The human brain is a powerful thing. Unfortunately, many athletes fail to recognize the power and importance of training the mind.
Often so intensely focused on training the body, athletes can miss out on one of the biggest avenues for performance enhancement.
Most new or less experienced athletes will make big gains in performance by simply focusing on the physical training. However, as you improve your physical fitness over time and get closer to your ceiling of physical potential, the more important improving what I refer to as your ‘mental fitness’ becomes to maximizing your performance.
That’s not to say that mental fitness is not valuable at low to mid-level fitness abilities; we’ve all seen the athlete that crushes their training partners in training sessions to only fall well short of their physical ability on race day, and vice-versa where the seemingly ‘weaker’ athlete in training outperforms their ‘stronger’ counterparts on race day. These questionable performances are almost always directly related to the athlete’s mental strength. On the higher end of the performance spectrum, elite athletes in a given sport are equally well-trained and talented. The higher the level of competition, the more homogenous the physical fitness and talent becomes. For this reason, many top level elite athletes recognize the power of the mind and the importance of mental training in allowing them to reach the success they desire. Often what makes the difference between becoming a champion and not breaking through is their mental fitness.
The topic of mental fitness, or sport psychology, is a big one and can include many areas of discussion. I’m going to focus on two areas that I find particularly important for endurance athletes and that are relatively simple and effective to integrate into your own training. The first area is related more to planning, organizing, and rehearsing your performances prior to them occurring. The second area is more of the ‘in the moment’ considerations and techniques to develop to help you achieve a higher level of performance on race day.
PART ONE: Preparation
- Goal Setting –
Goal setting is one of those things many people know they should do but few actually the the time to do it correctly and effectively. Goal setting takes time and consideration, and is best done at the beginning of your training season. You need to establish both long term goals (1-5 years) and short term goals (1-5 months) that are quantifiable and challenging yet achievable. Once you have your goals established, you need to figure out your path or steps you are going to take to achieve these goals. Then you need to share these goals with friends and family and make them visible in your daily life to serve as reminders of what they are and why you are working towards these goals.
- Imagery/Visualization –
Perhaps one of the most valuable training practices is visualization and imagery. What we see happening in our minds as ‘virtual reality’ has a much higher chance of occurring in reality. If we routinely see ourselves performing a skill or putting out a great effort, our brain will begin to accept that we already have or are capable of actually doing it. Elite athletes utilize the strategy of visualization leading up to important competitions by imagining their races in great detail from both start to finish or in smaller segments in great detail. Then once they are actually in the moment on race day, their minds are better prepared and capable of managing the real life situation, leading to greater success.
- Race Strategy –
Less of a mental exercise and more of a straight forward planning and preparation, forming your competition strategy is an important element of mental fitness. Use your brain power to identify your own strengths and weaknesses, your competitor’s strengths and weaknesses, the course elements and other ingredients that will constitute your race day challenges. Form a plan on how to pace your efforts, decide who/what you will respond to and what/who you will let go, what and when you’re going to eat and drink, when you plan to conserve energy and where you plan to empty the tank. All of these factors go into your race strategy and will lend to a more successful racing experience. It is also important to understand that even the best race strategies can quickly go out the window mid-race and you must be willing and able to adapt to the challenges.
- Self-Belief –
Believing in one’s self is critical to success. If you do not truly believe you can accomplish your goals, visualize yourself succeeding, or executing your race strategy then you’re setting yourself up for failure. It’s easy to think or say we believe in ourselves, but it has to be a real and unshakable belief. Much of a person’s self-belief is instilled in them from their childhood, life experiences and parental influences, but it can be changed for the better through disciplined mental training, just like exercise can alter their physical fitness.
PART TWO: Competition
- Race Persona/Alter-Ego –
Competition requires being a fighter. On race day, particularly in the race, you need to be excitable, aggressive, and perhaps even a little mean to fight your way to the top of the podium. This does not mean that you need to be this way in your regular life. In fact many of the world’s best athletes are actually quite calm, cool and humble people that change when the gun goes off and they get into ‘race mode.’ Recognizing this transformation and actively using it to your advantage is a classic sport psychology strategy (particularly for those calm, cool, humble athletes). Creating an alter-ego to be used on race day can get you in the mode to be focused and open your willingness to suffer to your fullest and attack the race with everything you’ve got. XTERRA World Champion Lesley Patterson publicly shared her race alter-ego; Becoming “Paddy McGuinty” allows this diminutive Scottish athlete to transform from one of the nicest people you’ll meet into a hard, tough, Celtic fighter capable of running down anyone in front of her on race day.
- Focus –
Gaining and maintaining focus is perhaps the most important mental element to competitive success. The longer and less intense the event, the harder it becomes to maintain focus. Staying in the moment allows you to identify and respond to your efforts and the efforts of those around you. Losing focus allows your mind to drift and inevitably your pace slows and your performance deteriorates. Maintaining focus is tied into your self-belief, what you think you can truly achieve and whether you feel it’s worth the effort. Staying focused will allow you to embrace the challenge and short-term discomfort and will keep you from the long-term disappointment that occurs from losing focus.
- Willingness to Suffer –
Make that ‘ugly face’ and get to work! Some amateur athletes are either unwilling or don’t know what it means to truly suffer in the heat of the moment. Whether it’s a short, fast, intense race or long distance grudge match, being willing and able to suffer is crucial to reaching your fullest potential on race day. Staying in the moment and maintaining focus will improve your willingness to dig deep, but understanding that the pain is temporary but the disappointment is forever will allow you to crawl deep into the pain cave in your priority events.
- Mantras –
A great tactic to help maintain focus and keep going in the face of pain is using mantras, or repeating inspiring words or short phrases, during the tough moments of competition. Mantras work by keeping your focus off the pain and on the job at hand. It can be helpful to incorporate a rhythmic mantra that you can repeat over and over at a particular cadence to keep you moving along at your desired pace. 2014 XTERRA 40-44 female National Champion, Kathy Waite, uses the mantra “I am strong, I feel great” as she mows down competitors on the run.
Written by Cody Waite, professional endurance athlete, endurance sport coach and founder of Sessions:6 Sport Performance. Looking for help with your endurance sport training? Check out S:6’s Training Plans, Team Programs, and Personal Coaching options created to fit your needs and budget.