Inner Critic or Internal Coach… It’s Up to You

The sign reads 11th Mountain. I’m deep in the Adirondacks. This is friggin’ awesome! There are very few things I like better than finding a new trail, and this one promises, by the looks of it, to be severely challenging. I like that it’s difficult. I have a really hard time getting out for a run if I don’t think it’s gonna’ be hard. I like the stimulation and challenge.

I throw on my running shoes, put on my running vest, lock up the car, and head out! I only have about an hour and a half at most before I have to get back on the road. While not as long as I’d like, with a new trail in my sights, I know I’ll feel accomplished and confident that I got in the hours of training today.

I would give it maybe 200 yards before the trail turns slightly muddy and the footing rocky. I feel my entire body breathe heavy. What usually is excitement is suddenly fatigue. Full body fatigue. I literally feel like I just don’t want go. I begin to hear a little voice inside my head. Actually… it’s a booming voice and one I know well. Say hello to my inner critic, and he’s on a rampage…

“What do you mean you don’t want to go?! What’s wrong with you? You know I’m going to shame you HUGELY for this later… now to hell with your fatigue and get out there!

I don’t hear this voice a lot when I’m out in the woods running, but when I do it fills me with all kinds of uncomfortable emotions. Guilt for not wanting to go faster, uncertain that I will be able to go longer, fear to try and go further, and at this point I don’t wanna’ go at all! I’ve had moments like this before. It comes from a training regime that for many years consisted of just going as hard as I could for as many days as I could. If I didn’t feel up to running full intensity, or if I was physically and mentally exhausted, I would do one of two things. One – hang my head, call it a day, and feel crappy until my next training session. Or two – fight through the immense fatigue, get the training in, feel good about myself for about an hour afterwards, then be dead to world for a couple days and end up taking days off of training anyway.

But there is another voice I’ve developed over the years. A voice that is not easier on me. Rather, it’s a voice that allows me to gain perspective and continue making an effort, even if it’s not the hardest effort that I’ve ever given. My internal coach. She allows me to give what I would call a productive, consistent effort. Her voice became important when I decided that, to train for longer races I would change my regime and begin to put more focus on time on my feet.

I sign up for these incredibly long challenging races that required many hours of running, and, instead I would substitute the amount of time I had to put in with an incredibly hard effort for shorter miles. I would pat myself on the back for the monster effort that I would give, while I was sacrificing miles. Anybody could go long and slow, where was the challenge in that?

Well that was just it: long and slow didn’t have the stimulation that hard and fast did.

Everyone has a propensity to be good under certain conditions. Resilience is finding the conditions where you’re not as good and improving those. I was good at running full out, but If I didn’t feel the stimulation, I didn’t feel like I was gaining anything. I got bored and didn’t want to keep running. The real challenge for me was taking a more measured approach. An approach that required patience and follow-through even when my heart rate wasn’t blowing up in immense effort! My internal coach, the one I’ve been developing over the past several years, did its job and gave me the talk that I needed to hear:

“You need time on your feet for bigger races. You have been averaging 15 to 20 miles more a week than you ever have before any event ever. Many successful long-distance runners are incredible hikers and spend much more time in the woods at a low heart rate than they do pushing themselves to the limit for half the time. You are getting the hard running in that you need, and you are getting more time and find your feet.”

It’s true. If I want to get different results, then I have to take different actions. Those actions require me to spend more time on my feet and lower heart rates, so my legs are less tired and more familiar with going the distances I want to race.

Uncomfortable emotions like doubt, fear, and anxiety are bound to rear their heads when we decide to change the way we are going to go about achieving a goal. But if we want to get better results, or we want different results, then we need to take different actions. We can soothe our uncomfortable emotions by accepting them. Listening to them, but not acting on them. Remembering that they are only doing their job. They are not twisting and evil mustache, but instead are trying to warn us that something different is happening and that change “could” be dangerous for us.

It’s your internal coach that reminds you of why you’ve chosen a new way to approach your goal. She gives you the ‘big picture’ view of why you might be feeling the way you are during a change. She stays firm with you, and gives you productive feedback on your process. She rally’s you with excitement in your new approach, and fills you with confidence that you are making the right decisions by choosing to change your approach.

My internal coach continued with something like this:

“You have run three days in a row with great elevation, great speed work just yesterday, and each day you’ve added at least one hour of being on your feet either through hiking or even just walking. Your legs are feeling stronger than they ever have and you’ve lost none of your strength with your heart rate. You are losing the weight you wanna’ lose, and you are still able to function in other aspects of your life that are really important to you right now. I know this way of training is new to us, and that can be scary as crap, but we are having great success with it. Embrace the new challenge of not being stimulated by huge effort to the point of exhaustion and having the mental fortitude to do the work required.”

My internal courage made some sense. She usually does. I begin to break into a strong hike. She’s right. I pushed for three days in a row and, on top of that, I’ve had at least three hours in the last three days that were not running. I promised myself that I won’t go over a heart rate of 120. Anytime I do I switch up and start hiking. If I stay under, I run.

My energy begins to come back. It’s no coincidence that it’s return comes as I’m starting to feel better about my training and how I’m approaching it for today. Later tonight I’m sure I’ll take a good walk after picking my son up from college. I won’t be exhausted, I will have gotten more hours in this week, and I’ve gotten closer to my goal by listening to my internal coach, quelling my fears, and being open to change. I’m sure the practice will continue tomorrow… As long as my internal coach shows up, I’m sure I’ll do the work required.