Mental Case - Why We All Need to Train the Brain with Coach Samantha

Race season officially kicks off for Evolve this weekend at Puerto Rico 70.3. As we near race day for many athletes it becomes even more essential that we start to dial in every aspect of training. The most obvious things to focus on are your workouts, but if you can turn up the heat on the more subtle, but equally important aspects of endurance sports, you will have a far more fulfilling season. It is time to execute your workouts, practice your fueling, clean up your eating so it supports your work load and aids recovery, and master your mental fitness. People often fail to recognize that we need to train all of these facets, and that you cannot expect to have your best race if you have not worked these in your training. Let’s chat about mental fitness training, how to do it, and why it matters.

There are numerous bodies of research that show that the thing that matters most on race day when the going gets tough is how an athlete responds to the challenge. While there are some athletes who can face a challenge head on without training (although we could argue that they train these skills without labeling them as such) and navigate it without difficulty, most need to practice it.

Finding a mantra is one way that you can help to better your mental fitness. I know it sounds cheesy, but it is a way to focus on the task without letting the task control you. If you have ever struggled during a workout where you give in to negative thoughts, then you know the feeling of completing that workout and then knowing that you had more to give. This usually happens when you do not have the tools to control your mind and you let your mind take control of you and give into the pain. The mantra is a way to fill up the space in your head with positive thoughts and not drift from the task. That’s the key to this whole thing – staying present in the pain – and boy is it hard, but with consistent work anyone can achieve this.

Lately I have been working on trying to be relaxed in the work. At first this concept was akin to someone yelling in my face – CALM DOWN, CALM DOWN, CALM DOWN – and you know how well that would work. Let me be for real here – relaxed is not a word most would use to describe me, but I also know that the things I need to work on the most are the things that do not come naturally. When I first started racing and I would start to reach my pain threshold, I would start to crumble mentally and pull away from the pain. I would physically tense up and thus slow down. I would begin to get so far ahead of myself in my mind that I would worry about the pain that was about to happen well before it ever came. This is not something that you can fix overnight – it takes practice and even today, I struggled with it – I will get to that in a bit. But let’s talk about how to work on relaxing and working hard – the old workout oxymoron. This is not easy for me, and takes a lot of practice and I often fail at it, or vacillate between moments where I am calm while working hard and moments where I am totally far from it.  So how have I been doing this? The first step was recognizing that I needed to do this and do it often and that I was probably going to really suck at it, but I would get less sucky with more practice. Once I was over the fear of sucking – let’s face it, nobody LOVES doing things that they are terrible at – I started to put it into practice. During my tempo runs I have been picking one point of focus. This is sometimes a mantra – I am pretty literal, so that can be simply me repeating smooth, smooth, smooth, or just focusing on my cadence, or my breathing, or how I hold my shoulders. When I am having a hard day, I find myself bouncing from one to another. If I am on fire, I can just stay with one thing. 90 percent of the time I fail at this, but 90 is better than 100, which is where I used to be. I think like most endurance athletes we are A types, which is great and helps to get the work done, but at the same time we are our worst enemy as being present in the moment is really hard for us. My mind wanders like crazy – I basically never stop thinking and really struggle to turn off my brain – if you have ever worked out with me or even just talked to me for five minutes, then you know that I will start chatting about A, get super excited about B, jump to J and before you know it we are at Y – and then wait, crap, let me get back to A – so to focus on one thing is NOT EASY AT ALL – but each time I do it I can tell that I am getting better at it – even if it is just a teeny tiny improvement. And those tiny tweaks are what will make the one percent improvement that we are all striving for.

I also think a very easy way to work on this is just to be aware of it and to start to put in place some minor mind shifts even if at first they seem very artificial. That brings me to today. Once again, I am in a recovery week and had a swim test. My last swim test was eight weeks ago and I have put in two solid blocks of training, but I have also had a ton of stuff going on with Evolve and with my daughter and husband – all fabulous things, but things that take energy. So when I hit recovery week, I  knew I needed it in a big way, and was happy for about ten minutes. I am not good at recovery week and like many athletes, I actually feel terrible during these weeks – like a sloth. Well, maybe not really like a sloth, since I feel like sloths are generally happy to be sloths and do slothy things, so maybe more like a misfit sloth who dreams of being a less sloth-like creature. I just feel BLAH during these weeks, so testing feels soooo very hard, but I know that I need to be rested to test,  this is the battle I face – wanting to be rested, but feeling un-rested and low energy. Wait does that sound like taper week – or what? Last night I put out my lucky suit, checked my goggle straps, visualized my best test, told myself to have clean pushes off the wall and keep my head low and chest pressed, but this morning when I got up, I had a feeling of dread – what if this test does not go well, what if I fail, what if etc. etc.? Then I put on my coach’s hat – I have failed at tests before and know that they are just one bench mark – I tell myself that it is okay to not ace the test, that the time change has me dragging, I momentarily think about telling my coach that I am too busy to get it in, that lasts for a split second and then I go back to the thought that the things I fear are the things I need the most  and let’s face it, life will go on even if I bomb the swim test. What do you notice about all of those thoughts – they are negative! I hop into the pool and start my warm up, and at 200 in, I realize that I am being ruled by negativity and being motivated by failure and I KNOW that this is a recipe for disaster. I then start to tell myself over and over that I will rock this test. At first this is artificial and it’s more like fake it until you make it, or a cheerleader who has come unhinged, but I begin to list the reasons why I know that I can improve my last time, and then the warm-up is over. I take one minute rest before I start the test and go over all my mental cues and physical cues and then I hit it. I have one goal: to keep all of my thinking positive. If I do this, then who gives a f*&K what my time is, this will have been a success no matter what. I struggle with one negative thought at 600 in and then I let it come and go and press on – and focus on my one point – head down. While I was not perfect in my thinking, just being aware of my negativity saved me during this test and resulted in a better time from eight weeks prior, and reminded me of how easily we can fall victim to our minds unless we practice how to deal with the negativity and find a positive way to motivate ourselves. And as usual I am so happy that I had one more opportunity to put this all in place before race day. 

Another way to practice your mental fitness before race day is to face your fears or dislikes in training, but the key is to do this with a plan or with the intention of formulating a plan for race day. I kind of touched on this above, but I cannot emphasize enough how taking the less comfortable path in training will pay dividends on race day. If you hate hills, run them. If you hate wind, ride in it. If you are afraid of open water, get in it as much as you can.  However, just choosing adversity is not enough, choose it, but also develop a plan for how you deal with it. About 18 years ago, I was on a long run with my dearest brother-in-law when a large hill loomed in the distance, he looked at me and said, “Sam, what’s your deal? You’re nowhere near the hill and yet you are already slowing down and getting mental.” While of course I knew he was right - and I HATED that he was right, I had never really had anyone bring this to my attention and was just happy to be someone who dreaded hills and was self-proclaimed sucky at them. I would give up before I even hit them, or avoid them at all costs. If I knew a race had hills on the run, I would obsess about them and then give myself permission to walk and laugh it off – with how I was awful at hills and was a crappy runner and biking was really my thing. One of my earliest triathlons had a mile long hill in it and I made my little brother hide out at the bottom of the hill and run it with me as I was sure I was going to die if I had to do it alone. Why was I bad at hills? There were a few reasons, one was because I was afraid to fail – I dreaded them and thought that if I had to walk I was a failure, so I adopted a jokey self-deprecating attitude about me and hills and hid behind that rather than working to get better. It is impossible to get better at something that you have convinced yourself you are bad at and maybe even defined yourself by that line of thinking.  Two, was that I did not really know how to run them, what I mean by this is that as soon as the hill started to hurt, I started to look at my feet, cut off the oxygen, stoop in my posture and basically did everything in the book to make the hill physically harder to run. Three, I would avoid them as much as possible because I was so caught up in the metric of pace on my runs. I defined myself by my pace on my watch and if I ran hills my pace was slower and thus my run was bad and I was a loser. This meant that I did not have a plan other than deal with misery when I hit a hill on race day. And four, and possibly the most important is that I was SURE that they were easier for everyone else and that I was just crappy at running hills and there was nothing that I could do to be better at them. I had self-determined my fate and accepted that as who I was without ever trying to improve at them or realizing that hurting on hills is natural and that hurting is okay and in fact part of the process. So what did I do to change this – I hired a coach who believed in me and helped me to realize that who I was as an athlete was not defined at birth and that with hard work and support I would improve. She also gave me hill workouts with points of focus so that I would run hills and work on my form. I learned to let go of pace, focus on other metrics and realize that facing a harder course in training and hitting the hills would greatly improve my overall performance. By having someone push me, and believe in me and make me formulate a mental fitness plan for when the going got tough, I improved and stepped outside of my comfort zone thus becoming better physically and mentally at triathlon. Maybe hills are not your issue, but my point is – whatever your limiter is, work on it, and work on it often, and come up with mental cues, be it mantras, posture scans, or whatever it takes to get you to get out of your head, let the body do the work and have a bag of tricks to draw on come race day.

These are just a few things that I have been working on as we roll into spring and race season. Before you know it I will be on that line and so happy that no matter what the day brings, I will have challenged both my body and mind prior to the gun going off and hitting the water. So get out there and get you mental fitness training on!