“The only one who can tell you ‘you can’t’ is you. And you don’t have to listen.”
~Nike (the shoe, not the Greek goddess)
By Matt Wulff
I told myself I wouldn’t write another blog post until spring weather arrived. Well, it’s been “spring” for a couple of weeks and I’m not seeing any real progress by Mother Nature to deliver. So, I sit here writing and looking out the window at a cold, gray, rainy world. Have I mentioned I absolutely hate the first two months of spring in Wisconsin? Wind, rain, cold, gray. Then the tulips show up and everyone is like “spring is so wonderful!” Not me. I can’t be won over with a few temporary flowers.
The cold, gloomy weather connects really well to a part of my training that I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past couple months. It’s not a part of my training that you’ll find listed in any of my prescribed workouts, but for me, it’s the most important part of my training. Training my brain.
If you’re one of those “science believers”, then you’re probably thinking, “you don’t train your brain like you train your muscles. Try reading a book.” You’re right. Technically the brain is not a muscle. It’s predominantly gray and white matter, with cellular structure and function far different (and more complex) than that of muscle. That’s true, but since I’m the author of this post, I get to decide which facts I use and which ones I ignore. I choose to ignore this one.
So, we’re now agreed that our brains can be trained like a muscle. It’s good to all be on the same page. In some areas, my brain is my greatest asset. Areas like solving problems, reciting movie quotes and remembering horribly inappropriate jokes come to mind. In other areas, my brain is my biggest enemy and weakest muscle. Try racing a 10k and telling yourself the whole time you can’t run as fast as your body thinks it can. It will affect your performance. Trust me, I just did it twice in the past few weeks.
Thus, a big part of my training this year has been on telling my brain that if it can’t say something nice, then it can just shut it. It’s slowly working. I’m finding new tricks to push through all the miles I’m logging swimming, biking and running. I’m learning to focus on listening to my body and not my brain.
For example, during a recent 90 minute indoor bike session, my legs felt dead from the get-go. As the workout moved into the difficult efforts, I found myself thinking about just stopping and calling it a day. I knew that wouldn’t help me achieve my goals, so I started playing a little game called “Find the Fatigue”. It’s a simple game. As I was riding, I did a mental inventory of the key muscles I was using. I thought about each one and asked myself if that muscle was the reason I felt tired. Turns out I couldn’t find a muscle that was too tired to keep pushing. So, I kept pushing and each time my brain tried to convince me to stop, I played the game again.
This mental battle is not unique to me. I know that all athletes struggle with this battle, even those that have reached the pinnacle of the triathlon world. Chrissie Wellington, a four-time Ironman World Champion said of her 2011 victory, “I won the race, not on physical prowess, but on grit, willpower, determination and mental strength.” When reflecting on the race several months later, she wrote, “All the physical strength in the world won’t help you if your mind is not prepared. This is part of training for a race — the part that people don’t put in their logbooks, the part that all the monitors, gizmos and gadgets in the world can’t influence.”
For me, it’s always encouraging to hear a professional athlete acknowledge they deal with the same struggles that I do. It makes me feel like I’m not alone. It makes me feel like part of a community. I am, in fact, lucky enough to be part of several great triathlon communities – Tri 4 Schools and Madison Multisport. I was recently describing my triathlon experience with a friend I had not talked to in a long time. When I was done, she said, “that’s so great. It sounds like you’ve really found your tribe.” I had never thought about it that way, but it’s very true. I have found my tribe and that tribe helps me to build my mental strength every single day.
The Wulff Pack – February/March 2018
People who are having a big impact on my goals for 2018 and who became honorary members of the Wulff Pack.
Darcy Luoma – one of my Madison Multisport teammates who, in addition to donating, has been giving me life advice during some of our training rides.
Margaret LaBorde – another of my Madison Multisport teammates and also my pen pal who supports and encourages me and also does some proofreading/editing from time to time.
Christine Schneider & Meghna Kuckreja – two of my colleagues at work who support my training as a means to keep my “crazy” at bay while I’m at work.