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July 29, 2019

Mental Toughness with Michele Ufer

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With the techniques Michele Ufer shares in his book, Mental Toughness for Runners you can push your body to new levels. On episode 392 of the 40+ Fitness Podcast, we share a few of those techniques. 

Allan: 02:00 Michele, welcome to 40+ Fitness.

Michele: 02:03 Hi Allan. Thanks for inviting me to your show.

Allan: 02:05 You know your book, it's on mental toughness, it's on a lot of things and as I got into it, what I really appreciated was the way that you layered the information in there so that you gave me a really good foundation for understanding the mind over body. And then you just kept taking it to a deeper level and a deeper level and a deeper level and all these lessons and things that were in this book. I really liked how you related them to the event that you did. And so I'd like to kind of just start out with, could you tell us a little bit about that event and you know, why you thought 15 weeks was enough to train for an ultra marathon when you'd never done anything close to that and how you used mind over body as a basic way to do that.

Michele: 02:57 Well, when I signed up for this ultra marathon Atacama Crossing, I just realized, oh, it's just three and a half months to go. So I had no choice. And uh, all the people around me, they told me I'm crazy. I've never done a marathon or half marathon before. I'm not an experienced runner. I'm not even felt like being a runner and then signing up for such race in the driest place on earth and just people, just look at me like I'm stupid crazy. It was out of I don't know, they couldn't imagine and uh, yeah, but, but finally it was just very short amount of time and I said to myself, I told myself then you really have to think wisely how you spend these a couple of weeks. And, uh, my main goal was to get as fit as possible on the physical side, but not to train too much. I don't want to get exhausted when arriving at the start line. And a main or key point for me was the, was the mental training part, the metal training session, because I titled The whole project, an extreme mental self test.

Allan: 04:13 And it was, I mean, we're talking 240 kilometers and for, for us Americans, I'll kind of put that in relation. When I, when I did the 50-mile run, that was, um, to me that was extremely long. This is far in excess of 50 miles.

Michele: 04:30 MMM. Yeah, it was a 250. And during my training for this phase, the largest distance I covered was, I was shocked when I was looking at my GPS watch pad. It was 29k so I felt like, oh Jesus, do you really want to travel to Chile and started this race with the maximum distance of 29k in your longest training run. But then I said to myself, what if it's your hobby? It will be a great adventure. And uh, if you can't run anymore, you switched walking or trekking. So it will all be fine.

Allan: 05:08 Yeah. Yeah. So I want to start out because when people think about training, I think they think just like the physical aspects of it. I know I typically have and just figured, I don't know, maybe the mental toughness just comes from the fact that you are continually putting yourself through the long runs. You know, like, so someone's going to train for a half marathon or marathon they say on their day off their Saturday or Sunday, they're going to do the long run. And over time they inched that up to make it a little bit more and a little bit more. And then you know they tapered down for the race and the training has been their mental training even though they didn't really take the time. But in your book you're talking about actually taking time to train your mind, not just the running part of it, but to actually train your mind. Can you talk about that mental training, how it's going to help us improve our performance?

Michele: 06:00 Yeah. First of you, you're absolutely right. During your race or during the long runs, you have a lot of time to train your mind and even if you push yourself through it, this has a huge impact on your mental toughness. As you mentioned at the beginning. I'm not really a fan of mind over body. I rather think mind and body has to do kind of teamwork in order for you to achieve top performance or the goals you want. And for example, in German speaking countries where the book got published first, there is tons of books out there and they all focus on one thing, physical training plans. So they tell you when to run, how long to run, when to do cross training, how long the long run should be, when to do interval runs and whatever, and at the same time, all runners they say and confirm the mental aspect of performance is very important, but it's not represented in the training plans, so it's completely, it's not there.

Allan: 07:10 I was guilty of that too. You know, I've had clients that, you know, say, okay, I want to run, I want to run a 5k. I'm like, okay, well here's, here's a training plan for you. And it's, you know, it's the slow progression of the distance and then doing some speed work and you know, all to go up to a race day when I know they're going to be capable of completing the race. But you're right, I've never sat down and say, okay, we're going to need to do some mental training on top of this, make this a more enjoyable part. I give them that training, but when you're talking about a 5 k or something like that, most people within a reasonable amount of time, there's not a lot of pain and aches, but if they want to run a certain time, that's where this is going to come in. Or if you're, you know, I'm looking at this as a trainer and saying this applies to everything. If you want to, if you want to be able to ride your mountain bike further, if you have a little bit of this training even a little bit, I think it's going to go a long way towards helping you be more successful.

Michele: 08:12 Yeah, definitely. And I got a lot of feedback, although the book is dedicated to runners first, not especially or not just long distance runners or ultra runners, I got a lot of feedback from middle distance runners, 800 meters or whatever. They have to be mentally tough as well. And I even got some feedbacks from soccer trainer or tennis player or executive from a business corporations, and they say this applies to all kinds of challenges because the main goal of a mental training or mental toughness training is to work to achieve your goals maybe a bit smarter or to even achieve them at all.

Allan: 08:54 Exactly, and I really liked that you put that idea and so this is not just a sports performance book or a running book as you say. It actually can apply to a lot of part of our parts of our lives. Having that mental toughness to be able to push through when things get tough and maybe even have some fun when we're doing it. I love the story when you talked about Santana floating or floating or running when you first started this story. I thought, okay, Santana has me running along with them. And then you talked about the carousel and I was like, okay, but you had fun. You didn't just tough out this race. You had fun while you were doing it because of the mental training you had done.

Michele: 09:30 Yeah, exactly. It was a, the fun part for me was a key point. I really, when I, when I signed up for the race, 10 seconds later I started crying because it was such an amazing step for me. And uh, two minutes later I went into the living room and started listening to music. It was Carlos Santana. I was listening to some songs from seventeens, uh, one court revelations and the other one try a little bit harder or try a little harder. They fit perfectly to this project and they really become a very motivational for me. And when I sat there listening to the music, just automatically kind of mental training started, I started visualizing how to get to the finish line or the moment when I get to the finish line, how proud I would be, what I would feel like when I arrived at the finish line. And, but also, hey guy, now you signed up for this race. There's no return way and what is the key challenges in order to complete this event? And immediately a lot of things went through my head and I just started ordering, developing mental images, self-talk elements. And emotions and tons of things that were really very helpful.

Allan: 11:00 In the very beginning of the book. You put in an example that I feel like really resonated with me because it was just a simple little experiment, and you call it the lemon experiment and you can show us how, a thought a single thought and an image in your head can change your body. Would you take us through the limit experiment?

Michele: 11:21 Yeah. Yeah. I like to, it's very famous experiment and really wonderful example on, uh, to show how conscious thoughts or mental images effect our bodies really immediately in a minimal most of the time. So, dear readers, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to invite you now to those little experiments. Imagine holding an already peeled lemon in your hand. It's plump early ripening and therefore particularly sour lemon, very sour lemon. And imagine what the lemon surface feels like as you turn it over and move it around in your hand. And now imagine raising your arm and passing the lemon under your nose to smell it. And you begin to notice a pleasant, fresh lemon scent. And the longer you hold the lemon in your hand, look at it and sniff it and the stronger the lemon fresh scent becomes. And now imagine bringing the limit to your lips, opening your mouth and taking a big bite.

Oh, that's already there. This little exercise. For many people it works particularly well with their eyes closed and the more intense and detailed the attention that is focused on the mental image, the more senses or cognitive channels activated and generally, the more significant is the immediate physical reaction. So some people, they really shut it when they imagined themselves fighting into the solid limits or other facial muscles they contract or increase in production. So immediate impact, if just such a little image has, can have such a huge impact, then we can use this information to control our thoughts during tough moments. And I did that in the during the Atacama race really a couple of times, like you mentioned the Carlos Santana image, if you want, we can talk about this a, it was really funny, but it was also very functional. I use this image to change my, or to put myself in in a different state, in a functional state and to feel freshness and to have fun and whatever.

Allan: 13:41 Yeah, I think the one that would, the one I liked that you'd probably tell us about, you said you were running and I guess the ground was particularly rough. It was, you know, of course you're in the desert so it's very hot. You imagined water like on a beach washing up over your feet.

Michele: 13:55 Yeah, exactly. One of the key points for me during the preparation was during these ultra races, the feet, they carry you the whole way. They are crucial for your success and many people suffer from blisters and I dunno, the feet will swollen like crazy. There's always a lot of sand and stones in the shoe so it makes all time. Things get bloody and it find my feet to be most important and I was defining kind of a goal. I wanted to achieve a process goal for my feet. How do I want my feet to feel what do I think my feet should be like in order to carry me through the race. And I defined the feet should be, should feel fresh, really, absolutely fresh. And I was searching for an, for an image that presents this freshness. And uh, there came an image into my head when I'm walking at the seashore barefoot and uh, the water is just, I don't know how to say in English, gets over the feet and gets the waves, just get over the feet, get back when the waves getting back.

There is some wind who make feel the feed even fresher. And I really imagined this in a very intensive way and finally felt that my feet got more and more fresh and I have another image just walking, I don't know, in the mountains on fresh grass in the morning, still a bit baffled as well. And with my wife, hand in hand, very relaxed. And I really focused on this feeling of freshness. And finally I was able to activate this feeling during tough moments when, I don't know, we ran 80k and it was hot of course in the desert. But getting into this image, I felt my feet fresh and the result was I didn't have any blisters at all. And yeah, made it to the finish line finally.

Allan: 16:08 Yeah, it's, it's crazy. But it works, you know? And um, but I want to kind of jump on the other side of the conversation because I think a lot of us start there and it's, it's self sabotage. And so in the book you kind of really get into some of the words when we're talking to ourself, we're doing this stuff. There's words that we need to start avoiding.

Michele: 16:27 Yeah. Yeah. It's very interesting. Years ago I was invited for conference, a sport medical conference and it took place in, in the Alps, in a ski resort and in during the morning that people were involved in scientific lectures. And in the afternoon we had ski courses, ski lessons. And, uh, during one of my lectures I was presenting people with the techniques that have an immediate effect on their performance. And it was confronting them with the instructions or maybe self instructions that are very common whether we talk to ourself or we talk to friends if we want to help them as a trainer, whatever. There's a self talk, like don't put so much pressure on yourself or daunting to up when you run. Or maybe the participants in the congress were skiing, oh don't take the snow gun or don't ski staight at another skier. So very, very common self-talk I think. And I explain to people that it's really dysfunctional because it moves as exactly in the direction we don't want. So this is kind of the realization. They are all well intended, but they have the pitfalls and still lead to precisely the opposite behavior. The one we wish to avoid.

Allan: 18:02 No, I know they, they, they tell you, you know, if you see a police officers pulled someone over to the side of the road and you're passing by, don't look at the police car. Keep your eye on the road where you're, where you want to be driving because so many people are looking at the police car and ended up hitting the police car.

Michele: 18:19 Yeah, exactly. That's it. You, you, you, you move in the direction you're focused on. And this is a true also with the self talk if we're talking about don't do this, don't do that. The problem is our brain doesn't have any internal representations for denials. So when someone is talking to us or we are talking to ourself stuff like don't put so much pressure on yourself, then a lot of areas in our brain start working, connecting each other. This can be centers for cognition, image processing, movement control, whatever. And there's always the center for visual imagery, uh, affects and circumstances involved as well. So when someone tells me, don't stiffen up when you run, I have to represent this first in order to then deactivate it again. But uh, in this moment, the focus is already a guided into the wrong direction.

Allan: 19:22 Yeah. I can't remember the animal you used in the book right now, but it was sort of the concept of don't think about a polar bear, immediately whats her head gonna do. It's gonna think polar bear. And so now you've got to say, well I don't want to think about a polar bear. So you have to try to clear that image out of your head and it's very difficult.

Michele: 19:41 Yeah, exactly. We, well that's a, I don't know, [inaudible] we are very much conditioned to these negations, but they have the pitfalls. So what we should do, what were first the language that focuses on negative things on things we don't want or on mistakes leaped to these results that we wish to avoid. So we should rather learn to focus on goals instead or on things we really want instead of things we do not want.

Allan: 20:13 Yeah. So instead of saying don't put so much pressure on yourself, it's run relaxed, stay relaxed, enjoy. Then two other words that you use or that you talk about. Are the words, try and must.

Michele: 20:26 Yeah, if we use the word, I don't know if it's the same in in English speaking countries, but in German speaking countries they word must is very popular. But it's also very problematic because must always induce this kind of pressure and at the same time kind of reactions to do or to want the opposite. So imagine yourself telling, I must train today or for me it feels hard already and we should avoid this word and rather choose, something more productive. Like I will train today. Oh, I go, I'll go train today.

Allan: 21:05 Or better yet, I get to train today.

Michele: 21:08 Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And the word try feels like it will be hard. You have to put a lot of effort in something. So it would be a good idea to change it as well. Not I try to, I try to prepare the nice presentation for the meeting. No, I will prepare it and that's it.

Allan: 21:34 And yeah, so, so with this, you know, the focus is focused on where you want to go instead of the things that you want to avoid. But invariably, you know, we have these things in our head, they talk to us all the time. We can't shut them off. We call it self-talk, but it's the voice in our head and for a lot of us, we need to change. We need to manage it. And it's not as easy as just saying, I'm not going to necessarily, I'm not going to use these words. That helps. It definitely helps. But when you're in a tough situation and the self-talk is starting to move against you, what are, what are some training things that we can do to kind of make sure that we're in a position to turn that around, to change that self-talk because that's at a point where we're at our physical weakness, you know, we're weak physically, we're emotionally tired and fatigued and now we've got this, this internal dialogue that we need to turn around. What are some tools that we can use to make sure we're in a position to do that?

Michele: 22:28 Hmm. I think the first step is to be aware of your self talk and especially of negative self talk and a very easy strategy, which also is backed by science. It's proven and helpful is to start violating a little kind of diary. Just go through your last race, tough race maybe or situations. And I remembered the self talk you had. Was it positive, was it negative? In what moments do I have negative self talk and what exactly is the self talk like or what do I tell myself? And I can make a list and when I have a bit of time, maybe during the next long run and I want to combine running with some mental training, I can spend a little bit of time changing these talks, this negative self talks into positive ones and the next time I'm on a tough moment and maybe I realized, ahh okay, the inner voice is there.

Again, the negative inner voice is there. There's one very powerful strategy. It's a thought stop. So whenever I realize, Oh, I'm into negative self talk again, just tell yourself stop. Or maybe you can combine it with a kind of gesture or with an intern rhythm image of, I don't know, a button, the red button, which when you push it, it makes a solid like or whatever. But this technique is a very powerful to just, yeah to stop the negative thinking this automatism but then if you stopped it you have to offer your brain something else instead. Otherwise the brain could jump back to the last rather negative self talk again. So don't leave the brain in a kind of vacuum. Offer him as positive self talk and you could prepare this before race or once when you started working on your diary and you found this might typical self negative self talk in this or that situation and you have turned them into a positive one. You can combine it with the Stop Technique. So whenever negative self talk you'll stop, you make a thought stop and then you'll switch consciously to a positive self talk that is rather functional.

Allan: 25:00 Okay. Can you give us an example of how you've used this before?

Michele: 25:04 Easy example is last couple of days it was really hot in Germany and uh, people are complaining all the time and now you can go out running and start or let you in a voice complaint. Oh, it's so hot. It's so hot. But that's not really helpful. You suffer more than you might have to suffer. So you could just work with the thoughts, stop technique, maybe use your inner B or whatever and switch immediately to positive, hey, running in heat is a great opportunity for me to improve going through challenging conditions and I just adapt to speed and well get enough drinks or whatever or just enjoy the sun. Well, we are not in a very sunny state, so yeah, be happy. Finally, you have some sun, enjoy the sun, whatever. It's really very personal. And sometimes these self talk or images, they just pop out spontaneously, very spontaneously. But you should be open for this.

Allan: 26:14 Oh good, good. And then you know, I think one of the other things you talked about like you know to make sure there's no vacuum there is to maybe fill it up with something that's a little fun. You know where like you said the Santana thing or you know, water running over your feet or walking in a cool damp morning mountain air grass and those things where you're putting something into your head that's, that's there. That's going to keep those negative thoughts from returning.

Michele: 26:42 Yeah. Even another strategy might be in order to prevent negative self talk or images to occur, just fill up your mind with tons of positive self talk. For example, if you, that's a strategy I used. I've been in Russia two weeks ago at the race called TransUral. It's a race series, four races 160 280 kilometers each and the first day for me was very tough. There are difficult days and weeks before didn't sleep enough. I had to stop every couple of minutes to do some footage for TV documentary that will be broadcasted in a couple of months. It was hard for me. The next day I really switched my mind and I said, okay, you shared, you are here. It's free choice. So start enjoying the race while taking the footage and I started working with a self talk, very easy but which has worked for many years for me, the self talk was just I few fresh and relaxed, fresh and relaxed, fresh and relaxed.

I enjoy it being on the way, whatever. And I spent hours out there on the course just repeating this all the time, repeating, repeating. I run fresh and relaxed, fresh and relaxed. What happens was I started feeling fresh and relaxed, fresh and relaxed and there was no chance for negative self talk to enter my brain because it was completely full of this positive self talk. So nice way to avoid the occurrence of negative self talk and you might get into kind of a trance state if you use it like a mantra. Repeating, repeating, repeating, repeating.

Allan: 28:33 Yeah. I've, I've used mantras during particularly tough times. We had a, when I went through basic training in the military our captain was a green baret and so he loved this thing called a flutter kick and basically lay on your back and you lift your feet off the ground and you just start kicking your feet. Like you're almost like you're scuba diving upside down and you know, just kicking your feet and after a while, you know, you start feeling the burn and your abdominals and front of your top of your legs and it's hard to just keep going. So your body wants to quit, you're in a lot of pain. And I just, because I was in basic training and I was stubborn, I just, I can just, I will not quit. And that was my mantra as I'm kicking. And the more it hurt, the more I had to actually verbally say it versus just say it in my head so that it was getting louder and louder than what I was feeling. And he walked by and saw me and heard me and said, yeah, you won't quit. And we went for another few minutes and I made it through the entire time and didn't have to put my feet down. I felt it that afternoon because that was a tough workout. But it got me through it and it kept me going. When more likely than not self talk would say, Hey, put your feet down. He's going to come yell at you. And then you'll just lift him back up and start kicking butt. You can rest if you want. You know, you know that whole, he's telling me most and my brain is saying, okay, I don't want to quit. But turning it into a mantra and just continuing to repeat that just allowed me to push a little harder than my body would have normally let me.

Michele: 30:05 Hmm. Yeah. It just stays even some evidence from science that this works. For example, studies showing that, uh, people that enter into this kind of trance state, they might perform better but feeling less exhausted or what is the strain is less than what they objectively have to have to master or if to go through.

Allan: 30:27 Michelle, I define wellness as being the healthiest fittest and happiest you can be. What are three strategies or tactics to get and stay Well?

Michele: 30:38 I'm not really, well, this is now the big question. The listicles, I've heard about it. People love listicles. The three top strategies, and normally when I'm talking to journalists, I tell them, sorry, I can't deliver because we are all very different. We have different goals, we have different concepts maybe of what being happy means. We are living in very different contexts. So it's really hard to offer the three magic strategies. I think one, maybe one, one advice, be love what you do. Maybe it's not the answer you are expecting.

Allan: 31:16 No, no, no. That is, that is a big part of it is I talk to people about fitness. You know, you don't necessarily want to have to look like a bodybuilder or a crossfit athlete or you know, an elite runner. That might not be your goal for fitness. Your goal might just be to be the best grandmother you can be and train for that, you know, make that your thing. Because now that's your, your why. That's your vision. That's everything you want to be. So yeah, I very much agree with that. It's um, to what you have.

Michele: 31:46 Yeah, I may add something else. We have fun while doing what you love and be aware of yourself and uh, what, what you really need, what is good for you in a certain moment. I really feel like many people, they, they lose a bit of context to there. Their buddies, they don't really listen to themselves. And so this might be a very basic strategy, but a powerful and some people really have to relearn, listen to themselves and to their bodies.

Allan: 32:15 Yeah. Your book, Mental Toughness for Runners I think is going to make me a better trainer with a lot of the lessons that are in there. I'm going to take the heart in my own work and training, but I think I'm also going to share a lot of that with my clients because I do think they're very powerful strategies when we're hitting those tough times. So thank you so much for coming on today and sharing this with us. If someone wanted to learn more about you, learn more about the book, where would you like for me to send them?

Michele: 32:41 Well, first of all, if they want to have a look at the book. Yeah, check out their local bookstore on the internet shops. Maybe people want to have a look on my website with some additional information on the book and some readers comments as well. And Yeah, I'm always very happy to receive feedback from readers and share success stories, so I'm really looking forward to get in touch.

Allan: 33:05 Okay. Do you have that link for your website?

Michele: 33:07 Yeah, it's Micheleufer.com

Allan: 33:10 Okay, well you can go to 40plusfitnesspodcast.com/392 and I'll be sure to have a link to his website and the book.

Allan: 33:18 Michelle, thank you so much for being a part of 40+ Fitness.

Michele: 33:22 Thank you Allan

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