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The mental effect of achieving a goal and how your mind can sabotage you - Lisa Tamati (Business Speaker)

The mental effect of achieving a goal and how your mind can sabotage you - Lisa Tamati (Business Speaker)

by Lisa Tamati on Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Lisa Tamati has been an International sports competitor for over 25 years and is one of New Zealand's toughest athletes. In July 2008, she was the first New Zealand or Australasian woman to complete the gruelling Badwater ultramarathon a 217 km non-stop race through the hottest desert on earth, Death Valley, in an exceptional time of 38 hours 24 minutes. Lisa is inspiring and motivating, leaving her audiences with the skills and mindset to follow their own personal dreams, to conquer their own Death Valley.

Here the Business Speaker shares her expertise so you can achieve your goals without letting your mind sabotage you.

Pain is temporary, glory is forever

I was listening to a random conversation between a couple of guys who were talking about CrossFit and the effects missing a couple of weeks training had on them “I trained so hard for months to get where I was and now after only two weeks off I have lost it all”. The reality is you haven't lost fitness in that short time, but rather your perception of the difficulty and the pain involved becomes amplified. Therefore making you feel like you have lost fitness. This can have a negative impact on your motivation and can result in negative mind chatter such as "What then is the point when you lose it so quickly."

This type of mental talk can lead you to give up, not be consistent and have you believing you have "lost it." The truth is the physical strength is still there, it's the mental strength that has diminished. This got me thinking, how much of training is about mental strength as opposed to physical strength? 

Thankfully we have a very short-term memory when it comes to pain. A first-time marathon runner who has just crossed the line will invariably say “No way” when asked whether they will compete in another marathon. Yet a month later, they are back into training pushing their mind and body to the extreme for their next event. Our brain protects us from remembering just how hard it was and all we recall are the wonderful moments, the achievements or the beautiful results following the old adage “Pain is temporary, glory is forever.”

The brain adapts

Training is most definitely affected by your mental aptitude for coping with the effort involved in training. How much you get used to enduring the suffering while training, how you cope with the length and intensity of training. In other words, it is not just about the physical body.

Repetition allows the mind and body to think of something as being normal, even if it feels unpleasant. That is why the first three months of training is the toughest for an athlete. After that three things happen:

1. You get physically addicted to the exercise

2. You are naturally getting stronger, fitter and feeling better

3. It becomes part of your identity and also a condition your brain anticipates.

The more training pain you withstand the more you can withstand from a purely mental point of view. When I ran through NZ doing 500km a week, my body broke down the worst in the first two weeks. Everything that could go wrong did, and my body was screaming at me to stop, but I didn't. My body seemed to slowly adapt and decided to just get on with the job.

The mind can play tricks on us, try and stop us when it thinks we are in danger. The instinctive, primitive part of our brain wants us to get the most food for the least amount of effort, that is how through the millennia we were taught to survive. Don’t burn too much energy, eat and save as much as you can, putting it in “layman’s” terms.

That meant the body and more importantly, the mind developed a number of mechanisms to stop you doing too much. But if you override this instinctive part of your brain, this protective guardian, and push through the barriers you find that automatically the body can cope with far more than you think.

I wanted to share another example from my own experiments with my body. I was used to years of long, slow running and I largely neglected other forms of training and hence became extremely good at endurance but plateaued and never got any better or faster. I hated speed work, high-intensity training and resigned myself to being just an endurance athlete. I then decided to change my direction completely to see what would happen. I did a lot of high-intensity workouts using weights and much more interval and speed work in general.

The really interesting phenomenon was that my older body (late forties) that had only known one type of training, changed dramatically and my general fitness improved greatly. I became much more agile, stronger and my tolerance to intense training, pain and cardiovascular distress increased. However due to the limited distance running I was doing I found that mentally I couldn’t cope as well with the hours and hours of mental discipline required to run long distances. My body could still handle it without too much loss in actual endurance but more importantly, my mind couldn’t handle it anymore.

The CrossFit example

So then I thought back to a couple of conversations I have had with hard core CrossFit enthusiasts who believed wholeheartedly that they could do massive ultra marathons of a 100 miles or more on CrossFit training but only 20 to 30 km of actual running a week. They gave examples of athletes who had done very well doing just that. CrossFit prides itself on producing all-round athletes who are fit in every way. I could see this working on a physical training level however I had an issue with it was mentally.

CrossFit is rather short but very intense by nature and trains many energy systems in one go including the ability to endure high levels of anaerobic pain and exhaustion in training. What it couldn’t prepare you for was the days of low-level endurance training, the mental anguish of not being able to rest and sleep deprivation. Being on your feet continuously for hours and sometimes days, often in extreme conditions; from heat to freezing cold, storms to desert sand storms, dangerous conditions in exotic remote locations and being able to cope with danger from the environment plus your physical limitations.

The body I believe is prepared very well overall on a regime of CrossFit and a small amount of actual running but I doubt whether the mind can be prepared well enough for this very different type of challenge. I have seen athletes do well in 24 hour racing on similar regimes, when it’s just on a track and no other skills are required.

I want to now test this hypothesis in my next challenge which is to run 300km over five days with three mates doing the Alps to ocean cycle trail. This challenge is to raise money and awareness for brittle bone disease and in particular a little boy with the condition Ryuki.

Due to personal and professional circumstances I won’t be able to invest the huge amount of training time I invested during my earlier career, so I will be relying on my mostly short, sharp, intense training to carry my body through this physical challenge. I will rely on my old mindset to cope with the huge distances and time on my feet. This forced experiment will be very interesting for me to see if I can still do what I used to do on a quarter of the time I have to dedicate to it. Where I see problems coming is perhaps in injuries of tendons or ligaments that are no longer used to the long distances, and the skeletal system absorbing so much time running when it too is no longer used to it. Mostly, I see problems convincing my mind it can and has to do it, I know I will suffer far more for it mentally.

From these examples and experiments and offering these thoughts I wanted to instigate a discussion and further thought about just how much the mind plays tricks on us and how we can get the best results out of ourselves with the least amount of training and despite our minds sabotaging us.

Discover more about Lisa here.

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