Last Saturday I took to the track at Birmingham University to compete against some of the fastest distance runners in the country over 25 laps. The event doubled up as the British Olympic trials and the European Cup. I was there to try and run a PB and give myself a marker to go forward with, and that is what I did.
This was my second ever 10k on the track, my last being the night of the 10,000m 2 years ago, where I ran 34:46. That year I was in the C race and the thought of breaking 35 minutes again was a huge achievement.
This year I went into the race with little expectation and pressure, except I knew I was due a PB update and I wanted to enjoy every minute of the experience. Training had been going well and I felt in better 10k shape than 5k shape, and the 5k had been going well too, so I wanted to enjoy feeling strong. On the start line, my legs didn’t feel as good as I had hoped, and I’d been suffering with a niggle in my quad that was definitely preoccupying my mind, but I wanted to make the most of the opportunity in front of me. To be on the start line with girls hoping to make it to the Olympics was a crazy but inspiring thought.
The start was a little congested as there were a lot of girls all desperate to get in the inside lane, but once it started to spread out and we got into a line, things began to settle down slightly. The great thing about racing 10k on the track was there was constantly someone to work off and chase down. If anything, I think I could’ve pushed on a bit more towards the end if I started slightly more conservatively, but those are all lessons to learn for another day.
I crossed the line in 33:11, a huge improvement on my time from 2 years ago and a huge PB. I was very pleased to run my best ever time but part of me felt unsatisfied despite that. I think it was because I was hungry for more, which every athlete is, but it’s important to celebrate the successes and not constantly look ahead. I feel proud knowing that the time I ran through 5k in the 10k equalled the time I ran some of my 5k races in last year. Also, seeing the likes of Jess Judd secure her spot on the GB team for Tokyo was incredibly inspiring and only makes me want to work harder. I know I’ve got more to come, and I can’t wait to show it. I love this running malarkey and am excited to see where the journey takes me.
Whilst running is a physical act, there is so much mental strength involved in it - more than most realise. This mental strength extends beyond being able to push your body to the limit on a regular basis. It spans the ability to hold back when you need to and allow your body the rest and recovery it requires. Outside of this, it covers being able to take comments from others with a pinch of salt, especially those who don’t have your best interests at heart.
Ability to push harder when it hurts
Out of all the aspects of running that require mental strength, this is probably the easiest. To improve and push your performance, we have to be able to work our body to their limits in order to extend where they lie. The ability to do this is only marginally physical, because if you don’t have the mental strength to work hard, your physical ability will never be put to use.
Ability to withstand outside comments
Now, whilst you can’t control how others act and behave, you can control how you respond to them, and this requires a lot of strength. You need mental strength to be able to let the irrelevant comments of others bounce off of your brain rather than get absorbed. As you go through life, inside and outside of running, you will always be faced with the opinions of others, and these may not always be conducive to your wellbeing. For this reason, if we can’t stop their comments, we have to possess the strength to not let them get to us.
Ability to pull back when you need to.
Now this is where true mental strength lies. For a lot of runners, doing more and working hard is the easiest option. It is being able to pull the reins in and hold yourself back when you need that poses the true challenge. For example, some sessions, such as leading into a race, aren’t about emptying the tank, they’re about getting the legs moving but feel strong and good. If you didn’t hold back when needed you’d never witness your true potential. If you work too hard all the time, sometimes you risk not getting the best out of yourself.
Discipline to allow your body to rest
Similarly to the previous point, this is crucial to progression in running. Our bodies need rest to get stronger and be able to consistently perform at a high level. If we don’t have the mental willpower to be strict and force ourselves to rest, our bodies won’t ever get the time to become stronger, and inevitably faster. Similarly, we need sleep. I’d like me, you undoubtedly wake up early, be strict and make sure you get an early night. If you get a sufficient amount of sleep your body has much more time to build and repair, preparing you for a hard days training the next day.
Strength to do what is right for you.
This is something that for a while I struggled to do. I felt in order to improve and become faster, I had to train like those who are faster than me. However, I soon realised that to be the best I can be, I have to train in ways that are right for me, otherwise I will more than likely become exhausted and go backwards than improve. Thus, one of the strongest things you can do mentally is have confidence in yourself and what works for you. Don’t allow yourself to conform to what works for others, besides strong and trust your instincts.
All of these points require mental over physical strength, and they can be just as influential over your performance as you physical strength. So, be sure not to neglect your mental strength, because it’s as important to build it as it is your physical power.
Now this is a lot easier to say than to do, but we all need to learn to care a little less in some capacity. Whether that be taking the plunge and following your dreams or trying to care less about what others think of you, it can help to disengage your brain and just act. Here are a few things I do to try and care a little less.
1. Focus on your happiness not others.
The sooner we learn to be happy and live our lives for ourselves, the sooner we begin to care less. We aren’t put on this planet to constantly please others, and it is completely unachievable to do so. No matter what you do, there will always be someone in the world who isn’t happy or doesn’t like you, and that’s just life. I have always sought gratification from other people, but it rarely made me happy, because more often than not I didn’t get the response I wanted. So, as soon as I started recognising that only I could make myself happy, not the reaction of others, I stopped caring so much about what they thought.
2. Recognise what is actually important.
If we take the time to think about what actually matters and is important to us, we can quickly distinguish what doesn’t matter. For example, my family & friends, work, and running are important to me, so if I’m worrying about someone or something outside of that, it’s a waste of energy, because chances are it doesn’t actually affect me directly. Remembering what is important allows you to separate that which is pointless to worry about.
3. Life is too short to worry.
It sounds cliche, but life is short and we only get one shot at it, so why worry what other people think or what the future may hold when neither is relevant now. Reminding yourself of this can have a major effect on the way you think. If you find your thoughts spiralling, refocus on the shortness of life, and ask yourself if that worry is worth your time or is adding your life in a positive way. If it isn’t, dismiss it.
4. Other people’s actions are outside of your control.
You can only control your own actions, no matter how hard you may try to control those of others. Therefore, you can’t make them stop what they’re doing, so you have to control how you think. If the way they make you feel gets to you, take control of your feelings. The only way to stop that is to stop how you respond to their actions. Once you recognise how little control you have over other people’s behaviour, you will take more responsibility for your reaction. Ultimately, the only way to stop someone making you feel like crap is to change how you react. Only you can stop yourself feeling rubbish.
5. Think how others make you feel.
If you find yourself worrying and caring too much about something, ask yourself how it would make you feel in someone else’s shoes. When I say this, I mean do other people acting in similar ways to you bother you? For example, if you are worrying about whether people will judge what you say, think, if they were to say the same thing, would you care? More often than not, you wouldn’t. I sometimes worry that people think I talk too much about pointless crap, but if I flip it, and ask myself, do I care if others chat rubbish to me? The answer is no! So why am I wasting time worrying.
6. Share your thoughts.
Finally, the most important point in my eyes. Share your thoughts. The only way to care less about things is to share them. It really is true that a problem shared is a problem halved. The quicker you talk to someone else about something, the sooner you stop giving a f***.
As of April 2022, the government wants to make it law for restaurants to show calorie values as part of a scheme to tackle obesity. Whilst I agree the obesity crisis needs to be tackled, and urgently, I don’t think this is the best way forward. Showing calories may help those with obesity choose less calorific options, but how will this educate the population to make good food choices at home, and what psychological impact will this have?
Speaking from the view of someone who has had a disordered relationship with food in the past, this news scares me. Mostly because of the effect it will have on vulnerable and current sufferers. When I was battling with disordered thoughts, I would search online for nutritional information before I went to a restaurant and use this to find out what I would and wouldn’t allow myself to eat. If the meal I would’ve ordered irrespective of calories was one of the highest on the menu, I felt ashamed. I felt guilty that my natural food decisions lent towards foods higher in calories. This already meant the enjoyment of a meal was taken away! This information would govern what I ordered and reinforce the belief that I had to eat as little as possible.
In the mind of someone with disordered eating, it becomes a competition with yourself to eat as little as possible, especially when the numerical value of each meal is written in front of you. I find it so sad looking back on that time now and thinking about how I wasted precious time with loved ones at restaurants worrying inside about what I was eating, rather than enjoying the time. Personally, a meal out is a special occasion designed to be enjoyable. I don’t want people to feel shame over their food choices or go for something purely because of its calories. Food items in supermarkets have calorie guides on them to inform people on a daily basis, a restaurant is a chance to avoid this.
It’s a bigger issue.
I also feel the obesity crisis is bigger than the calories written on a menu. Individuals need to be educated, not just given a digit and told to aim for the lowest value. The number next to a dish doesn’t say anything about its nutritional worth, nor does it educate people on how to lead a healthy lifestyle when they leave the restaurant. If people could be encouraged to lead healthy, BALANCED lifestyles, where it is ok to eat everything in moderation and where exercise is part of their daily routine, the problem would be solved in a more maintainable way. For example, at school, we had sports lessons (many tried to skive), but we were never informed (except if you chose to study sports for GCSE) how important exercise is to our health, nor were we educated enough on eating a healthy balanced diet. Then, for many, as life, family and work commitments increase, often diet and routine exercise takes a hit, a little time is spent focusing on the key ingredients of tackling the obesity crisis.
No two calories are the same.
I’m no specialist, but I know that no two calories are the same. Calories don’t necessarily indicate the true nutritional value of a dish. If we want to educate our country on healthy living to tackle obesity, surely, we need to educate them on how to make healthy food choices and eat a balanced diet, because this isn’t completely governed by the number of calories in something. Calorie guides won’t necessarily produce a healthier population in my eyes, because individuals will end up determining what they should or shouldn’t eat based on a number, rather than the nutritional value of something. For example, snacking daily on sweets and crisps may be less calorie dense than a portion of nuts, but which would lead to a healthier population?
We need to live.
Finally, we need to be able to live a little. Life is all about balance and enjoying ourselves whilst keeping our bodies healthy overall. Going out to a restaurant is a treat for most people, so surely everyone should be allowed to eat freely on occasion. If efforts are made to educate people outside of restaurants, when they are in their homes, restaurant food choices would automatically differ.
Perhaps, to protect those more vulnerable to being triggered by calorie information and to inform others, having optional calorie or non-calorie stated menus would be a way forward. However, I still feel in restaurants it isn’t needed.
Growing up, we are all taught about the importance of being kind to others and treating people how we want to be treated, but there is little, if nothing, taught about being kind to yourself. Consequently, many of us treat ourselves in a way we would never dream of treating somebody else. For example, those destructive thoughts can creep in and tell you that you aren’t good enough and constantly grind you down. Now, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I would never contemplate telling someone there weren’t good enough to pursue their dreams. Would you? So why do we speak to ourselves like that?
Being kind to yourself is so important, and here’s how I work towards doing that.
Set time aside for you.
Life can be busy, with everyday jam packed with training, work, catching up with friends and household jobs, that you rarely have time to sit back and relax. Sometimes just incorporating 15 minutes in your day for yourself can do the world of good. It allows you to step back from the chaos of the world and breathe. Those few moments to yourself allow you to come back to the present and remember who you are and what you stand for. It allows you to check you are in a positive place and haven’t forgotten to take care of your own mental state.
Get plenty of sleep.
I’m not myself when I’m tired, and I definitely can’t think straight let alone rationally. I think it is so important to get a sufficient amount of sleep. I aim for 8.5-9 hours and because I know I will always wake up between 6-6:30, I make sure I’m in bed nice and early. A well rested mind is a lot stronger and more focused for the day ahead than a tired one, so be kind and allow yourself those much-needed hours in bed.
Fuel your body sufficiently.
Just like a tired person, a hungry person is illogical. And even worse, a constantly hungry person lacks all sense of coherent judgement. Taking the time to factor three decent meals into the day doesn’t take a lot of effort, but it can have a significant effect on how we handle the days in front of us. Food not only fuels our bodies, it fuels our brains
Take time away from social media.
Something I find significantly affects my mental state, is if I spend too much time scrolling through Instagram. I can be guilty of comparing myself to others too much and as a consequence I end up in a bad place. At times, the first thing I would do is check instagram when I wake up, therefore I am already starting the day by comparing myself. When I feel it getting the better of me, I make the conscious decision to not scroll and not check instagram as soon as I wake up. I use Instagram to post but stop myself from constantly checking to see what other people are doing. This allows me to be happier with myself, rather than feeling the need to be living up to the lives of others.
Whatever it is that helps you, be kind to yourself. There are also some phenomenal charities out there such as Mind, that offer a phone line service to those that want to talk.
The definition of ‘good’ refers to the need ‘to be desired or approved of’ (Oxford Languages, 2021). But why do we feel the need to be seen as ‘good enough’ by other people who are sometimes even strangers? Why do we spend so much of our lives trying to be approved of? What gives other people the right to decide if we are ‘good enough’?
Sustained happiness cannot be guaranteed by others. This is something I have worked hard to recognise and deal with. No one else is in charge of our lives, only we are. Therefore, essentially, we need to please ourselves and be proud of who we are, because only we can guarantee our own happiness. How we perceive ourselves has a significant effect on how we feel within ourselves.
I think running is very powerful in this respect. A lot of runners spend more time on their own than many other people do. I personally do the majority of my running solo, and I have come to love it. I think the act of running alone teaches you to seek happiness from yourself rather than from others as you have spend a lot more time with yourself.
So, how can we step towards believing we are good enough without seeking approval from others?
Step 1: Accepting others will have their opinions
Step 2: Trust yourself.
Step 3: Be comfortable in your own skin
I don’t know about you, but I can be guilty of catastrohising. Somehow I manage to escalate something simplistic and explainable into a career ending disaster. Why is this?
I believe, for me, this is because I have an incessant desire to always want a complex reason for everything. I want to strive for perfection. Therefore, if something didn’t go ‘perfectly’ in my eyes (which is an unrealistic goal), I believe there must be a deep reason for it. This is where the catastrophising commences. The cycle of searching deeper and deeper for a reason that likely doesn’t exist begins. When there isn’t a deeper explanation for something, I always come back to the same exhausting explanation, that I must not be good enough, but I am. We are all good enough.
So, how do I try to stop myself when the spiralling hat of disaster sits on my head?
Catch your thoughts
The best way to stop your thoughts spiralling is to catch them. Stop the spiral from unravelling by redirecting your thoughts. Whatever it is that is causing you to stress and worry, stop dwelling on it and focus on something else. Whether that be distracting yourself by watching a movie, going on a walk, or doing some colouring, catch your thoughts by focusing on something in the present. I find this helps stop my thoughts wonder off into would could be, and redirects my attention to focusing on the now.
Chat it through with someone
Discussing whatever it is you are catastrophising about can really help rationalise those thoughts. I find this the most effective method of dealing with spiralling thoughts. Whatever I am worrying about, if I talk it through with someone else, I quickly recognise that I am over reacting and over thinking. Chatting it through allows someone else to offer you an outside perspective and get you to see that there is no logic to the way you are thinking. It can also help you understand why you are having these thoughts and how you can confront them.
Be kind to yourself and accept it.
It is normal for things to go wrong, not go to plan, or go perfectly for plan, and there can be little reason for this, it is just part of life. There is no point beating yourself up and being harsh on yourself every time something doesn’t go to plan. Be kind and accept it. I am guilty of feeling that everything must have a complex reason. As a result, I search and search until I find what could be the reason for why it didn’t go to plan. More often than not there isn’t a reason, so I conclude that it must be my fault, I must not be good enough. This is not the case and should not be how we react. We are good enough and it is just part of life. There is no need to over-inflate the meaning of something.
Next time we find our thoughts running away with themselves and becoming destructive, try to recognise that the chances are we are just catastrophising and nothing has genuinely gone that wrong.
The main thing I want to do this year is step out of my comfort zone and try new things in order to improve as an athlete, and I think this week I did that. On Wednesday I took to the track to take part in a 3,000m BMC race. My first 3k in 5 years! It was very much out of my comfort zone, but a great experience. The event was put on by the BMC and Luke Gunn, and it ran very smoothly and safely.
My plan going into the race was to go out hard and hang on, but I think I took it a bit too literally. I was prepared for the race to hurt, but I think I approached it more as if it was a 1500 than a 3,000. I was hoping to run somewhere between 9:15 and 9:20, and that was very much doable, if I paced the race evenly, which I did not. After a 3:02 first kilometre, I was surprised how good I felt, but it was only a lap later that the pain kicked in.
I did what I hoped and went outside of my comfort zone, it just didn’t go quite as planned. That being said, it wasn’t a disastrous time. I finished in 9:31, a little bit off my target, but there are positives to take from the race as I learnt a lot of lessons.
How not to pace a race
This was probably the main lesson I took from the race. I got a bit carried away and went out too hard. Whilst it was only a few seconds faster than the pace I was aiming for, over 3k, that can be a big difference and make for a painful race, which it did! However, I am proud of myself for taking the plunge and pushing myself. I really enjoyed doing a shorter race and hopefully by the end of the season I’ll be more familiar with that 3k feel.
My legs do move faster than I thought.
At least, by going off hard, I found out that my legs can actually move a little bit faster. This is a bit of a confidence boost to know that I can throw in a faster k if I need to, it just may be better if I do it at the end of the race rather than the start. And, I just need to work on holding the pace for a longer period of time.
Racing is well and truly back
After a long time of racing returning for one race and then disappearing again, or being completely non-existent, it feels so nice to have a period of consistent racing in the diary. It is exciting to have lots of opportunities ahead to try and improve my times and gain race experience.
So, going forward, I am going to always note the positives there are from every race and session, and use these as opportunities to develop and learn.
This week I had a session to put in the ‘f*** it bucket’. In fact, I knew as soon as I started that something wasn’t right. My legs just felt heavy and clunky and had absolutely no drive in them. It was one of those where it doesn’t matter how much effort you put in, you just go nowhere. If you reread the second sentence of this paragraph, you’ll see that ‘I knew’ something wasn’t right, it wasn’t just a case of being fatigued.
Rather than ploughing on through what would be a significantly sub par session, I made the decision to stop, get on the phone to my coach, and we made some edits to the session. For that, I am pretty proud of myself. I didn’t cry (something I’m not too proud to say I have done in the past when a session hasn’t gone to plan), I simply took on board what my coach said and got on with a shorter session that just got the legs moving slightly.
There is reason to why I approached not completing the session with a more stable mindset, and that was because I knew there were factors contributing to why I felt how I did. When something doesn’t go to plan, there is usually a reason, not always, but most of the time. Rather than letting my mind convince me I was a rubbish runner and that was the end of my career, I looked at the bigger picture.
Some people are lucky enough to not experience many symptoms when it’s their time of the month, and some months I don’t, but for me, heavy legs and feeling energy zapped can be very real at the start. It only tends to be particularly bad just as I come on, and only for a few days. I like to think that it doesn’t effect me, but that is no way to deal with it. You just have to accept it and move on. It is completely normal to experience such symptoms!
I had my vaccine.
This was exciting, and I feel very fortunate to have been able to get my vaccine pretty early on, but for anyone out there who hasn’t had theirs yet, you can expect to feel a bit rubbish for a few days. The night of the vaccine I felt very fluey, shivery and achey. Following that I felt much better in everyday life, but I didn’t feel myself when running. This lasted for about five days. My legs were heavy and I felt very lethargic. My heart rate remained relatively low and stable but my body just wasn’t there to go with it.
I find it important to accept that bad session do happen, it is just part of the parcel. If every one was amazing, they would all just be average. However, for me, mentally, it is vital that I let go of the session and don’t let it weigh me down. Otherwise I make it into a much bigger deal than it is and drag it on for longer than necessary.
Every runner has their own selection of pre race rituals. Whether it be the outfit they race in, what they have for breakfast, or how they wear their hair, there is always something. I used to have countless things I would do before racing, most would say too many, so much so that they were actually superstitions rather than rituals. However, when I came back from my injury, I set myself a clean slate. I chose to only focus on the pre-race rituals that actually mattered; the ones that were practical and genuinely had a benefit.
So, what rituals do I have before a race?
I tend to follow the same food plan the night and day of a race. There isn’t anything superstitious linked to this, it is purely practical. I know what fuels me sufficiently, but also sits well in my stomach when I’m about to race. It doesn’t differ massively from my everyday diet, so I know my stomach won’t be thrown off course.
The night before I also always have pasta for dinner. I have always done this. I’m not too fussy with which sort of pasta I have, just nothing too creamy as my stomach doesn’t always take well to rich creamy foods before running. For breakfast, or 2.5/3 hours before I am due to race, I will have an almond butter bagel and a banana. This is because again, I know it sits well in my stomach and is something I eat most days without a problem.
For pre-race foods, it is very much about trial and error. It is important to recognise that what works for me, might not work for you. So, play around with what you eat before training and racing to find out what works best for you and doesn’t cause you any stomach problems and fuels you sufficiently.
I tend to wear the same pair of knickers for every race. This is again practical- it is all about comfort! I know the pair of underwear I wear for racing doesn’t give me a wedgy or cause any discomfort, so why worry about it. If I just wear the same pair (obviously clean every time!!), I don’t have any problems.
I also always race with my hair in two plaits. I wear it in plaits everyday for training, and even tighter plaits for racing. I know this hairstyle won’t fall out or annoy me, so it is another thing to not worry about. Whenever I put my hair in plaits, I know it is time to run. I feel prepared and focused for the session ahead.
Whilst there are practical associations with all these things, they also have a psychological impact. For example, I know every time I have that pre-race meal, pull on my comfortable underwear, and tie my hair in plaits, a race is just around the corner. As much as it is practical, it also prepares my mind to race. It starts the process of getting me in the zone and mindset to race.
I love to run and I love to write, so I write about running!