There are three inspirational tools that I use as a coach to inspire athletes and as an athlete to offer myself perspective.
1. Coach Jimmy Valvano’s 1993 ESPY speech - "Don't Give Up . . . Don't Ever Give Up." I get choked up when I think about his words and the battle that he knew he was losing, but still refused to concede. If you watch the whole video, you’ll notice that giving that speech exhausted him and he needed assistance walking off the stage.
2. “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they've been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It's a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.” - Muhammad Ali
3. Nike’s “No Excuses” commercial featuring Matt Scott.
Do we have limits to our potential? Absolutely. There is a fine line where we, as athletes can reach a point of diminished returns. The PRs don’t come as frequently as they once did. We get frustrated after a bad workout, a bad week (or month) of training, or a race that didn’t go as planned. Life can derail us with those pesky adult responsibilities like work, family, and housework — quite frankly, they disrupt our training regimens. We allow these and other distractions to limit our ability to go beyond our perceived potential. If we, as athletes, get off track on our training, that’s OK. Just hit reset and get back to chasing your goals.
Going beyond our self-imposed limitations as we get older, especially for senior athletes, is more of a mental challenge than a physical one. When I first started back running in 2004 I wasn’t serious about it. I ran a few races that were slow in comparison to what I was once able to do. I ran my first 10k in 44:23 and thought at the time that this was the best I could perform. I thought that I would never run nearly as fast as I once did, so I didn’t bother putting in the work to try and get faster. I let myself set a limit on my potential.
As I approached 40 I was inspired by a friend that was trying to qualify for Boston. It motivated me to start working with a coach so we could set some short and long term goals since I had been struggling with my running. I needed to have some level of accountability to start training consistently. Over time running became easier and my pace was getting faster. Even though I was training more consistently and had gained back a lot of endurance and speed, I lacked the mental toughness. Joe Friel talks about developing mental fitness as a “commitment to a high goal, the confidence that it can be achieved, and the patience to view the goal as a long term project”. In my first year working with a coach, I lacked the patience more than anything. This is a common problem with many athletes, as we want that immediate gratification. We get caught up in the moment of a race and some times fail to reach our goals.
I made that mistake in my first marathon. Instead of running the pace that I trained for and keeping my excitement in check, I went out too fast hitting the 10k mark 3 minutes ahead of my target pace. Lacking the mental focus to adjust my pace earlier and stick with my race plan, I finished more than 40 minutes slower than my goal. Running this same race a year later with another year of training consistently, dropping a few pounds, and feeling mentally prepared, I achieved my goal of qualifying for Boston.
There are challenges to training and being competitive, especially as we get older. It takes me longer to recover and so I balance quality over quantity. I’ve added in strength and core work to keep my whole body fit and strong. Are there hard limits to what I can accomplish? Absolutely, and using a growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset I will challenge myself mentally to push through those limits. I find it helpful to visualize my workouts and races so I know what to (potentially) expect before I do it. It’s key to prepare yourself mentally on what you’ll do if something doesn’t go according to plan. I’ve had to adjust my strategies with 9 miles left in a marathon, and being mentally prepared and focused helped turned a potential disaster into a PR.
For 2018, I’m setting goals to incorporate something that I’ve never done before. Triathlon. I’m 50 years old, which is just a number and most certainly doesn’t define or limit me. While I haven’t swum laps in over 36 years and I have no idea of what I will be capable of accomplishing — I won’t let that be a barrier that limits me. I’ve learned that the mental preparation is just as important as the physical.
It’s too hard.
Those phrases limit me. I won’t let them.
Further your own understanding: Read The Triathlete's Training Bible: The World's Most Comprehensive Training Guide, by Joe Friel.