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Local Sports Psychologist Stephen Gonzalez gives runners tips to stay motivated

Sports Psychologist Stephen Gonzalez
Sports Psychologist Stephen Gonzalez
BJ English

We've all been there.

It is 4 a.m. and the alarm goes off. We have to be at work by eight, but we made that New Year or mid-year resolution to get in better shape.

Maybe we are training for an ultra or a marathon or even just a five kilometer race for charity, but we promised we would train with the local group to get in better shape and they meet in less than an hour and it is dark and we are tired and it is too cold or too hot or too something and we don't want to get out of bed. Running and working out seem more like punishment than reward and the temptation to turn off the alarm and go back to sleep is overwhelming, so how do we stay motivated and more importantly, once motivated to start, how do we make it a habit that we will continue to do so we don't fall back into old habits and have to start from scratch again when we realize we are doing more harm than good by being lazy.

Even long time runners who seem addicted to early rising and hours on the road honing their strength and speed and cross training at the gym can run out of steam and lose their competitive edge.

Some of the best runners beat themselves up mentally for not pushing harder against competitors who win in races by barely seconds ahead of them. Is it really that they are that much slower or is it some inner force of will that pushes them to cross the finish line ahead of others, giving every last ounce of effort as others are grimacing in pain and struggling to put one foot in front of the other?

Enter the world of the sports psychologist, whose job it is to train people to reach in deep and find the potential hidden within them.

Mind you, you cannot win a race just by thinking you can, unless maybe it is a really short race. It takes practice and training, but why are some people better at it than others even when physical health factors are relatively the same and as a self perceived lazy person, is there any hope for you when it comes to motivating yourself to stick with a program and succeed?

Stephen Gonzalez specialize in teaching people how to become and stay motivated when it comes to sports or exercise in general.

Gonzalez graduated from the University of Utah and worked as the assistant cross country coach at Savannah College of Art and Design before going to work for Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield as a Master Resilience Trainer- Performance Expert or MRT-ET.

That's quite a mouthful, but in short, he provides motivational support to soldiers, their families and civilians and helps keep them motivated to stay fit and think positively about their experiences. The focus of the program is spiritual, physical, social, emotional and family.

Today he is talking to the Savannah Striders, a local running group with over 100 regular members which is hosting a training program for new and returning runners who are hoping to compete in the half and full marathon at the Savannah Rock N Roll in November.

The group meets every first Thursday of the month at the Exchange Tavern on Waters. They are an eclectic group of walkers, racers, long and short distance runners, some of whom are more motivated than others and many of which are recovering from injuries and are more cautious about pushing themselves for fear of getting reinjured.

Some have knee injuries and joint replacements and are struggling mentally with the concept that they might not ever be able to run competitively again, but they still want to compete at any level and are hoping that this talk gives them the fuel they need to reach deep inside and keep on trying even if they might not ever 'win' a race again.

Gonzalez tells them that he started out as a husky child and got into playing hockey which led him to running so that he could improve his endurance for hockey.

Eventually he started running for the sake of running and ran a 5:18 mile in high school, earning a running scholarship to college, but discovered that while he was one of the fastest runners in high school, he was ranked 50th in college and in order to run faster he turned to a sports psychologist.

Gonzalez says that part of the secret to running faster and staying motivated is to take control of the situation.

"What we perceive we have control over; what the mind says, the body does."

He says in order to reach your true potential, you cannot think negatively.

Gonzalez shows a slide of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. A 21 year old African American student named John Woodruff found himself boxed in at the 800 meter race for gold. He could not get around the other runners and if he tried and tripped up another runner, he would be disqualified, so rather than settle for third or fourth place, he stopped running, let the other runners go around him, swung to the outside without impeding anyone else's stride and continued to run past everyone else to the finish line.

Stopping and starting in an Olympic race was unheard of, but he did it and won a gold medal, putting Hitler to shame in the process, though Woodruff is rarely remembered and overshadowed by Jesse Owen.

Gonzalez said that Woodruff could have given up, but instead he took control. If you perceive you have no control, you are more likely to give up, just like dieting... if you perceive the chocolate cake has control over you, it will win, but if you perceive you have control over it, you can resist and stay on track. Running is no different.

But, you can't control some things like the weather or injuries, illness, working hours and even running partners to some degree and course conditions can be enough to make you want to quit. In this case, your attitude has more to do with whether you will succeed or fail.

Along with attitude come effort, preparation, body maintenance, self talk, responses and flexible goals.

Attitude - you have to have positive attitude to be successful. Having a good attitude can make a seemingly unpleasant situation seem more pleasant and can make you feel more in charge or in control of things.

Effort - no matter how good your attitude is, if you do not put in the effort to become better, you will not do better. You have to stay motivated to put in the effort. Keeping a picture in your mind of where you want to be (goal setting). "Thoughts drive emotions which drive behaviors," says Gonzalez.

Preparation - knowing what you need to get the job done is key. If you plan to run on a regular basis, you need to find the ideal time to run, the place where you are most likely to do your running, what kind of shoes and clothing you will need and what kind of fuel and water you are going to require to succeed as well. You also don't want to start out too fast and get burned out, so having a run/walk or progressive speed/time increase plan in place can help as well.

This is when joining a running club or talking to a professional can help get you ready, but it doesn't do any good to join the gym, buy a new pair of shoes and a running outfit and then not use them!

Body Maintenance - if you are fat and out of shape, you are going to have a harder time starting a running program and are more likely to get injured. You need to start out at a level your body can maintain and prepare for running by eating healthier food choices, going to bed on time and not ignoring little aches and pains that may end your running career if left untreated.

Self Talk - you are your own best cheerleader and own worst critic at the same time. Try to focus on being supportive of yourself. Tell yourself that you can do this and think of how good it will feel to succeed at a goal. If you walk out the door saying, "I hate running. I hate sweating. I hate getting up this early, I hate the world. I hate me...", chances are you will not have a good run or may decided not to run at all.

Tell yourself that you will jog up to this mailbox and then walk, or run through this one song and then stretch. Treat yourself as if you are a little child who does not want to do his or her homework and remind yourself how good you will feel after it is over and that you can get a treat or reward if you continue to stick to your goal. It is all about the motivation.

Responses - Gonzalez says that we all play a Mental Game, "Something happens and I respond."

The more you practice something, the quicker your responses. Athletes often refer to it as muscle memory, where you run the same drill or defend against an attack in a specific way until it becomes second nature and you find yourself responding to the stimuli before your conscious brain has a chance to think about it.

If you find yourself getting winded or feeling tired and give up and stop at a certain point, you are training yourself to give up. While you don't want to hurt yourself, you can slow down a bit, practice relaxation tips and keep trying. The more you push through the hard times, the easier it will become, though again, if something hurts and gets worse as you push, then you need to be able to back off and reset your goals, not give up on them.

Flexible Goals - allow you to continue rather than to stop. If you planned to run ten miles at an eight minute mile pace and by three miles out you are struggling to keep a nine minute mile pace, there is nothing wrong with being flexible. It is better to run a little slower than your goal than to give up running all together. It may be that you misjudged the course or the weather or your own health that day.

Think of your goals as flexible so that you learn from them and grow, rather than self talk your way into feeling like a failure with no future and no business running with the big boys so to speak. Everyone has setbacks and that is okay if you learn from them and continue to move forward.

So to summarize: Maintain a positive attitude so you can be more highly motivated to succeed. Be realistic. It will take your body a while to adjust to a new routine and eating healthy foods, not staying out late at night partying, getting enough sleep and not letting stress overwhelm you will help you obtain your goals.

Surround yourself with people who will support and encourage you and speak positively to yourself as well. If you would not tolerate others putting you down, then you should not put yourself down either.

You can find an inner chant to encourage you on difficult runs, maybe the theme song from Rocky or the child's book, The Little Engine That Could with the mantra, "I think I can; I think I can."

Visualize yourself achieving your goal with strong legs, sprinting over the finish line. Don't let anxiety and emotions deter you from your goal. Remember you are in control of your life and if something bad does happen, the chances are really high that it is only temporary and you will come back even stronger. Don't allow frustrations to make you angry and want to quit or feel embarrassed that you did not reach your goal.

There is nothing wrong with being flexible and doing what you can with what you have. Focus on what you can do. Push yourself to go from point A to point B and if you did not fall flat on your face exhausted and nothing feels like it is about to break off your body, then go another twenty feet and another and set and surpass small goals so that the big goal does not seem so overwhelming. It is easier to think of running five 5K races than one 25k race.

Plan ahead. Make sure you have clean running clothes, good fitting socks and shoe, rain jacket or wind tights so that you have no excuses. Set your running clothes by the door along with a hand held water bottle.

Plan to meet with friends at a set time and place. The more the merrier; that way if one friend backs down, you still have others to run with you and encourage you to keep pace. If you are always getting left behind, then consider joining a new running team that can keep your pace with you and encourage one another to keep moving.

If you have a spouse or job that thinks your running time is cutting into their desire for you to spend more time with them, remind them that after your run, you will be in a much better mood and that running improves not only your body, but your brain and even consider inviting them come on a run with you and get fit themselves.

Don't let anything hold you back. If you are injured, seek help, do therapy and find ways to keep moving that do not hurt, such as biking or swimming or rowing.

If you live in a bad neighborhood, consider driving to the park or joining a gym. Many family gyms offer scholarships to low income and some churches and civic groups offer free exercise and running programs.

While shoes and shorts can be expensive, you can find decent running shoes for under $40 and many thrift shops sell gently used running wear in all sizes.

Shops like TJ Maxx and Marshall's offer year end clearances on running tights, sports bras, even running skirts, tanks and shorts and some running clubs offer gear exchange swap meets as well, so where there is a will, there is a way and surrounding yourself with supportive people who can offer good advice and encourage you when you feel like giving up can be a good way to achieve your running goals.

When you have some miles under you, you can sign up for a charity race that will also encourage you to stick to your goals and raise money and awareness for a cause that is near and dear.

For more information on running clubs in your area, check out local running stores, college sports programs, sports therapists, or flag down a group of runners and ask where they are from and who they run with.

Eventually you may find yourself loving running rather than hating it and encouraging others to take up the sport with you. A little challenge does wonders for motivating most people, especially those who don't like the idea that you can do something better than they can and stick with it!