On pavement, it’s easy to set the gray cells to auto-pilot. But off-road, it’s a whole different fallgame—err, ballgame. Here’s how to prep your brain for success.
“Off-road, the mind-body connection is more complete. Instead of tuning out as you might on the road, your mind is engaged. It’s like dancing,” says two-time XTERRA world champ Lesley Paterson. “You’re reacting to logs, mud, hills, woods—there’s something primal about it. Your brain is going with the flow of nature, essentially dancing with the terrain.”
Paterson grew up in Scotland playing rugby and competing in draft-legal triathlon, but always felt a strong, almost spiritual—and sometimes all too literal—connection with the rugged landscape. After moving to San Diego and co-founding a film production company (talk about off the beaten path), she rediscovered triathlon, but with hills and dirt—in a word, XTERRA. Now an off-road world champion and coach, Paterson has written a book with her husband, sport psychologist Simon Marshall, Ph.D., that tackles the mental challenges of training and racing.
Here, Paterson takes a hard left off the bitumen and shares some tips for tapping into that dirt-loving brain. One way, she says, is to learn to listen to it.
“Our reliance on data-driven exercise—heart rate, pace, mileage, calories—has taken away a lot of internal understanding of perceived effort,” Paterson says. “We’re so obsessed with those little numbers, we can’t experience what we’re feeling. Off-road, it’s important to have self-understanding, to build a visceral response to the world instead of data-mediated.”
She suggests athletes cover up their heart rate monitors with tape and do 10×2 minutes, hard, on a trail. Instead of “hard” being a number, runners learn what “hard” feels like. Or ditch the watch completely once in a while: Run for what you think to be an hour at maybe 70 percent effort, and note what it feels like. A brain that’s aware of pace, effort and time is a brain that’s also aware of the constantly changing landscape.
Paterson recommends easing your mind and body off-road. “Start with a trail you’re comfortable with—relatively flat and smooth,” she says. In the same way you do more core work, single-leg, twisting and side-to-side movements to strengthen off-road muscles and ligaments, she says, the gray cells, too, need to gradually build skills, like the ability to identify the safest path. And when you meet one of those steep, technical beasts?
“Find one tough section,” Paterson says. “Walk up it. Pick a line and run down and up, over and over until you’re comfortable with it. Like muscle strength, practice builds confidence.”
Set process goals, not outcome goals, Paterson preaches. “Road running is very outcome oriented—I want to win my age group; I want to get a Boston qualifier.” But that mindset is unhelpful, and may be detrimental, in the variable context of a trail event. If you set process goals, she says, like focusing on your core or being more fluid, feedback is more positive. You’re focused on what you did achieve rather than what you didn’t.
With process goals along the way, a dirt-y mind is always successful. “There’s a constant sense of achievement—I’m going to run up that hill; I’m going to see where this trail leads. Automatically, that run is a success.”
So when you steer off the pavement, go into first-human mode: Smell the flora, feel the ground, look ahead to the path, go slow on the steep, go fast on the flat, live in the moment. The off-road mind is all about the journey.