Training your mind: Mental preparation for top performance

Lance Armstrong and Ivan Basso duel during the 2004 Tour de France  Credit: Robert Laberge/Getty Images
A talented amateur triathlete was on the run at mile 20 of the Ironman World Championships. He was suffering and surviving from mile to mile on Coca-Cola. His body was shutting down.

His goal for the race was to be the top amateur finisher. He was currently the second amateur. He was questioning whether he could maintain his pace and even finish when he spotted the current first-place amateur up the road.

Suddenly, and with determination, he picked up his pace. He closed on and passed his closest rival with such pace as to assure there would be no possible response. He finished 16th overall and top amateur.

He had more left in the tank than he believed, but he had lost his focus and detoured from his task. His pace slowed because he was giving in to the fatigue and was willing to accept that slowing down was not only possible but necessary.

Once he spotted his competitor, his task came back into focus and he tapped into a resource that many of us seldom, if ever, find.

Finding ways to perform at our full potential when our body is telling us that it's done is essential for success in tough endurance sports like cycling and triathlon. The gap between us and our competitors may be a mental one rather than a physical one.

Research indicates that the body may have a mechanism designed to prevent it from fully depleting itself by convincing the mind that we need to slow down and conserve.

Have you ever pushed yourself beyond what you thought was possible during a workout or race despite your desire to slow down?

Although there certainly is a point that we must slow down or stop to avoid injuring ourselves, for some of us that point may be beyond when we actually do.

Finding ways to flow with fatigue rather than fighting it may be what it takes to reach our potential.

Stay on task

If you find yourself focusing on or distracted by fatigue or suffering during training and racing, try redefining it as merely discomfort, or a challenge. Then move your focus to your breathing or pedaling/running form to help you get back on task.

If we find ourselves spending time dwelling on the fatigue, we might tell ourselves that we just can't hang on to a wheel or maintain a pace any longer. This will surely be self-defeating.

If you're beating yourself up verbally ("I screwed up!" or "I can't climb!" or "I never do well at this race!") you'll most likely find ways to fulfill your assertions.

Try being nice to yourself. ("I learned some things in that race" or "I'm working on improving as a climber" or "This time I'm better prepared for this race.")

Don't underestimate the power of your words. During a 24-hour mountain bike race a flare was shot into the night sky at the 12-hour mark. One athlete saw the flare and energized herself by saying, "Yes! I'm halfway done, only 12 more hours to go!" while another drained energy by saying to himself, "Damn, I'm only halfway done, I still have another 12 hours to go."

Say both of those phrases and you may feel the difference. What are you telling yourself?

Another idea is to choose a short mantra that will help keep you focused on your task (maintaining a pace, staying relaxed or getting to the finish) rather than on your discomfort.

Choose mantras that empower you and are task-specific. One example would be for a mountain biker to use "strong, steady, relaxed" for long climbs and "smooth and relaxed" for descents.

Your inner dialogue should enhance your focus, increase confidence and reduce anxiety. The words of your mantras should have meaning to you that fulfill these elements.

"Strong, steady, relaxed," for example, could mean, "I've done the training (strong), I can maintain this pace (steady) and I'm feeling great (relaxed)."

"Smooth" used in descending could remind you to flow like water over obstacles rather than slamming into them like a monster truck.

Mental strengths and weaknesses

Your emotions can affect your physical energy, and conversely energy levels can directly affect your emotions. Learn to identify things that drain or charge your physical and mental energy.

Identify ways that you can calm yourself down when your energy is too high and is making you anxious or nervous. Try focusing on your breathing or relaxing tight muscles, for example.

Identify ways to get yourself going when your energy level is too low and you're feeling lethargic, unmotivated or unconfident.

One idea is to try visualizing past successes or reviewing your goals. Learn to use these methods when you need them.

You can also create mantras to use when you're experiencing a variety of emotions like weakness, fear, nervousness, ennui, frustration or whatever you tend to experience before and during competition that may be holding you back.

Select words that can have an impact on your emotions. Repeating calming words can help reduce anxiety, and using energizing words can get you going when you're dragging.

Practice your mantras during training. Mental skills become habits by practicing them frequently. Set out on every workout with a goal to stay focused as long as possible by using mantras, breathing and form drills.

When you catch yourself drifting off, bring yourself back into focus. Challenge yourself to stay focused as long and as often as possible. It's not easy, but you'll get better.

Adequate and appropriate physical training is necessary of course, but without being capable of staying focused on our task and pushing ourselves to our true limits we may never realize our full potential.

Appropriate inner dialogue or self-talk can improve athletic performance, but should be task-specific, constructive and rehearsed. Get to work!


Thomas Chapple is a licensed Elite level USA Cycling coach, a certified USA Triathlon coach and an Ultrafit Associates coach. He can be reached at www.coachthomas.com.


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