, make sure you reserve the word “hilly” for courses that deserve it.  The fitter you become, the less effect the smaller inclines have on you, so don’t do them the favor of considering them hills any more.  Use that word sparingly.  You can make distinctions between “hilly” vs. “rolling” vs. “incline" vs. “gently rolling.”  

The same approach applies to the weather.  “Hot” is 90-degree weather; it hasn’t been hot yet.  “Warm” is a better word to use, or “fair.”  Hilly and hot conditions might set you up for an adverse mental state going into your run, whereas, “scenic” or “sunny” have a positive connotation that frames the run differently.  So, with the exception of perhaps your run coach, don’t let other people’s perspectives of what constitutes a hilly course change your opinion too much, or at least as it pertains to strangers.  Trusted run friends and race directors certainly have valid opinions, but either way, make sure your own perspective of your own fitness is the guiding light.  

E = mc2 would have been an impossible riddle for all of us to solve, but to Einstein it was (eventually) relatively easy.  ‘Twas not a Heartbreak-Hill-esque problem for him, just a “roller.”  Choose your own vocabulary and make it work for you.  Use some words only sparingly.

Train hard!



The Relationship Between Sleep & Athletic Performance

I recently read a 2015 review article published in Sports Medicine, titled "Sleep and Athletic Performance: The Effects of Sleep Loss on Exercise Performance, and Physiological and Cognitive Responses to Exercise.”  

Below I provide a summary of the authors’ main points, followed by my 2 cents (interpretation of the results) from a coach’s perspective.

Authors’ main points:
Although sleep is considered critical to optimal performance, many athletes appear to lose sleep prior to competition for various reasons, including noise, light, anxiety, and nervousness.  While there appears sufficient evidence to imply complete sleep deprivation can have significant negative effects on athletic performance, the effects of sleep restriction (partial disturbance of the sleep–wake cycle) are more conflicting; a concerning issue given that athletes are more likely to experience this mode of sleep loss.  The detrimental effect of sleep loss on most aspects of cognitive function remains unequivocal, with only minor conflicting findings present for the extent of the effects of mild sleep restriction, findings that would predictably suggest negative consequences for athletes requiring high neurocognitive reliance.

Much of the previous research has reported that exercise performance is negatively affected following sleep loss; however, conflicting findings mean that the extent, influence, and mechanisms of sleep loss affecting exercise performance remain uncertain. For instance, research indicates some maximal physical efforts and gross motor performances can be maintained. In comparison, the few published studies investigating the effect of sleep loss on performance in athletes report a reduction in sport-specific performance. The effects of sleep loss on physiological responses to exercise also remain equivocal; however, it appears a reduction in sleep quality and quantity could result in an autonomic nervous system imbalance, simulating symptoms of the overtraining syndrome. Additionally, increases in pro-inflammatory cytokines following sleep loss could promote immune system dysfunction.

My 2 cents:
For those who read the fine print of this review article and saw that the several studies that showed a decrease in performance were mostly in maximal power output (i.e., 30-sec Wingate/cycling test), I would ask them to raise their hand if that is a meaningful carryover into their own training (answer: most likely not).  Sleep deprivation (SD) vs. sleep restriction (SR) is where the other significant findings of the article are contained, but I also don’t think any of local amateur athletes are facing actual sleep deprivation.  In short, if it’s the night before a race and you don’t get much sleep, then don’t worry about it, especially since there are very little (if at all) cognitive aspects of endurance events, whereas team-sport athletes might have other considerations depending on their position/demands, but even then the results are mixed with no need to sound an alarm.  

It’s important to note that the article points out that physiological measures don’t always show adverse effects from SR, so the authors postulate that central fatigue (as in central nervous system fatigue/ self-talk) is most likely the mechanism, especially if you factor that perceived exertion (effort) was diminished in some studies.  In other words, if the athlete believes that the sleep restriction is going to have an adverse effect, then he/she might be likely to create a self-fulfilling prophecy!  Get the idea out of your head, and do so with confidence, as the empirical evidence supports that short-term SR likely won’t affect your endurance the following day.  

Chronic sleep restriction is a separate issue not addressed by this article, and I think we would all agree that at that point there are going to be performance detriments (even with just a few days), along with an increased chance for injury (i.e., relationship between chronic muscular fatigue and injury).  I can empathize with any athlete who doesn't get a solid night of sleep the night before a big game/race, but what’s probably more important is the sleep you get two and three nights before a significant effort.

Train hard!



Nutrition & Happiness

How did nutrition and happiness end up in the title of the same blog?  Let's find out together.

There is a collective theme emerging this winter from the runners I coach in that they are proactively taking control of their own healthy eating and fueling habits.  Some of them have purchased books on the topic, and whether or not it’s a run-specific nutrition book is irrelevant at this point.  They’re setting specific goals in this category, with tangible action plans.  Much of that starts at the grocery store (e.g., reading labels), and then carries over into their choices when dining out (e.g., no alcohol).  Quick side note: Alcohol affects your sleep, and then lack of sleep, especially over an entire week or month, will affect your performance and increase your risk for inflammation injuries (overuse injuries).

Some of you have a body type that doesn’t have much room to improve, whether that’s in terms of body weight (you’re already as low as you’re going to get) or body composition (lean vs. fatty tissue), but your goal with proper diet can still be to be energetic day-in, day-out, and to get good sleep (I have a separate Blog on BodyTypes, which also appears in the Nutrition chapter of my book).  

The off-season is the best time for experimentation and to attack all the off-the-field elements of your training.  Yes, we incorporate all aspects of training during the entire year (a holistic approach), but we mentally prioritize (key word) things like, ST, PT, XT, and nutrition in the off-season.  To mentally prioritize everything all the time means you’re going to drive yourself crazy.  The key to “finding balance,” like your hippie yoga friends preach, is not to reduce everything to the same level (same amount of priority) throughout the day, week, month, or year, but instead to focus/prioritize certain aspects more than others for a while (however long that needs to be) before switching focus/prioritization to something else, so that at the end of a month or year, the overall weight of everything has balance.

To use run training as a quick example (explained in greater length and depth in the Periodization chapter of my book), racing is the lowest priority in the winter, with ST at the highest.  Then that slowly but surely shifts in the opposite direction as we hit the fall season, which is peak race season.  Monitoring exact paces for workouts follows suit (low priority now, high priority later).  You should be able to apply this same mental approach to all aspects of your life: professional, athletic, social, and family/friends, with further breakdowns within each of those major categories.  I’m sure some of you already do this with elaborate color coding on your monthly planners or through journaling, or though meditation, but if not, then give it a whirl.  Take an hour to dissect your life on paper...your schedule, your priorities, your goals, and your happiness.  As an athlete in the Mid-Atlantic region, this is the perfect time of year to do it (winter off-season).

So, as you focus on nutrition now (here in the off-season), you are adhering to a key component of happiness, which is to the Purpose and Pleasure Pendulum, for which I have a separate Blog, and reading that will explain how nutrition and happiness ended up in the same title of this Blog :)

Train hard!



Be Your Own Color Commentator


As part of your longer runs, a strategy you can use to practice positive self-talk and keep it fun is to play the role of being your own color commentator, treating the run as if you’re out there with imaginary opponents!  Bear with me here :)  You’re already talking to yourself in some way, shape or form when you’re running, right?  So why not spice it up!  I first started doing this with my friend Brian many years ago when we did 3-5 hour bike rides together out in the middle of nowhere VA/MD.  The invention of iPods has changed the game since then, but when cycling with someone else, you tend not to bring your music with you.  So I would entertain us both by doing my best impersonations of the Tour de France commentators as we had to pass the time somehow while climbing all of those hills, staring at trees, and inevitably getting lost on occasion. 

The commentary kept the training fun, but I also started to see common themes emerge once I kept this up on occasion during my solo run training.  I noticed that it helped keep me positive, as I could create positive self-talk at any point in the workout to help me push through to the end.  When training each week can otherwise become monotonous, this is a way to generate some excitement.  Even on the days I wasn’t feeling my A-game, I could still pretend that “everyone else on the course is suffering too, but I’m still in command and winning.”  Therefore, I mostly used this fun tactic toward the end of my workouts, when I was more likely to need a mental boost.

Give it a shot.  Be creative, have fun, give it your own flavor, add an accent too if you like.  Any time you pass a runner who is going either direction, you can make them part of the story.  You can even turn it into the overly (overly) melodramatic NBC-style coverage we are bombarded with during the Olympics.  It’ll also allow you to be brutally honest with yourself (if you’re not already), as you can remind yourself of the obstacles you’ve overcome, that you are probably fitter than you’re giving yourself credit for, and so you can soul search in the midst of all this commentary.  It’s a good way to get to know yourself as an athlete.  It’s also a great way to get in the habit of envisioning success, whether it’s actually winning a race or hitting a goal time or PR.  At the end of the run, who the hell is there to say otherwise!?  Nobody.   

I have separate sections on Self-talk and Imagery in Chapter 6 of my book “The Art of Run Training.”  Chapter 7 offers many other strategies for different race distances, but I really like this one even though I didn’t put it into the book.

Train hard!