A few months ago, I was contacted by Julia Lucas, a former professional runner now coaching with Nike. She is training David Willey, editor-in-chief for Runner’s World, in his goal to qualify for the 2018 Boston Marathon. David will probably need to run a 3:27 in his BQ (Boston Qualifying) marathon, which he will attempt at the Bayshore Marathon in Traverse City, Michigan (May 2017). Here is what David wrote about himself when it comes to marathons:
That [3:27 time] may not sound audacious, but here’s the thing: I’m not very good at running marathons, at least not when I try to run them fast. My first legit BQ attempt was at the Austin Marathon in 2007. It was the third 26.2 I’d ever run, and I was aiming for a 3:20. I was on pace, but hamstring cramps slowed me and I finished in 3:24. It was a nine-minute PR, and I felt like I’d stepped bravely onto the first rung of a ladder. Turns out I was already at the top. I made several other attempts at the Chicago, Richmond, and Marine Corps marathons, and all resulted in late-race flameouts that soured me on marathons altogether. My “best” was also my most recent: a 3:39 at Marine Corps in 2013. It was 14 minutes shy of a BQ. In six years of striving, I had gotten 10 minutes farther from my goal.
When Julia contacted me, it was about trying to help David with the mental part of his training. Julia strongly values the role of sport psychology in distance running; she worked hard to improve her mindset when she was a top runner in college and in the professional ranks.
David has great support in a team of Nike experts: sport scientists, nutritionists, massage therapists, and Julia.
I was happy to be connected with David to talk about mental strategies. When he and I spoke, David was struggling to overcome several setbacks related to injuries He was feeling discouraged and wondering out loud “Who am I kidding?” or “Here we go again”… getting stuck in a cycle of negative thinking.
With David, I needed to help him move past this cycle — but not by asking to engage in “positive thinking.” I’m not a fan of simple positive thinking. There is good evidence suggesting that being optimistic without being realistic can reduce our chances of achieving a goal. So, David and I talked about not predicting the future with a purely negative lens or a purely positive lens. Instead, I encouraged David to use a technique based on Gabriele Oettingen’s work: Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions. A mouthful, but actually quite simple. When you are visualizing your desired outcome (e.g., qualifying for Boston), you have to imagine all the potential setbacks and the plan that you will engage when you encounter the setback. Easy enough. And yet only 1 in 6 people use this strategy on their own. Most think it is better to fantasize about the ultimate outcome; they don’t want to think about the potential minefields, possibly fearing that they will set themselves up in some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the next post, I will elaborate fully on the strategy. For now, you can listen to my interview with David on his podcast: The Runner’s World Show. This episode is called “Help from the team.” To listen to our part of the conversation, start at the 22:30 marker.