Will Power-Part Deux

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As promised, after last month’s blog post, I’ll be piggybacking on the concept of will power and what we can do to bolster this trait in ourselves to make us better athletes, better performers. Rather than summarize in this blog, check it out here to learn about how a change in mentality regarding will power can increase our performance. In this blog, you’ll learn about what is actually happening in the brain when we are willing ourselves to do something and how we can take hold of this knowledge and ramp up our ability to push through the pain when the going gets tough.

From a neurological/neuropsychological standpoint, the research is new but staggering. Specifically, because of MRI’s becoming more common place and readily available, researchers have been able to easily gain access to imaging data to answer questions like “Is there is capacity for will power” in a much more objective way. I won’t get into it too much (I’m tempted because I love this kind of stuff) but here’s the rundown: Brain imaging has led to the discovery that will power is primarily rooted in the Medial Prefrontal Cortex. More specifically, two substructures called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) and the Rostral Cingulate Zone. Due to these findings, researchers state that will power is not a “common resource” but “regulatory mechanism” when it comes to task-driven decision making (e.g., “I want to work harder so I will”). Researchers have also found a direct link between high amygdala activity and the high ACC firing when one is faced with a threat of some kind and the need to make a decision (e.g., lion attacks and we are forced to make a choice to run or fight). Now that we know that we can essentially grow our brains (the discovery of neuroplasticity), these findings suggest that we can increase the neuron connections between the amygdala and ACC and RCZ which, in turn, would increase our ability to intentionally regulate our behavior when faced with adversity.

Putting it all together…There is a capacity for will power based on number of neurons in the ACC and RCZ and the strength in neuron connections between these structures and the amygdala (this is why it’s not considered a “common resource” because everyone is different). That said, don’t lose hope if you think your will power is a weakness! Neuroplasticity is real and it’s here to stay! MRI findings prove that engaging in mindfulness practice increases the strength of the aforementioned connections (see Mindfulness blog here). Sleeping regularly for 7-9 hours per night also significantly improves overall brain functioning and allows us to subconsciously rehearse practiced tasks at a high rate of repetition during periods of deep sleep (and many more benefits I plan to post about at some point). Furthermore, through the intentional exposure to adversity (through performance testing and racing) and by actively choosing to engage in the goal-directed behavior, neuron volume and connection strength will increase.

 

So in a nutshell, get out there and expose yourself to adversity (do test sets and race), be aware that you are capable of more than you give yourself credit for in the midst of that adversity, do  mindfulness meditation practice, and sleep 7-9 hours per night. With this cocktail, your will power will improve and so will your performance.

 

Until next time…

 

Cheers!

 

Will Power: Part I of Deux

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Is there a cap to the will power we possess? There is no question that we have all been at a crossroads at one point or another in our sport and have asked ourselves: “Can I take this anymore? Do I have anything left in the tank to get this done?”.

For decades, social psychologists assumed that we only have a certain capacity for volition/will power. However, up until recently there was very limited objective research done to determine whether or not this was a valid assumption because will power was deemed “too subjective”. As a result of this assumption, people tend to view this “will power ceiling” as truth and have placed undue conscious and/or subconscious limitations on their performance.

Continue reading “Will Power: Part I of Deux”

Ask and You Shall Receive – Ironman Canada 2017 Recap

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Well, I did it! Ironman Canada 2017 is in the books! To be honest, I can’t help but feel a little bit disappointed in the outcome. That said, I need to remind myself that finishing despite the barriers and roadblocks is what matters. It’s the perseverance; the ability to push through even when every speck of your being is telling you to quit. That’s what this race was to me and, when all is said and done, I asked for a challenge and that’s what I got.

The swim went off without a hitch. I paced it perfectly and felt calm and smooth throughout. I found a great group 4 or 5 swimmers that matched my comfortable pace and we all traded time at the front pulling the pack for the 55min duration of this leg. It was so much fun. At this time, I felt cool, calm, and collected and was confident going into my weakest leg of the triathlon: The Bike.

At transition 1 (Swim to Bike), I was a little disoriented since this was my first time racing a triathlon. I got out of the water and quickly was told to lie down so I could be stripped. Someone told me after the race that there was a sign saying “Make sure you tip your stripper!” and I feel pretty bummed that I forgot to put some cash inside my wetsuit to follow this line of etiquette. They tore my wetsuit off and I ran over to my bike gear bag to dry off, put on my socks, shoes, and helmet and grab my nutrition so I could stay on top of my depleted, well, everything. I start digging in my bag and realize that I had forgotten to pack any nutrition and I would be out of luck for the first 20km of the bike leg. NOT GOOD! Lesson learned and duly noted!

The first 20K of the bike went well. Although I was passed by what seemed like 100s of bikers in a short amount of time, I was able to stay focused on keeping my goal pacing and re-focus whenever I got distracted by the thoughts of being passed so much. The first climb up Callahan was enjoyable and I was feeling fine. At the turn around, I was excited to speed downhill but by the end of the descent, my legs started cramping. NOT GOOD! Remember the little mistake I mentioned about forgetting to pack my nutrition. Well, here come the consequences. I slowly ride through an aid station and grab Gatorade and anything else I think would help and wolf it down. The next 150km was…interesting to say the least. I knew it was going to be a challenge and I reminded myself that I asked for a challenge. I asked for pain. I asked for this to be a soul crushing experience so that I could use my mental skills to get me through it. I started to break the race into small and manageable increments and the fuel I received at the aid stations paired with stopping to stretch when I had bilateral quad, hamstring, and hip flexor cramping (the worst I’ve experienced in my life) got me through about 10 miles at a time before I started cramping up again. I was nauseous for the majority of the second half of the bike and my best guess is because of how quickly I was trying to down nutrition and fluids in an effort to stave off the cramping. I spun easy on my bike when needed and, a lot like Lt. Dan, kept saying to myself and sometimes out loud “Is this all you got!” followed by “You got this man! One rotation of the legs at a time! One 10 mile increment at a time! One climb and descent at a time! Deal with the cramps when they come back as needed but don’t get too far ahead of yourself”. I also did some mindfulness breathing and took in the beauty of the course which helped tremendously. I welcomed the challenge. I wanted to see what I was made of. Eventually, I completed the bike leg (I get shivers even writing the word “leg” because I automatically associate the word with cramping right now and probably will for a while. :-)).

At transition 2 (Bike to Run), the crowd is breathtakingly loud and encouraging. I see my family and this helps to put things in perspective. I remind myself that I’m doing this to show my kids and rest of my family that if you work hard and dedicate yourself to something difficult, you can accomplish things that may initially seem unimaginable. I give out some high-fives and let them know I’ve been cramping because I was worried that they were worried since my bike leg took longer than anticipated. I hand my bike off to one of the amazing volunteers and jog over to the transition tent readying myself for a new challenge: The Run.

I’m off on the run and feeling better. I was able to manage a good pace for the first 10km and was feeling hopeful. The cramping reared its head at some point in km #11 while going up a relatively steep incline on a trail. Calves this time and I tell myself: “Thank goodness it’s just the calves!”. During the rest of the run I had to dig deep. I walked the aid stations, walked the hills (big and small), and ran distances of .1-.3 miles at a time followed by no longer than a .1 mile walk. No more than that. I wanted to finish. That was the goal. Throughout the run course, I was so grateful for the cheers of the spectators and volunteers. I was initially surprised when I heard “Go Alex! You got this! Looking strong!” from a random spectator but remembered that my bib had my name on it. Hearing my name helped and hit home in a way I never expected. It didn’t matter that it was a stranger. I smiled every time I heard someone cheer for me and remembered the benefits of smiling. I high-fived other athletes and teammates as we passed each other on the 2-loop trail smiling and trying to help them smile. I also took stock of my surroundings! WHISTLER IS AMAZING! What does it look like? What does it smell like? What does it feel like to be part of a race like this in the middle of paradise? (It hurts but what a privilege!). All of it together helped and I eventually hit the finish line shoot!

For the last mile of the marathon, there were thousands of spectators cheering on the racers. In the background you could hear Mike Reilly (the voice of Ironman for decades) saying to each and every athlete as they crossed the finish line: “YOU…ARE…AN IRONMAN!”. If this doesn’t motivate you to finish, nothing will! I made it to the finish line shoot with spectators lining the barrier. I did my best to take it all in. I high-fived people on either side and raised my hands and yelled “WOOOOOOOOO!!!” as I crossed and Mike Reilly said: “Alex Crampton from Auburn, Washington. YOU…ARE…AN IRONMAN!”. I embraced my family and thanked them for supporting me. I could not have done it without them and I wanted to be sure they knew how much I appreciated them.

13:35:02 was my time. Not in the 12 hour club like I had set out to do but I finished despite the obstacles (everything before the “but” is BS, right?). I dedicated 10 hours a week to physical training and utilized sport psychology strategies throughout my training and the race. Could I have been more physically prepared? Absolutely! But I chose to train less than is typically recommended to have a lifestyle that was manageable and enjoyable for me and my family (note that I didn’t say: I couldn’t train more. It was a choice and one I’m glad I made). Could I have been more prepared for the logistics? More than absolutely! I’ll never forget the proper nutrition/fueling again! Could I have been more mentally prepared? Of course! There’s always room for growth. However, this was my strength! These mental skills allowed me to persevere in the face of a storm I couldn’t have dreamed of and for the rest of my life I can be proud of the fact that I am an Ironman!

P.S.: Thank you to all the RTB members for your support, your knowledge, and all the good times we have had together over the past several months! I couldn’t have done this without you!

Bring It On! A Simple Change In Mindset Makes All The Difference

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This is me flipping into Lake Tapps prepping for a 2.4 mile open water swim at race pace.
Photo Credit: Eivind Naess

It’s been forever since my last post and a whole lot has happened since I wrote about taking a Beginner’s Mind approach to my training. Without boring you too much with the details, here are some of the highlights: 1) I’ve peaked in my training volume and am now, at long last, in the taper phase; 2) we sold our house and bought a new one; 3) my better half graduated from nursing school (woohoo!), passed the license exam, interviewed, and got a job as an ER nurse; 4) well, there’s more but I’ll leave it there. You get the idea…it’s been a wee bit busy.

Just one year ago, I would have said “NO WAY! It’s impossible” to balance the training I’ve taken on in addition to everything else we’ve been tackling as a family. Continue reading “Bring It On! A Simple Change In Mindset Makes All The Difference”

How to Short-circuit the “Expert”

“In the mind of the expert, they say there are very few possibilities but in the beginner’s mind, there are infinite possibilities .”

–Jon Kabat-Zinn

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My almost 2 year old daughter is fearless! No matter the danger, she is willing to try everything. “I DO IT MYSELF!” is frequently heard at a volume of 11 around our house, in the backyard, and in local parks as she tries to do things that seem way too difficult from my “expert” perspective as her father. My 4 year old son is a little different.

Continue reading “How to Short-circuit the “Expert””

Are You a Worrier? Me Too!: How Worrying Can Help Us and Hurt Us

It’s a beautiful Sunday morning in early April in the Pacific Northwest and I’m well aware that we got lucky. I’m about to bike an organized 100km for the first time with a training partner of mine. I wake up at 5am, make coffee, and start to check things off of my list of “to dos”. Continue reading “Are You a Worrier? Me Too!: How Worrying Can Help Us and Hurt Us”