Mental Preparation for Competition

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While race day or game day itself is often exciting, unpredictable and public, the training that prepares us for the big day can be anything but. The grueling, tedious and monotonous nature of preparation, typically done away from public view, can make sticking with a training program difficult. In this article, we consider the mental challenges of adherence and tips to get through training as well as the big race or game.

What hinders lots of athletes, whether recreational or highly competitive as they prepare for competition is the repetitiveness of training. Running the same routes and performing the same drills every day, after a while, can strip us of our motivation to continue. While repetition is key to mastery of a skill, new trails, new routes, or new routines can be the ticket when the excitement of training begins to dwindle. An older man approaching the 50th wedding anniversary with his wife recently shared to me his secret to marital success: “Keep her guessing. Keep her on her toes.

One day, return home from work with a rose, or a nice shirt, or a piece of jewelry or a loving embrace. Never fall into a long-term routine. The possibility of surprise fortifies the relationship and keeps it lasting.” The human body and mind both respond favorably to variation; life requires some change to keep someone alert, fresh and interested. Surprising your muscles and your mind with change prevents you from simply going through the motions and brings more mindfulness to the movements of the training. Examples include:

– running stairs instead of hills
– playing pick-up basketball instead of your regular agility training
– working on less familiar or less practiced parts of your game
– testing out kettlebells rather than the usual dumbbells at the gym

Mixing it up can be in response to a lull in motivation (“I’m getting bored, it’s time for a change”) or as a way to eliminate the possibility of the lull setting in. Find what works for you.

We tend to forget that there is a way to enhance training for competition without having to physically move our bodies. When a scene is imagined vividly and accurately, our brains essentially get tricked into believing we’re doing it for real, since physical and mental rehearsal alike activate very similar parts of the brain. Not only is it helpful to create pictures of success in our mind (i.e., watching ourselves kicking the game-winning field goal, or crossing the finish line in record time), but it’s just as important to picture overcoming the obstacles that may get in the way of success. Examples include:

– imagining how you will adjust your race strategy to torrential rain on the big day
– seeing yourself letting go of a poor golf hole and sticking with your normal routines on the next hole, rather than rushing and making impulsive decisions as you may usually do
– picturing playing intense and focused defense after missing a clutch free throw on offense

Remember, you never want to arrive anywhere on the course or field where you haven’t already been for at least a few moments in your mind.

A neuroscientist says there’s a powerful benefit to exercise that is rarely discussed

Jogger passes fitness enthusiasts performing stretching exercises after sunrise at Queenscliff Beach in Sydney

When I was about to turn 40, I started working out regularly after years of inactivity. As I sweated my way through cardio, weights, and dance classes, I noticed that exercise wasn’t just changing my body. It was also profoundly transforming my brain—for the better.

The immediate effects of exercise on my mood and thought process proved to be a powerful motivational tool. And as a neuroscientist and workout devotee, I’ve come to believe that these neurological benefits could have profound implications for how we live, learn and age as a society.

Let’s start with one of the most practical immediate benefits of breaking a sweat: exercise combats stress. Exercise is a powerful way to combat feelings of stress because it causes immediate increases in levels of key neurotransmitters, including serotonin, noradrenalin, dopamine and endorphins, that are often depleted by anxiety and depression. That’s why going for a run or spending 30 minutes on the elliptical can boost our moods immediately—combatting the negative feelings we often associate with chronic stressors we deal with every day.


Exercise improves our ability to shift and focus attention.


In my lab, we have also demonstrated that exercise improves our ability to shift and focus attention. Even casual exercisers will recognize this effect. It’s that heightened sense of focus that you feel right after you’ve gotten your blood flowing, whether it be a brisk walk with the dog or a full-on Crossfit workout. These findings suggest that if you have a big presentation or meeting where you need your focus and attention to be at its peak, you should get in a workout ahead of time to maximize those brain functions.

But my favorite neuroscience-based motivation for exercise relates to its effects on the hippocampus—a key brain structure that’s critical for long-term memory. We all have two hippocampi: one on the right side of the brain and the other on the left. The hippocampus is unique because it is one of only two brain areas where new brain cells continue to be generated throughout our lives, a process called adult hippocampal neurogenesis.

Studies in rodents demonstrated that increased levels of physical exercise can result in improved memory by enhancing both the birth rate and the survival of new hippocampal brain cells. Exercise encourages the long-term growth of hippocampal cells by immediately increasing levels of a key growth factor in the hippocampus called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF. Now, when I exercise, I imagine BDNF levels surging in my hippocampi, encouraging all those new hippocampal cells to grow.

All this should serve as a powerful motivator for regular physical activity. But the immediate and long-term benefits of exercise on the brain have even bigger implications.


Exercise could help students better absorb everything from history lessons to chemistry experiments–and they’d be happier too.


Just consider how the educational system might be altered if we acknowledge exercise’s ability to brighten our mood, decrease stress, and improve our attention span and memory. The growing evidence that exercise improves these key brain functions should encourage schools around the world to increase—not decrease—students’ physical activity. Not only would this help students to better absorb everything from history lessons to chemistry experiments, they’d be a lot happier too.

The positive brain-based effects of exercise for education are just as relevant for very young children. The growing popularity of outdoor preschools are a promising sign that this message is starting to get through.

These brain effects of exercise also have implications for our search for that magic “smart” pill we hope will make us more productive, successful, and—if you believe the Bradley Cooper film “Limitless”—a lot sexier as well. What if the real magic does not come in the form of a pill, but in the form of an exercise regimen?

That’s exactly what the neuroscience research suggests. In fact, my lab is focusing on identifying how we can use exercise to optimize brain function for people of all ages, fitness levels and abilities. If regular exercise becomes routine for the vast majority of children and adults, we could have a population that’s not only healthier and less stressed, but also more productive.


Exercise could make students more imaginative at school and adults more creative at work.


The good news doesn’t end there. Recent findings have suggested that the brain’s hippocampus is also involved in giving people the ability to imagine new situations. Since we know that exercise enhances the birth of new hippocampal brain cells and can improve memory function, this discovery suggests that exercise might be able to improve the imaginative functions of the hippocampus as well.

This idea has not yet been tested in people. But the hypothesis raises the exciting possibility that exercise could make students more imaginative at school and adults more creative at work, with broad benefits for society as a whole.

It is also worth noting one of the most profound long-term benefits of exercise on the brain. That is, the longer and more regularly you exercise through your life, the lower your chances are of suffering from cognitive decline and dementia as you age. Part of this effect can be attributed to the build-up in the numbers of healthy young hippocampal cells as you exercise over the years.

Granted, this is a very long-term benefit that may not be seen for decades to come. But if more people were to join the gym this month and actually stick to it, more of us will be able to avoid debilitating cognitive decline, which could save society billions of dollars as we enter old age. This problem is even more relevant for countries with particularly large aging populations, including the US, Japan and Germany.

In these ways, neuroscience gives us a framework to understand exercise as a tool for better education, increased productivity in the workforce and combating cognitive decline. It’s time for us to stop using the looming prospect of beach season as the motivation for exercise—and instead shift the conversation to a discussion about how staying active can change the way we live.

WRITTEN BY Wendy A. Suzuki

Ways to cope in the midst of uncertain times

LIVING WITH HEART & HOPE-“It is often in the darkest skies that we see the brightest stars.” — Richard Evans

The world as we know it has undergone quite a lot of change and it can be challenging to navigate the stress that often accompanies uncertain times. During this month that’s so focused on love, we want to focus on the most impact-full thing you can do to diffuse stress and keep hope alive: self-care.

Here’s the paradox—when you’re stressed, it makes sense that taking care of yourself falls to the bottom of your to-do list; after all, there are so many other people and priorities that are more important, right? Well, no. Self-care is actually MOST important to help buffer you against the health-eroding effects of stress and it’s also a way to keep what’s going on around you in perspective. You can only change yourself and how you show up in the world—and you can only do that when you are healthy and nourished. So avoid the temptation to brush it aside.

To that end, here are three ideas for how you can remain grounded and cared for during the month of February and beyond.

Find community

In stressful times, it’s even more important to reach out to your community—to become engaged with other people, and build human connections. This can be as simple as finding time to spend with friends or family. Kids, in particular, are fantastic supporters of living in the moment and building connections. (Try obsessing about politics around a two-year-old—they will not let you!)

Simplify

Our smartphones have our go-to for staying connected, but spending all of your waking hours glued to a screen is bad for your soul. Balance out the need to stay informed with some simple time-outs:

  • Go for a walk in nature.
  • Make time for exercise—sweaty exertion is GREAT for clearing the head and harmlessly channeling any feelings of anger or frustration.
  • Read a book: Nothing can help you gain perspective like reading about how others have overcome obstacles.
  • Take care of your basic physical health: practice good sleep hygiene, eat well by focusing on whole foods, and remember to stop and breathe when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Simplifying is not an excuse to tune out. It’s a necessary step to keep yourself from burning out and lapsing into apathy.

Give Back

The best cure for an anxious, blue mood? Giving back to those who are truly less fortunate.

It’s tempting to hide away and remain overwhelmed. But using your skills to give back is not only beneficial to the world—but also beneficial to your well-being! Giving back to others is a great way to feel proud, motivated, and strong. It allows you to really define, prioritize, and fight for your values: What’s most important to you? What good can you do in the world? How can your skills help others? Start thinking of small steps you can take to help others:

  • Can you volunteer some time to help a local charity?
  • Can you mentor someone in need?
  • Can you forego that daily Starbucks run and commit to a small donation to a non-profit?

Seemingly tiny acts add up mightily if you can start a real habit.

To your good health,

Karen

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How Exercise Shapes You, Far Beyond the Gym

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When I first started training for marathons a little over ten years ago, my coach told me something I’ve never forgotten: that I would need to learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I didn’t know it at the time, but that skill, cultivated through running, would help me as much, if not more, off the road as it would on it.

It’s not just me, and it’s not just running. Ask anyone whose day regularly includes a hard bike ride, sprints in the pool, a complex problem on the climbing wall, or a progressive powerlifting circuit, and they’ll likely tell you the same: A difficult conversation just doesn’t seem so difficult anymore. A tight deadline not so intimidating. Relationship problems not so problematic.

Maybe it’s that if you’re regularly working out, you’re simply too tired to care. But that’s probably not the case. Research shows that, if anything, physical activity boosts short-term brain function and heightens awareness. And even on days they don’t train — which rules out fatigue as a factor — those who habitually push their bodies tend to confront daily stressors with a stoic demeanor. While the traditional benefits of vigorous exercise — like prevention and treatment of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, and osteoporosis — are well known and often reported, the most powerful benefit might be the lesson that my coach imparted to me: In a world where comfort is king, arduous physical activity provides a rare opportunity to practice suffering.

Few hone this skill better than professional endurance and adventure athletes, who make a living withstanding conditions others cannot. For my column with Outside Magazine, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing the world’s top endurance and adventure athletes on the practices underlying their success. Regardless of sport, the most resounding theme, by far, is that they’ve all learned how to embrace uncomfortable situations:

• Olympic marathoner Des Linden told me that at mile 20 of 26.2, when the inevitable suffering kicks in, through years of practice she’s learned to stay relaxed and in the moment. She repeats the mantra: “calm, calm, calm; relax, relax, relax.”

• World-champion big-wave surfer Nic Lamb says being uncomfortable, and even afraid, is a prerequisite to riding four-story waves. But he also knows it’s “the path to personal development.” He’s learned that while you can pull back, you can almost always push through. “Pushing through is courage. Pulling back is regret,” he says.

• Free-soloist Alex Honnold explains that, “The only way to deal with [pain] is practice. [I] get used to it during training so that when it happens on big climbs, it feels normal.”

• Evelyn Stevens, the women’s record holder for most miles cycled in an hour (29.81 – yes, that’s nuts), says that during her hardest training intervals, “instead of thinking I want these to be over, I try to feel and sit with the pain. Heck, I even try to embrace it.”

• Big-mountain climber Jimmy Chin, the first American to climb up — and then ski down — Mt. Everest’s South Pillar Route, told me an element of fear is there in everything he does, but he’s learned how to manage it: “It’s about sorting out perceived risk from real risk, and then being as rational as possible with what’s left.”

But you don’t need to scale massive vertical pitches or run five-minute miles to reap the benefits. Simply training for your first half marathon or CrossFit competition can also yield huge dividends that carry over into other areas of life. In the words of Kelly Starrett, one of the founding fathers of the CrossFit movement, “Anyone can benefit from cultivating a physical practice.” Science backs him up.

A study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that college students who went from not exercising at all to even a modest program (just two to three gym visits per week) reported a decrease in stress, smoking, alcohol and caffeine consumption, an increase in healthy eating and maintenance of household chores, and better spending and study habits. In addition to these real-life improvements, after two months of regular exercise, the students also performed better on laboratory tests of self-control. This led the researchers to speculate that exercise had a powerful impact on the students’ “capacity for self-regulation.” In laypeople’s terms, pushing through the discomfort associated with exercise — saying “yes” when their bodies and minds were telling them to say “no” — taught the students to stay cool, calm, and collected in the face of difficulty, whether that meant better managing stress, drinking less, or studying more.

For this reason, the author Charles Duhigg, in his 2012 bestseller The Power of Habit, calls exercise a “keystone habit,” or a change in one area life that brings about positive effects in other areas. Duhigg says keystone habits are powerful because “they change our sense of self and our sense of what is possible.” This explains why the charity Back on My Feet uses running to help individuals who are experiencing homelessness improve their situations. Since launching in 2009, Back on My Feet has had over 5,500 runners, 40 percent of whom have gained employment after starting to run with the group and 25 percent of whom have found permanent housing. This is also likely why it’s so common to hear about people who started training for a marathon to help them get over a divorce or even the death of a loved one.

Another study, this one published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, evaluated how exercise changes our physiological response to stress. Researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, in Germany, divided students into two groups at the beginning of the semester and instructed half to run twice a week for 20 weeks. At the end of the 20 weeks, which coincided with a particularly stressful time for the students — exams — the researchers had the students wear heart-rate monitors to measure their heart-rate variability, which is a common indicator of physiological stress (the more variability, the less stress). As you might guess by now, the students who were enrolled in the running program showed significantly greater heart-rate variability. Their bodies literally were not as stressed during exams: They were more comfortable during a generally uncomfortable time.

What’s remarkable and encouraging about these studies is that the subjects weren’t exercising at heroic intensities or volumes. They were simply doing something that was physically challenging for them – going from no exercise to some exercise; one need not be an elite athlete or fitness nerd to reap the bulletproofing benefits of exercise.

Why does any of this matter? For one, articles that claim prioritizing big fitness goals is a waste of time (exhibit A: “Don’t Run a Marathon) are downright wrong. But far more important than internet banter, perhaps a broader reframing of exercise is in order. Exercise isn’t just about helping out your health down the road, and it’s certainly not just about vanity. What you do in the gym (or on the roads, in the ocean, etc.) makes you a better, higher-performing person outside of it. The truth, cliché as it may sound, is this: When you develop physical fitness, you’re developing life fitness, too.

Brad Stulberg is a columnist for Outside Magazine, where he writes about health and the science of human performance. Follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg.