Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Thoughts We Carry With Us

Most people are familiar with the phrase, "You are what you eat".  While I can somewhat agree, I think a much more powerful truth is that

You Are What You Think

The older I get, the more I realize that the connection between the body and the mind is infinitely deeper than most people appreciate.  Or rather, we all agree that it is there, but the idea of training your mind is not one that is popular in our culture.  Meditation, yoga.. sure.  These have migrated into popular culture.  But day-to-day, moment-by-moment discipline of your thoughts is not something you're likely to find multiple hits on Pinterest for.

Several weeks ago I made a resolution against negativity, realizing that most of the comments regarding my workouts (both to my coach and to myself) were pretty negative.  The way I thought about my training was conditioning me to associate hard workouts with pain and small disappointments, rather than choosing to dwell on my accomplishments and the positive effects of my exercise.

Happy moment.  A hit!
Similarly, I also joined the 100 Happy Days challenge.  Every day I choose at least one moment to share with the world (via social media) that I am grateful and happy for.  Some days have been harder than others, but overall this daily practice of being present in my own life and paying attention to the joyful has been illuminating.

Eastern practice speaks of a person's life energy, their vital force, as chi.  Chi exists within the body, and between the body and the outside world.  Most illnesses and pain are a result of blocked or imbalanced chi. Practices such as Tai chi and meditation, as well as Reiki, acupuncture, etc. seek to balance and improve the flow of the life force in the body.  Whether you are a subscriber to western medicinal theory or not, the idea of a person's energy being positive or negative is fairly cross cultural.  All those hippies in the 70s talking about beautiful purple auras can't be wrong.

Taking this idea a step further, I believe that positive energy attracts more positive energy.  Meaning that, if you strive to keep your heart and mind open and peaceful, you will be more open to opportunities, ideas, and outcomes than you would be immersed in negativity.

Your body's energy is controlled by your mind.

I recently listened to a fabulous podcast by the Another Mother Runner crew.  They were interviewing time- and life- coach Jill Farmer for time management tips.  Jill asked her audience to consider the fact that every time you think a negative thought like, "I don't have time to do all this", your sympathetic nervous system kicks in with the same flight-or-fight response that would occur if a predator was bearing down on you wanting to make you its lunch.  The lower functions of your brain do not know the difference between stress from an overstuffed calendar and from an immediate threat of physical harm.  The biological reaction is the same.  Adrenaline floods the system, cortisol goes up, heart rate increases, and you feel fearful.  Repeat several hundred times per day, and you are literally changing the biology of your body and mind (and your chi).

Conversely, if you are able to recognize these types of thoughts when you have them, you have a chance to turn the whole thing around.  Instead of telling yourself "I don't have time", tell yourself, "I can do this.  One step at a time".  Your parasympathetic nervous system reacts and brings your body back into a baseline peaceful state.  When you aren't feeling frenzied, you are more productive and can achieve more than you can when always "fleeing the bear that isn't there".

So what does this all have to do with triathlon?

A huge part of triathlon is mental.  Learning to control your thoughts and endure physical discomfort is a major part of endurance racing.  Every time I think I've improved on this, I learn a new lesson.  This past Monday night I went out on a group ride from a local bike store.  I didn't know anyone.  Rather than having confidence in my abilities, I second guessed myself (negative voice on the shoulder) and joined the "slow group".  It was the wrong decision.  After a few miles I joined the main pack, which was made up of about 50 men (only).  All those men and one lucky girl.  I ended up pushing myself and having a fantastic ride.  Negativity lesson learned.

It's raining men!

We constantly set goals and have dreams, both in our athletic and outside lives.  Can I do a full Ironman?  Can I break a two hour half marathon?  Should I start a new business?  Can I apply for that job that I really want?  Ultimately it is our minds that allow us to take the first steps towards those dreams.  That accompany us along the way, whispering in our ears that we will either fail or triumph.  So why do we spend so little time thinking about how our thoughts affect our bodies and our lives?

As you may have guessed, I am myself currently facing one of these Big Dreams.  Plus a Big Decision.  (I promise to be more specific when I am able to do so).  It is big.  It is scary.  I am finding myself going through cycles of hope and elation followed by self doubt and negativity - usually several times a day.  It is exhausting.  Last week when I had my freak-out, I was letting my negative mind get the better of me.  This week, I've been much calmer.  Not because anything has changed - our family schedule is even nuttier, work is tougher, Oly training starts next week and my Big Dream is still there.  I've been making a conscious effort to control how I think about all of these things.  That is what has made the difference - my internal mind, not anything on the outside.

My kids know all about this
On a side note, all this stress has been great for my training, since a big coping mechanism for me is exercise.  In addition to that ride, I've done a 2000m swim set on Tuesday, and a spin class/run brick followed by strength training on Wednesday.  My body finally demanded a rest day today.  Whew.

Best quote from the podcast: "It's impossible to feel fear and gratitude at the same time".

The irony is that I wouldn't be even considering my Big Dream if I hadn't made this commitment to being positive.  The road that led me to this place is absolutely based on previous leaps of faith that I was capable of more (even if my mind didn't 100% agree all the time).  More professionally, more athletically, and more personally.  It all ties in together.  Which is why I'm writing on this subject tonight.  To remind myself that I am in control of my thoughts, my mind, my body, and ultimately my life.  I am reaffirming my commitment to staying positive and attracting more positive energy and opportunities.  To chase amazing experiences and improvement in all aspects of my life.

How do you focus on staying positive?  What keeps you centered?


Darilyn Weiss said...

This is a great post and very relevant to me. Having just started my first triathlon training for a race on Mother's Day, as well as trying to get back into running, I have been plagued with negativity and bad thoughts that have hindered my motivation. I have tried to turn everything around. I used to think things like "What's the point of going out for a run when I can barely run 2km and when I do, it's extremely slow?" Now I try and turn that around and think "I can RUN 2km!" Just changing one part of my negative thoughts, just one word, can have an incredible difference in my mindset. This is what I am focusing on. And pretty soon I'll be able to run 4km, and then 8km, etc. And it will keep going. And I will tell myself that I can run because I AM running. I've realized it's not about's about getting my butt out there for that first step.

Miranda Greenhalgh said...

It is absolutely NOT about the distance! Good for you and keep at it.

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