What's Missing From Your Training?

How do you prepare mentally?

Have you ever trained hard for a race, but when it came time to test that training you didn’t do as well as you thought you should have? Often the problem is not with your physical training but with your lack of mental training. In recent years, mental preparedness has taken on an increasingly exalted role in athletic endeavors. Some research suggests that mental training may be as important as physical training. When you think about it, it makes sense.

Say you have invited a group of your best friends over for dinner. How do you prepare? Do you physically go into the kitchen and begin chopping whatever you find in the refrigerator? No. The physical aspects of preparing dinner are important (blanching, boiling, sautéing) but they are not the only elements. Mental preparation is also important. You need to know how many people are coming for dinner; you need to figure out what food you are going to prepare; you need to know what the steps are and plan how long it’s going to take to prepare dinner; you even want to create nice ambience. If you prepare well enough, the dinner is fun, social and something you and your friends are going to enjoy and continue to do together.

This example reinforces that even the simplest tasks we do in our everyday lives require mental preparation, whether these tasks occur at work, in the home, at school or elsewhere. Although sport and exercise deserve the same mental attention, people go out into the world just expecting to be fulfilled without doing the necessary mental preparation.

In the simplest of terms, sports psychology empowers people with mental preparation for sport and exercise. It’s about understanding the presence of mental challenges (motivation, focus, concentration, anxiety, etc.) in many realms of everyday life and finding ways of dealing with them.

I was a head triathlon coach for the Presidio YMCA Triathlon Team for many years. Each year I ran a sports psychology clinic. Many of the people who came into the program were either struggling to remain active and thought training for a triathlon might be good motivation; others were just in need of a challenge. Either way a lot of these people were new to one, two or all three of the sports involved with triathlons and therefore were challenged in learning and participating in certain aspects of each.

During the clinic, I would talk about motivation, anxiety, positive affirmations and self-talk. Triathletes and distance runners should learn to become aware of thought processes--to change negative thinking into positive thinking and use positive affirmations. These are motivational words you repeat to yourself to help overcome--or take your mind off--fatigue. Sometimes the use of a single, key word is effective. Many times when we get to a big hill in a race, we start thinking all sorts of crazy thoughts: that hill is way too long; I can’t make it to the top; I hate hills. These negative thoughts make a person more anxious and tighten muscles which in turn restrict movement. Thoughts like these can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You will find yourself struggling all the way to the top. What we really should be thinking is something more positive: I will make it to the top; relax, fast, strong; light as a feather.

One woman at the clinic who was very new to running was having a difficult time triathlon training, in particular running up hills. She eventually decided that instead of concentrating so hard on telling herself that she can’t, she would come up with her own positive affirmation. She is now using the affirmation wings of a bird to guide her up hills. Whenever I do a clinic for the team she reminds people of how difficult running up hills can be--and how thinking positively has helped her make it to the top.

Think About Your Training

  • What mental preparation do you do?
  • Do you set goals?
  • Do you think about how to deal with waning motivation?
  • How do you deal with anxiety?
  • How do you sharpen your focus?

Begin to pay attention to your thoughts before, during and after your athletic endeavors and try this exercise: After you’ve become aware of any negative thoughts, focus on them and try to use them during your next run. Pay attention to how you feel mentally and physically. Then on a subsequent run, change any negative thoughts into something positive, and remember to smile. Remind yourself that this is for fun. Again, pay attention to how you feel mentally and physically, and compare the two. I guarantee you will feel better after the second experience.

This will give you a basic, simple experience with sports psychology. Hopefully it will bring an awareness of its importance--and of the impact it can have on your performance.

Michelle Cleere is an NASM-certified personal trainer and a USAT-certified triathlon coach. She is the owner of Sports Minded, a sports psychology consulting practice that works with individuals in person, by phone, or through e-mail. Michelle can be reached at SportsMindedMC@aol.com or via www.mentalstrength.com.

American Running Association, empowering adults to get America's youth moving. For more information or to join ARA, please visit www.americanrunning.org.

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