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Mental Training

It’s Not Just If You Train, But How

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You may have heard of the 10,000-hour rule, a concept popularized by Malcom Gladwell,  which suggests that within pretty much any field, that’s the magic number of cumulative training or practice hours needed to reach expert status. However, other psychologists have stepped in with the stance that it’s not quite that simple. Yes, more hours of training means more experience and more opportunities to improve and strengthen your skillset. That part of the theory holds – but, what we have learned is that how you practice is much more important than how much you practice. 

Anders Ericsson is one of the psychologists leading the way in the theory of deliberate practice. When it comes to training, it’s not about reaching your potential. It’s about developing your potential. When you look at a desired level of skill or ability as a destination that you want to get to, it creates a more passive engagement with the process. Or even a rush to “hurry up and get there.”  I know I’ve certainly had times in my own training where I was just putting the miles in and checking off my training each day as if it was a task on a list, thinking that once I accumulated a certain amount then the progress will happen. That’s not quite how it works. 

Instead, when you think about your potential as something that you develop, you become an engaged, active participant in the training process. Skill is something that each of us has the ability to cultivate with the right kind of focus and intention. As we continue on this topic and talk about the qualities of deliberate practice that should show up in your training, don’t forget that this applies to mental training, as well. 

Define Specific Goals

I’ve found that many athletes think of goal setting as something that only applies to the performance setting. While it’s important to have race goals and season goals, it’s also important to have training goals. That concept already shows up in training when you think of intervals and paces and distance goals set for every training run. But, are you incorporating more specific and measurable goals beyond just those metrics? Are you setting goals for mental training, as well? That might look like ditching the headphones for you next long run to challenge your brain to keep itself productively occupied without a built-in distraction. Or, it could mean choosing to brave the elements rather than waiting for the weather to clear up. Doing so will challenge your mind to stay focused on the right things when miserable conditions are ruthlessly trying to distract it. 

Focus and Engage 

Set a specific intention for each training run or workout. Not just what you hope to physically accomplish in the session, but mentally, as well. For example, maybe your next long run is a great time to implement different distraction management tools or practice being more focused on the present moment. Whether it’s arming myself with some riveting podcasts or hitting the treadmill with a movie playing in the background, I, for one, have definitely gotten creative with how to “check out” during a training session to let the miles pass as quickly as possible. I’m not saying that approach is never okay – I’m just suggesting that it shouldn’t be the default or happen without a reason. 

Feedback 

It’s impossible to assess the quality of your training session without feedback. Some types of feedback, like how much distance you covered or how you felt, are more a little more obvious when it comes to quantifying a workout or run. But, I encourage athletes to take that process even deeper by reviewing the session for what things went well and which areas you need to work on both in the physical and mental context. It’s common to walk away from a run or workout and label it as either “good” or “bad.” But, that’s not enough. If it wasn’t what you wanted, ask yourself why. You should be able to leave each session with an evaluation on how you did and with important takeaways for how you can do even better next time. 

Do Hard Things 

When you think about a training program, it’s all about adaptation. It’s easy to convince athletes that to get stronger, you need to lift a little bit more. To get faster, you need to run a little bit harder. When you disrupt homeostasis in the body, it adapts to meet those demands and that’s where improvement happens. The same thing applies to the brain. Not in an abstract sense, but in a literal sense. Learning a new skill or trying something hard changes the structure of the brain. Continuing to do something that you already know how to do (even if you do it more!) does not challenge the brain in the same way. Continuously putting yourself in uncomfortable or challenging training situations is the key to consistent improvement. 

Even though you may be getting the miles in, ask yourself if you’re getting as much out of your training sessions as you could be. Training shouldn’t be just something you get through. It should be something you’re actively participating in.