Ultrarunner Lisa Tamati shares her tips for overcoming the mental roadblocks that hold us back from achieving our goals.
New Zealander Lisa Tamati has completed around 140 ultramarathons and run the equivalent of three times around the Earth in training and racing. But before you write her off as a genetically blessed superhuman, consider these facts: she suffered from severe asthma as a child which left her with below-average lung capacity, and four of her spinal discs are now “nearly gone” after she broke two vertebrae in an accident at age 21.
While most people wouldn’t dream of running around the block with such major health setbacks, Lisa’s iron will led her to take on some of the most gruelling races on the planet, including the 222km La Ultra – The High in the Himalayas and the 217km Badwater Marathon held in one of the hottest deserts in the world.
We spoke to her to get her top tips on overcoming mental hurdles in running and in life.
When the going gets really tough during a race, how do you will yourself to keep going?
“When you’re running and you hit a brick wall, you take five minutes to sit down and bawl your eyes out if you need to. Then you stand back up again and keep going. It’s all about accepting, ‘OK, this has happened, but it’s what I do next that counts’, and not giving up just because you had a rough spell.”
When you’re trying to achieve a big goal – such as training for a longer distance than you’ve ever run before – and your mind tries to tell you that you can’t do it, how do you push past those mental barriers?
“I’ve read a lot about neurological development and I’ve learnt that the more you focus on a subject, the more powerful that connection in your brain becomes. That’s valid for the negative and the positive. If you start to spiral in thoughts about being useless and a failure, those thoughts will cause your actions. That’s how people get into a downward spiralling cycle of putting themselves down. But if you focus on the successes you’ve had, on the positive people around you and on the positive things you’ve read, you’ll reinforce those positive pathways. The more you do something, the more it becomes an automatic response. The brain goes, ‘Oh, I know this – I’ll just do it again.’ It becomes effortless.
“So when your brain acts like a naughty toddler, screaming at you and being naughty with negative thoughts, distract it like you would a child. Ring a friend, write an email you’ve been meaning to get to, or listen to music. If you can distract your brain for five minutes, the negative moment will most likely pass.”
How do you deal with nerves before a big event?
“You can either look at a challenge in your life as a threat or as an opportunity. If you see something as a threat and it’s terrifying you, it will cause stress hormones to be released and physiological responses in the body that aren’t conducive to an ideal performance. If you can change your perspective and look at it as an amazing opportunity, it puts it into a positive framework rather than a negative one.
“To calm your body down before a big event, do deep-breathing exercises and power poses such as putting your hands in the air, puffing out your chest and pumping your fists like Rocky. Tell yourself, ‘It will be what it will be.’ Just do the physical thing of running – it’s not going to help you to think of the consequences. You have to go in feeling powerful.
“These are things I’ve learnt from doing extreme events around the world, from my failures, from the times I’ve been depressed and worked my way out of it. They’re strategies I’ve developed that help me in my daily life, my relationships, my business life and my sports life. I don’t master them all – everybody has meltdown moments. We’re human and the important thing is to get back on the bandwagon the next day.”
What would you say to women who don’t think they can be “real” runners because they’re overweight, slow, time-poor, and so on?
“The world tells us all the time how we’re not achieving, we’re not good enough, we’re not young enough. You have to come to a point where you say, ‘Stuff it, I am me and I am wonderful.’ It’s not about arrogance – it’s about patting yourself on the back for all the good things you are and stopping the guilt. Women especially are loaded with guilt. We feel like we should be Superwoman all the time – a wonderful mother, a wonderful wife, a perfect body. None of us are ever going to live up to that image because it’s not a real image.
“It’s about loving yourself and saying, ‘I’m on this Earth, I’ve only got so many years left and I’m not going to go through my life feeling inferior to every other bugger out there.’ The silly thing is, 90 per cent of the others are feeling the same way. If you’re 100kg overweight and you want to run but you feel like you shouldn’t be there, stuff it! Who gives a sh*t what people think?
“For years, I thought I wasn’t a real runner because I wasn’t a fast runner [because of my asthma]. Nowadays, I know I’m a real runner. I run, therefore I am a runner.
“It’s not about being a champion and standing on the podium – it’s about your journey and how it makes you feel.”
For more on Lisa’s coaching services and Mindset Academy visit her website.