How self-talk, moral support and a fear of bears helped me get out of my comfort zone

By Chris Knight | 8 Minute Read

No two days are ever the same when you're working for Precision Hydration. One day you'll be sipping on a freshly brewed coffee in the comfort of PH Towers, the next you'll be dragging your battered body and bloody knees up Bear Peak in Colorado...

I discovered variety is the spice of life with PH during my first work trip to the USA recently.

Our whistle-stop (and suitably sweaty) tour started with us taking the British weather to Reno, where Andy was a guest on TrainerRoad's brilliant 'Ask A Cycling Coach' podcast

The journey continued in Boulder as we spent two days at Colorado University's picturesque Folsom Field Stadium (it's a hard life sometimes), where we were attending the TrainingPeaks Endurance Coaching Summit.

 

 

 

 

We were lucky enough to spend time with the award-winning journalist Alex Hutchinson to discuss endurance and hydration. In Alex's acclaimed book, Endure, he talks about how the mind and body are intertwined and work together when it comes to human performance.

The physical and mental challenges of endurance exercise were revealed to me on this trip...

 

Bear Peak

My colleagues Andy, Jonny and Sean are athletes. Make no mistake about it. I'm someone who played a lot of football in my younger days before discovering the joys of running later in life.

When the aforementioned trio suggested a 6am start in Boulder to fit in a trail run up to the summit of Bear Peak, I foolishly said 'yes'. I mean, how hard can 7.9 miles be? I'm a regular at my local (pancake flat) Park Run, I've done half-marathons (with zero elevation) and even completed my first (sprint) triathlon earlier this summer after all... 

 

Physical and mental challenges

Apprehension first set in when we got to the trail head and there were signs that read 'beware bears, mountain lions, rattlesnakes'... This was going to be a little different to my Park Run in Bournemouth, where the biggest threat to my physical safety is an upturned tree root or a rogue toddler crossing the tarmac path. 

I decided to settle into the middle of the running pack - I had to go a little quicker than I was used to but I figured it was the best position in order to be shielded from the roaming wildlife that would surely be lurking at every corner.

Psychologically I'd started on the back foot as I convinced myself that a mountain lion would be waiting to pick off the weakest link.

It quickly became apparent that this was going to be a proper physical test too.

I did the Three Peaks Challenge a few years ago and returned to Ben Nevis for my honeymoon recently, but my calves were still in my Boulder hotel room this time it seemed. 

My lungs were starting to wish they'd stayed in bed with my calves. Andy wrote a fascinating blog on the effects of altitude on hydration and performance recently and I was soon gasping for air as Boulder is 1,624 metres above sea level, with Bear Peak standing at an imposing 2,578 metres. 

Physically I was out of my comfort zone but I continued to enjoy the challenge of the run as my calves eventually turned up - better late than never. 

 

Dark places

I enviously watched Andy and Sean-O resemble a couple of mountain goats as they picked their way gracefully up the trail. The leading pair soon stretched away as JT and I agreed to run-hike the remaining 45 minutes or so.

My physical tiredness as we approached 'the saddle' - the point before a rocky climb to the peak - began to manifest itself in mental tiredness too as we made a detour (we definitely weren't lost) before picking up the trail again.

There was a lot of 'self-talk' to myself during the course of the final half-an-hour to the top - 'one foot in front of the other' - and I figured that each step was a step closer to the summit, although there were times when I would have been happy for Jonny leave to leave me for breakfast for the mountain lions.

Thoughts of giving up were quashed by the moral support of JT, who had seemingly enjoyed a second wind as he skipped merrily behind a chipmunk on the trail.

It felt like it was an impossible task to have enough energy in reserve to come back down if I made it to the top, but Jonny continued to set our pace and provided welcome one-liners to keep me going.

"We're nearly there" he lied more than once, before eventually we were scrambling to the top where Andy and Sean were patiently waiting with coffee and Haribos. 

 

Team PH at top of Bear PeakImage: Andy Blow

 

I'd done it. I'd gone to some dark places, both mentally and physically, but I'd endured the climb to the top of Bear Peak (apologies if this sounds overly dramatic for those who are regular runners at altitude)

Now I just had to get down.

 

The descent

My joy at reaching the top quickly dissipated as I realised the descent was going to be tricky in road trainers. Everyone else had sensibly brought their trail shoes on the trip.

I slipped and slid my way down the mountain - falling twice on the uneven and testing trails - before walking parts of it as I struggled to maintain even a light jog.

By this point my calves had given up the ghost and went back to the hotel early (presumably for a Margarita and taco brunch). 

Team PH were on hand with much-needed words of wisdom as I managed to run the final few miles back to the trail head where we had started. I gazed back in awe at Bear Peak and, exhausted, mumbled, "I wish I was fitter". 

 

"I wish I was fitter"

Being fitter and better prepared would have helped no doubt, but the mental aspects of the challenge were huge for me. As Alex Hutchinson rightly says, the body and mind are intertwined when it comes to performance, whatever the level.

Psychologically, the benefits of social support and the words of wisdom from my PH Sherpas had a massive impact on my performance. There has been plenty of research into the benefits of social support on performance and it seems unlikely that I'd have 'conquered' Bear Peak without Jonny and co. pushing me on. 

This also has implications for my own training back at home - I spend a lot of time running on my own, but this trip has given me an insight into the motivational benefits of running with others (particularly those who are fitter and more experienced than myself).

I pushed myself beyond my usual pace and limits, particularly at times when my mind/legs were telling me I'd had enough (which comes first - did my body not have enough energy or was my mind telling my body that this new, unusual challenge was too hard? Or a combination of the two?). 

The experience has also given me the motivation to get fitter. Rather than being satisfied that 'this point' is as fast or as far as I can go, the challenge of running with the rest of Team PH has set a new line in the sand as far as my own self-imposed limits of fitness are concerned.

Along with the social support, the value of 'self-talk' when the going got tough was huge. According to sports psychologist, Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis, self-talk helps focus attention and 'psychs' us up. A 2011 study showed self-talk helped to direct and facilitate performance.

The strategy uses self-addressed cues (words or small phrases) to trigger appropriate responses and action to improve performance, with a recent study showing that self-talk is more effective for novel tasks rather than well-learned tasks. My experience at altitude was certainly a 'novel' task for someone who spends most of their time running at sea level!

Getting out of my comfort zone in a new place, with a new challenge, and with athletes who are significantly fitter, helped me to achieve something I doubt I would have under my own steam. 

No matter your level of ability, hopefully my experience on Bear Peak can give you some ideas on how to break out of your own athletic rut through social support or some good old fashioned self-talk.

Just leave the mountain lions, bears and rattle snakes in the US please...

Andy Blow Bear Peak StravaImage: Andy Blow Strava

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