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The Power Of Love And Self Acceptance During Workouts

Let’s get one thing out of the way: even though I’m going to talk about “compassionate completion,” this is not an R-rated article. I realize that the term sounds like stage direction from the writing staff of Bridgerton, but it’s not. At least I think it’s not. Basically, I’m providing plausible deniability about whether I watched each episode of that show multiple times. Bridgerton: the show that asks the question, “When was the last time you washed your sheets?”

“Compassionate completion” is actually the mental framework I like athletes to take into running workouts and other difficult things. The basic principle: athletes set intentions on each workout to finish (as long as it is not a risk to their mental and physical health) with a demonstration of self love and acceptance that always adds to their soul cup.

Mindfulness and Running

Back in college, I took a yoga class where the teacher clearly understood that LSD doesn’t just stand for “long slow distance.” It was life-changing because her guidance made me aware of how mindfulness works.

That teacher demonstrated that the basic principle of mindfulness is incredibly simple: be present with your body, aware of passing thoughts and feelings, letting them float away rather than pursuing each one down never-ending spirals. While stretching my hamstrings, I realized that my worries were often grounded in deep projections of uncertainty and fear. That epiphany didn’t get rid of the worries, but it did take away some of their power, and I was liberated to pursue big dreams. Like writing a weekly article on trail running that sometimes starts with a sex joke!

That yoga teacher demonstrated that the basic principle of mindfulness is incredibly simple: be present with your body, aware of passing thoughts and feelings, letting them float away rather than pursuing each one down never-ending spirals.

Mindfulness applies to everything we do, whether we are aware of it or not. The wonderful movie Soul has a place called the Astral Plane where lost souls wander when they get caught up in an obsession. One lost soul that stuck with me kept saying the same phrase over and over: “Make a trade! Make a trade!” A banker on Earth got obsessed with something external to themselves and pursued it over the edge. In related news, kids’ movies nowadays are freaking wild.

Those lost souls became untethered from whatever makes them … them. And it doesn’t need to start with some irrational worry. It can start with a productive passion, like work or music. Their identity gets so wrapped up in something that they wander through their neuroses rather than experiencing life. 

And for me, at least, every single running workout is a dance with my neuroses.

Mindfulness made me more aware of that. Even though my mindfulness practice now mostly consists of reading sports blogs while my wife/co-coach Megan meditates, I still aim to set emotional intentions before every workout just like before every one of those yoga classes. It’s tempting to think pace and all those output variables from running are tied to our physiology—VO2 max, lactate threshold, biomechanical efficiency, genetics, training history. But I have realized that for myself and many of the athletes I coach, it’s just as tied to the thoughts that pass by mid-run and post-run. Pursue that thought that you’re not enough, or the workout isn’t fast, or that it hurts, or that you suck, and it’s easy to become a lost workout soul. What could be an uplifting passion ventures toward self bdestruction.

“Compassionate completion” is about the reverse of that—a mindset that acknowledges the difficulties of running generally and workouts specifically with a loving lack of resistance. It’s about giving those feelings a nice hug. It’s about having each workout be a celebration of life, rather than a test of fitness or will.

“Compassionate completion” is about the reverse of that—a mindset that acknowledges the difficulties of running generally and workouts specifically with a loving lack of resistance.

I am writing this article on a day that Megan had one of the toughest hill workouts on the schedule. The plan? 3 miles easy warm-up, 5 x 3 minutes steep hills moderately hard, ending harder, followed by 4 x 1 minute shallow hills fast, plus a 3- mile cool-down. Megan is a brilliant coach, so she could see through those numbers to get the gist. The forecast called for a 100% chance of pain. A pain flood. The type that makes every single neuron scream PANIC! WE MAY BE DYING! Now that is a context where neuroses shine.

Megan crushed it. Of course she did. If Hunts needed a spokesman for their canned tomatoes, it could be Megan in tomato-splattered running shoes with a caption that says, “Crushed them.”

I asked her how she did it. She responded that she kept repeating the magic phrase: “Compassionate completion.” We talked about the specific phrase in episode 35 of our podcast. Any empowering phrase or intention would have worked in its place. “I got this,” “Powerful boss,” “Get it like Garfield gets lasagna” (an actual one I heard from an athlete), etc. But it doesn’t need to be a mantra or even specific self talk. It’s all about giving yourself the chance, lovingly, without judgment.

Positive Self Talk And Performance

There is a ton of science on how these internal monologues can improve performance. A 2011 meta-analysis in the Perspectives on Psychological Science journal found that positive self-talk is effective for performance improvement across 32 studies. A 2013 study in the Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise journal found one of the mechanisms—a reduction in perceived exertion. In that study, participants used pretty tame mantra-like phrases such as “feeling good” and “push through this” to increase time to exhaustion in cycling by making them feel like they were not pushing as hard. In other words, it’s not just what you are doing that matters, it’s how you feel about what you are doing. And it’s not confined to sports. A 2015 study found that the nature of self talk is tied to public-speaking anxiety. It probably applies to all difficult tasks, from presentations to first dates.

A framework in mindfulness practice that really resonated with me is that thought processes are like raging rapids flowing by. If we think that we are the water, we can get churned under instantly. Instead, we’re the observer on shore, seeing those flowing thoughts and accepting them with compassion.

A framework in mindfulness practice that really resonated with me is that thought processes are like raging rapids flowing by. If we think that we are the water, we can get churned under instantly. Instead, we’re the observer on shore, seeing those flowing thoughts and accepting them with compassion. Self talk and focused intentions help maintain that empowering observer perspective.

The best time to practice this concept is on your next workout. Before you start, set the intention of “compassionate completion.” You’re going to finish it, and you’re going to celebrate yourself, because it’s a party and you’re the guest of honor. You care, passionately. But you love yourself, compassionately, caring with a wink that says, “I see the game being played, and if we’re choosing teams, my first pick is my badass self.”

Then during the workout, pay attention to your thoughts and your feelings. 

At first, you might notice some anticipatory regulation of fatigue as outlined in this 2009 article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. It’s a “subconscious template” you generate for the rate of increase in perceived exertion. Maybe you’re even projecting discomfort that you don’t actually feel. That’s cool. That’s a feeling you can give a big hug.

The workout continues. You’re now fully in the pain cave. Monsters everywhere. But wait … shine a light? Oh, crap, those aren’t monsters! They are buds, and not the type my yoga teacher smoked. They are friendly nervous-system signals sent to let you know that you are putting in the work. Maybe you’re even getting acquainted with your Central Governor, a theory outlined in this 2001 article in the Journal of Experimental Biology dictating that the brain controls top-end performance essentially as an evolutionary defense mechanism. That’s fun. Hey, brain, I love you, and it’s not that bad. 

You finish. You upload the GPS. For many athletes, this is the final level boss that can’t be beaten. Heck, I’m not fast, what’s even the point? That feeling doesn’t have any fancy exercise physiology theory to back up. That feeling is just called “Being Human.”

But here’s the thing—that feeling too is just the water passing by. So many athletes get pulled under at this point, basking in self judgment in a way that increases cortisol and affects the endocrine system, and could undermine adaptation altogether. We spend so much time trying to find signal in the noise that we end up identifying with discordant sh*t our watch says rather than the beautiful music of the process. Lost soul, running edition.

The same thoughts can undermine pre-workout confidence, mid-workout performance, long-term growth, happiness. Physiology and psychology often converge into the same thing over time, with an athlete’s perception of self having an outsized role in what they become. 

Self-criticism will always be there. 

So too will the voice telling you to stop on your workouts, or hate yourself after them. Those voices enjoy running because there are so many chances for self judgment. But self-critical voices also enjoy family life and work and everything else we care about. The flipside of passion can often be self loathing.

Compassionate completion is about recognizing that those self-critical thoughts are awesome too. Because those thoughts are a part of the awesome you. It rhymes so you know it’s right.

Compassionate completion is about recognizing that those self-critical thoughts are awesome too. Because those thoughts are a part of the awesome you. It rhymes so you know it’s right. And how cool is it that you’re giving yourself a chance to explore all of this wild existence through running and other difficult things?

They say that running is a window into the soul. And I gotta say: the view through that window is pretty damn awesome if you ask me.

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The HappyRunner.