We published this blog last year right before the start of race season, and we thought it would be a fabulous time to revisit it. These are just two of our favorite techniques that anyone can use for honing their mental toughness skills for race day.
It is the time of year for many triathletes to hit their first race and shake-off the cobwebs from the “off-season”. For many this means going through gear and making sure that they have all of the stuff that is needed to race - from race laces to Tri-Slide. In addition to the material things that are needed to race, many athletes have a pacing & fueling plan with them. All Evolve athletes are armed with a plan for their race - these range in detail and are crafted based on the athlete's needs and his or her race goals. At Evolve we love to have athletes who step on the line have a plan and a toolbox to draw from when the plan (for a variety of reasons) might not go as we had hoped. These are not novel ideas - I would say that most triathletes do this even if it is not formal - it could be as simple as swim the first 100 hard then settle in, stay calm on the bike, eat a gel, and then punch it on the run. One thing is for sure, having some kind of game plan is an important asset.
At Evolve, we like to make sure that we not only have our gear all packed, a pacing and fueling plan, but we like our athletes to have a mental fitness plan. This can arguably be the most important thing you bring with you to the race.
What does such a plan look like? And why do we need such a plan?
Let’s first discuss what it is that drives us to race. Most of us like having races on the calendar as a test of our fitness, to challenge us, and in some ways help us to get a better understanding of what we are “made of”. If we agree that these are the reasons why we love to race, then the reality is that what we are asked to do at a race - suffer - is what we need to have a plan for as we get ready. For the purpose of this post, let’s set aside the fitness aspect of suffering. It goes without saying that your training should include some work that is inline with your goals at the race, but it should also include a lot of work on your mind and mental toughness.
Here’s what we often hear - I just can’t suffer as much as so-and-so, or I’m just not mentally as tough. There is a pervasive belief in the fitness community that some are more mentally tough than others and that there is nothing that can be done about this. THIS IS A FALLACY (Hutchinson). I think the real issue is that once we buy into this belief it is easier to go with it and also most do not have the tools to work on their mental fitness, and the support that is needed to make change in this department a reality. If you take a look at athletes who have a background in sports - they swam, played soccer, or ran as a kid, then they often have better mental toughness skills. The obvious assumption is that they have spent far more hours racing and training and are therefore better at it in terms of their physical ability, but I would argue that what it overlooked is that they have better mental toughness skills too - the reason for this is that most coaching programs work on this skill, some more transparently than others, and the more hours that you have at chipping away at your mental limiters, the better you are at dealing with them when they pop up on race day. It is also really easy to learn to do things as a kid, since we tend to not get bogged down in overthinking or letting our mind limit us.
How then can we put this into practice - there are ton of methods, but for simplicity sake here are two that we love at Evolve.
Chrissie Wellington was famous for her brilliant smile that she wore even during her most grueling races. It seems silly, but a smile is a simple way to re-frame the pain that you might be feeling when you push hard in a race. It is also a really easy technique to apply. A smile also can easily change any negative energy into a positive experience in a under a second. If you have ever been on the sidelines cheering for an athlete those who smile tend to get bigger applause and that in turn leads to a positive energy return. Why would anyone want to smile when they are in suffer-mode? Well if you are suffering so much that you can hardly hardly smile, then you have clearly achieved your goal of testing your limits and who would not want to smile when they reach a goal ;-)
There are a ton of pre-performance plans out there that you can use, our athletes are equipped with one, but I still love the simple T-chart. This one comes from Michael Gervais - he has his clients make a T-chart that looks something like this:
This chart is a simple way to address the thoughts that you know will deteriorate your performance or send you on a negative path. It also gives you a plan of attack when these insidious thoughts creep into your mind - they will - don’t think that you will ever have a race where you are free of thoughts that are negative, but just know that you can work on quickly getting rid of them and focusing on thoughts that push you to work harder when you start a race with a clear plan of attack.
There is so much that we could explore on this topic (we will certainly revisit the topic later this season) and there is some really cool cutting edge research being done on mental fitness, but these are two easy things that you can apply right away!
Hutchinson, Alex. "What is Fatigue." The New Yorker, 12, December 2014. 4, April 2016.