I was trying to remain calm, as I always do, while sitting on a taxing airplane headed to a runway for take off. I believe there is a real possibility that the plane will crash on take off or immediately thereafter…or pretty much at any time during the flight. I suffer very real anxiety attacks (ask my husband) on almost every flight I’m on. Once, when flying alone, the man sitting next to me was astounded that I’m even able to get on the plane, once he had a front row seat to my mid-flight panic attack.

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For this particular flight last week, I was pretending to calmly read The Runner’s Brain by lead psychologist for the Boston Marathon medical team and assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital, Dr. Jeff Brown and co-authored by Liz Neporent, a health and fitness expert, writer and social media consultant who also happens to have run 25 marathons and 6 ultras. Not too shabby.

Although I was reading about running and the mind body connection, this jumped out at me:

It Is Really All In Your Head

“The reticular activating system, or RAS, seems to be part of the brain that helps you sort information from which you derive beliefs about yourself. It provides you with the rationale for how you see yourself, and part of that image includes your beliefs, whether they are based on reality or superstitious thinking.”

Huh.

Basically, you are what your RAS thinks you are. Who is feeding the information to the RAS? You are! And, it only holds so much, which means the more positivity you give it – the more it will believe. The best part? It has almost nothing to do with reality.

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Like with me and flying, I’ve built up a belief, for whatever reason that flying is extremely dangerous. Although I do try to think rationally about how safe it is (I really do!) I have built up way too much negativity for my RAS to believe it. The same can happen with running.

Dr. Brown and Liz use the example of how you respond to the question of “Are you a runner?” A lot of people may say “Yes BUT…I’m not very fast,” or “Yes BUT…I don’t run a lot of races.” Before you build the confidence to respond with “Heck yes I’m a runner!” your RAS needs to believe it.

Running Legend Perspective

As we all know, and as I have recently experienced in the NYC marathon, runners have set backs. Dr. Brown points out in the book that often runners will site these setbacks as reasons why they haven’t achieved much with their running. Dr. Brown is quick to point out that the opposite should be true – you believe first and then you achieve! Doesn’t that make more sense?

It does to Amby Burfoot who gives this gem of advice and perspective:

“One of those things that running teaches you is that there is disappointment. Once you get to a certain level of high achievement, you are much more likely to lose a race then win it. It is a negative until you turn it around and refuse to let it be. I learned from running coach Jack Daniels that a great day is not a fluke. That’s your ability. That’s who you are. You don’t hit it everyday but that’s what you’re capable of…” 

And we are capable of so much more then we think, which is why we need to keep feeding the RAS.

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How to Feed Your RAS 

In the book, a six point strategy is given for beefing up your belief system:

  1. Stuff your RAS full of knowledge: read everything you can about running, including this blog and Runner’s World magazine.
  2. Hang with runners: birds of a feather, flock together…and run together and talk about things like chafing and protein pancakes. Basically if you surround yourself in a bubble of like-minded people, regular track sessions and annual race get-toegthers will become the norm – all feeding the RAS valuable “I am a runner!” information.
  3. Program your self talk: your RAS cannot tell the difference between a real event and an imaginary one! This is why visualization for runners is so, so important.

visualization1-300x3004. Set goals: Do you want to emulate your running heroes? Do you think Meb had laser like focus when training for the Boston Marathon he won or do you think he kind of sort of hoped he might win? Exactly. No matter how small you think your goals are, you have to believe you can achieve them and then go after them with everything you have.

5. Dress the part: This is the best excuse to buy new running clothes I have ever heard. How are you going to convince yourself you’re a runner if you’re wearing cotton sweats? Come on now!

6. Run! Seems obvious but the more you run, the more you learn about running, the more you believe you are a runner, the more you want to run. See how I made that pretty little circle?

[Tweet “Feed your RAS with #TheRunnersBrain and these 6 steps! @drjeffreybrown “]

Remember, you can apply this to almost anything, not just running.

The Little Things Matter to Your RAS

How many of you need to do or wear certain things on race day? Do you freak if your bib number is “unlucky?” Is there a sudden panic when you realize your “PR shorts” are in the laundry on race day? I totally get it, and so does your RAS so be careful with your crazy.

“Not long ago I posted a question on Runner’s World Facebook page asking runners if they have a ritual, superstition or silly belief they engage before a race. In less then 3 hours, I received 187 replies.” Dr. Jeff Brown

Yep, we’re nuts all right, but most athletes are, and here’s the reason it seems to work:

1. Regardless of species (there are some interesting experiments with birds), it seems superstitions become behaviors when the brain repeats whatever actions preceded past success.

2. Superstitions are a type of brain habit. Your brain clings to a habitual behavior because it would prefer not to find out what would happen if you let it go.

Knock on wood lately? Throw some salt perhaps? You’re in good company:

– Serena Williams always bounces the ball five times before the first service and twice before the second.

– Tiger Woods only wears red shirts in final rounds.

– Hall of fame baseball player Wade Boggs had to eat chicken before every game, took precisely 150 practice hits and wrote “chai” the Hebrew word for life in the dirt before each at bat.

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Dr. Brown and Neporent explain it like this:

“This type of thinking, illogical as it may be, offers a sense of control, comfort and meaning, not unlike the way a child feels when she clings to her teddy bear. Instead of allowing your anxiety to get the best of you and possibly hamper your performance, the enchanted beliefs and ritualistic behaviors of a superstition help keep you calm and focused.”

I don’t know about you but I’m feeling more relaxed already. Time to go check on my lucky shorts…

There Is So Much More

It was extremely hard to chose just one topic to share from this book. I have barely even touched on the RAS subject, as it is explained with so much more detail and with so many more examples and studies though out the book. I strongly encourage any runner to read this book and, maybe especially new runners. Although I found a wealth of pertinent information for myself, I found even more great advice and knowledge for the newbie. I wish I had read this 10 years ago!

Other greatness within these pages includes:

Running Through Challenges – Hills? Speed work? Racing? Let’s discuss.

Managing Competition – Pre-race jitters and post-race blues.

Hitting the Wall – Running’s great equalizer and how we’re in very good company when it comes to hitting the bricks.

Resources for Runners – Worksheets and strategies to train your brain!

From the Minds of the Greats – Learning from the elites and how their minds work. Fascinating but sadly will not automatically make you an elite.

Get the book, learn more about the authors Dr. Brown and Liz Neporent and tell me what you think below or on Twitter...

[Tweet “”Negative thinking makes your running shoes heavy” and other words of wisdom in #TheRunnersBrain “]