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Putting the chimp back in its box

Chimp Paradox
Chimp Paradox

When looking at the mental aspect of endurance sport few make this complex topic make sense more than Professor Steve Peters in his book The Chimp Paradox. Prof Steve talks about the chimp that we all have inside us. This is the internal voice that is designed to keep you alive. It is loud, powerful and extremely fast to react. It is the voice that makes you angry instantly, the voice that makes you give up and the voice that haves you wondering later “why did I say that” or “why did I do that.” Prof Steve’s book is all about understanding this voice, and managing and effectively “boxing the chimp.” The idea being to make the chimp a positive effect on your life as it is also one of the things that makes you feel good when you finish a race or accomplish a feat, it rewards you when people cheer you on and given the right incentive can get you to that seemingly unreachable finish line. If you want to read more below is a link to his book on Amazon.

Prof Steve Peters explains it far better than I ever could, and if he ever read this he would probably laugh at some of my interpretations of his detailed works. Of course, as part of his role as Team Sky Psychologist he is used to endurance athletes saying stupid things.

The reason for this article is that last year my chimp got out of its box and I had a ridiculously high failure rate in my races. Some I failed to start and quite a few I failed to finish. The low point was getting a mere 18 miles into the Roseland August Trail (RAT)  Ultra Plague in August 2015 before I timed out. I had done many training runs longer than that and had never been so slow. I tapered appropriately, had done the miles and my body was in fine form. Unfortunately my mind was not in such good shape. I had to do something about it.

I wanted to carry on racing and running. I wanted to start AND finish the events that I had signed up for and I knew that I could do more. I hit the books and tried to figure out how to get out of my rut. The next three weeks transformed me back into the runner that I wanted to be, but it would be some time before I realised the power of what I had achieved. Now, in May 2016, I am going from strength to strength and ticking off events that had previously left me broken and miserable. I implemented tools that I had dismissed before as gimmicks and was surprised at just how effective they were.

So, it’s three o’clock in the morning and you have been moving forwards since midnight and a voice pops up in your head. “You’re rubbish, you’re a quitter, and you are from a generation of quitters. Give up, go home and wallow in your inferiority!” That’s the voice that made me slow down and fail in the RAT. It was illogical, unreasonable, but oh so very loud. The chimp was out, it was raging and I had no tools to calm it down. Fortunately I already had a copy of The Chimp Paradox (paperback and on audio) and a few days after the RAT I was listening to it on my phone while on a training run. It made sense, but I still didn’t know how to put into practice. I needed examples, and I found a few more books and devoured the following (on audio while running) in the weeks after failing the RAT:

The Ultra Mindset by Travis Macy

Travis Macy is an endurance athlete and adventure racer of epic proportions, and I quite enjoyed this one. Some of the things he has done are almost unfathomable to us mortals, but they put my small challenges into perspective.

The Art of Mental Training: A Guide to Performance Excellence by D C Gonzalez

D C Gonzalez is a performance coach and vastly experienced. I found this book very powerful and it is also fairly short at 3 hours on audio. The first time listening to it really buoyed me up.

I enjoyed both of the above, but also took in some not quite so useful books Cognitive Behaviour Therapy: Techniques for retraining your brain was full of good science, but so dull I could not finish it. Probably a great one for academics though. A Survival Guide for Life by Bear Grylls was the opposite, lacking in depth for my purposes, but still a good listen if you want somewhere to start.

After getting through the above I felt that I was making progress and I needed a “safe” place to practice the skills I had learnt i.e. to use my new mental toolkit. Enter Equinox 24, a laid back and friendly 24 hour race in the grounds of Belvoire Castle near Grantham in the UK. Equinox 24 is a race very similar in ethos to Hope 24, but far enough away from home that I would have some space away from friends and other runners that I may know. This meant there was no pressure to perform. I could simply run.

The premise of the race is to simply run as many laps as you can in 24 hours with Equinox being on a 10km course and Hope being on a 5 mile course. My goal was simple: to enjoy the race. I had never run such an event solo before so I had no previous time to beat and no friends nearby that I felt I had to impress. In other words I had the physical training, the mental training and a race with no pressure to put it all together in. Due to the lapped nature of the course I never had to worry overly about drink or nutrition as I only ever have to carry enough to get around a single lap. I had everything I needed in place and to hand, and I was ready to run.

What were the tools that I used?

One of the hard bits about the mental aspects of training is that works for me may not work for you, but one of the key tenets of Chimp management is basically accepting that the world is not fair, that stuff goes wrong. If you accept this then when something bad happens you simply deal with it and move on and your chimp does not go ballistic. This was my starting point and on top of that I had a few other things to help me along such as three different mantras for use at different times. Mantras are good for distracting your chimp and effectively drowning it out. My main mantra for Equinox was “One more lap” so whenever my chimp threw up a negative thought I would respond with “one more lap” before we can have a small break, eat something, drink something, change shoes etc. Always just “one more lap.” My other mantras are personal to me and once you have yours they will be specific to you, and they will change over time.

I knew from past experience the negative thoughts that would hamper me, so I could put processes in place to counter them in advance. I was also content when things started to go badly to simply walk or stop for a bit. On one occasion I walked a lap and then bedded down for a two hour sleep before resuming. It was then 2am and I put in a couple of good laps before slowing again. I walked another lap and stopped for a bacon butty (two actually!) before resuming. I listened to an entire audio book through the night and then enjoyed moving through dawn. Towards the end of the race it was time for my pièce de résistance. I put my headphones in, turned on the dance music and finished with my fastest lap of the race. I had travelled over 82 miles and was 33rd out of 142 runners. Where had that come from? I was just enjoying myself!!!

The impact of what I have achieved from this mental training and Equinox 24 is still becoming apparent to me in early 2016. My chimp still throws up negative thoughts but it is as if they are muted. During an event my chimp has become a co-conspirator who, while often negative can now be talked around to become and actually eems to help me to the finish. I have finished two ultra distance events already this year that beat me last year. The most significant being The Oner which has defeated me two years in a row, but this year I finished it strongly coming 38th out of nearly 100 starters in a field where around 50% gave up and went home.

Through a technical mistake my watch was vibrating every mile during the Oner and to my mind it never stopped vibrating. The miles just vanished underneath me and I had none of the mental lows that had slowed me in previous years. In fact towards the end I ran the sums in my head and had the time, so I simply walked it in, soaking up the views and enjoying myself. I am putting in performances that last year I could only have dreamed of and finishing races more strongly than ever before, and it isn’t through better physical training. It is because I have fixed my mind and learnt how to box my chimp.

I am sure that those of you who are struggling may find this article frustrating as I am not simply telling you to do three simple things to improve performance. Instead I am telling you that you need to read some books, understand your own Chimp and learn how to deal with it yourself. It doesn’t take long though. I spend hours and hours each week in physical training and none of this realised its potential until I changed my focus for a month and learnt how to train my Chimp. My chimp is now an asset and not a liability. I also know that the Chimp is so strong that I need to keep on top of it, keep up with the positive reinforcement and not let it run free again. Sure, there are days when it gets out and rages for a bit, but each day I get better at boxing it, and I feel that even though I am 40 this year I am still far from reaching my potential as far as endurance sport goes.

Final thoughts

One argument that I find helps to box my chimp is definitely the use of mantras. For lapped races the “one more lap” works well, but for point to point, or single lap races, I simply say to myself “The faster you move the sooner it will be over.” I am saying this to my chimp and it helps to stop me from slowing to a walk. The Chimp is learning that if it helps to keep me moving that little bit quicker then it is soon rewarded by people clapping, folks telling me “well done,” food, drink, rest and security. It works surprisingly well, but it takes effort. I’m sure that I will still have the occasional bad race, but if I do then I know now how to learn from it, how to deal with it and how to bounce back better.

Some links

Below you can find links to my reports from some of the races mentioned above.

2 Comments on “Putting the chimp back in its box

  1. Hi Richard,

    Nice post. I thought you explained the ‘chimp’ and its management well and I liked, in particular, your emphasis on the need to get to know our own ‘chimps’ rather than rely on a ‘one size fits all’ approach.
    Two queries for you, if you are up for sharing.
    First, you mentioned that one of your strategies for dealing with negative thoughts was to have processes in place to counter them in advance. It would be great to have one or two examples.
    I’d also be interested in your thoughts on how your chimp is an asset and not just an occasional liability. I read in Professor Peters’ book that the chimp works well with motivation, rather than commitment, so I guess you may be referring to that.
    Thanks again for sharing your experience. I’ve also found the chimp model helpful and am keen to see it more widely known and used.

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