One of my couch-to-5K athletes asked me how I stay calm facing multiple workouts a day. She is a newer athlete focusing on weight loss and her personal context is that every workout is a major mental stressor for her - because she anticipates physical pain and feeling slow.
"I get scared of how much it is going to hurt and how long it is going to last so I do everything - anything - else until I absolutely have to start or I won't be able to do the workout at all. And sometimes it gets past that point and I just skip it all together."
Ding ding ding! I'll cop to exactly that behavior on occasion (except the skipping it part, the blessing and curse of having all day to complete workouts). I once caught myself wiping down the fronts of my kitchen cabinets in an effort to put off starting a workout. However, my kitchen can sparkle only so bright and I eventually just have to get on with things.
I told her that I try to be "in" each workout, and "out" during the rest of life.
"In" means that when I commit to prep for and complete a workout, I am deeply engaged in what
needs to be done: equipment, set-up, powers or paces, slave to my
watch/powermeter, and suffering as needed as best I can until the suffering is
allowed to end. I'm committed and present and woe be unto those who interrupt that.
The engagement is such that that once I flip that switch to "in," I get thrown if something delays or disrupts my workout. For example, I once had to drive all the way home to charge my Garmin after getting somewhere to do a big hill workout and finding my watch battery dead. Coach's motto: Data or it didn't happen. The situation was absolutely my fault (although those batteries last nowhere near as long as Garmin would have you believe), but it took a while to get my "in" groove back.
Once I'm done with a workout and have some water and food in me, I switch "out" and don't let (or try not to let) the next workout preoccupy my mind and attention before it's time. By "out" I don't mean neglecting the general
responsibilities of preparing for the next workout: hydrating, eating,
napping, compression, out of the sun, legs up, whatevs. Those
responsibilities are always there, hopefully being completed by rote
memory and normal planning. I mean not worrying about pain or trying to guess what powers/pace I'll hold or have held or should hold. Those thoughts have a time and place, and I have decided that it is not now.
In truth, sometimes I get way out: I can't even remember the workout I just completed, it just...took place. I can be hard pressed to remember masters swim sets later in the day.
Why does "in" then "out" then "in" then "out" work for me? I find that switching in and out saves energy of the emotional and psychic (literally the energy it takes to psych myself up to do something) variety. The more I fear or worry about a workout (or the worse the weather or boring the route or interesting the current show on TV...), the more psychic energy it can take to get me ready and out the door. Hours of that is tiring, and I haven't even done anything yet!
To get an idea of how draining being "in" all the time (or spending all morning psyching yourself up for a workout) can be think of the exhaustion when returning home from a long, harder bike (or car) ride. Not only the physical tiredness, but the mental as well: from watching for cars, squinting against the sun, watching the bike computer, and holding your effort honest to those numbers. You have just been "in" for an extended period of time; imagine doing that 24/7. The battery only holds so much and it can take time to recharge.
For me, the only way I can be truly "in" is to get as far away as possible, when possible.
Of course switching in and out is not always that easy and of course there are workouts that niggle the back of my mind days and nights before when they are scheduled. "Busy brain-itis." I haven't mastered the art of zen stoicism, but I do think that the nerves are a valuable sign of just how important the workout(s) is to me. Then I (again: try to) flip the switch and use the nerves to my advantage and prepare better and be more "in" when the time comes.
How to get "in" (and sometimes "out") is the trick, and that, unfortunately, is different for everyone. For myself, I know not to push the issue and eventually I will come around to a mental and physical place where I am prepared to be "in." This is going to sound weird, but I kid you not, it feels kind of like how the "zzschoom" of starting up a big piece of assembly line machinery sounds (and now you all officially think I'm nuts). It can take a while to happen so when I need to really be on, I have to wait it out. I realize that is a luxury not everyone has and when it isn't/wasn't a luxury for me, I use(d) group/scheduled workouts. Knowing that I am required to show up somewhere at some time gives me no choice but to set an alarm and start getting the equipment ready. The adrenaline and excitement of training with people also helps induce the "zzschoom" thing. Otherwise some days I'm not sure I would swim at all.
And every now and then I just can't get "in" and ultimately resort to a coping mechanism that I suggested to my new athlete - remove all pressure of goals and times and just go out and start. If I get "in"-to it, good; if I don't, too bad; if it's ugly, it's ugly....because there will always be another one! But the more times I successfully get out the door, the better I am at getting myself out the door and the more evidence I have that my legs won't fall off as a result. This is especially true for newer athletes like the one who asked me this question because every single workout seems like a painful obstacle that will never get easier. Over time athletes realize that that hyperbole isn't true, and eventually they only remember the best workouts and the best tree behind which to pee.
Now, please excuse me. If you need me, I'll be cleaning my shower grout with an old toothbrush.