Yesterday when I was out on my 50-mile ride, I hit a strong head wind during the last 20 miles and felt as though I wanted to toss up the white flag. I was over it. But, somehow I kept going, and eventually finished. Physically I was able to undergo the demand of the hills and wind, but mentally I felt weak and defeated. At least, until I realized that I needed to “buck up,” as my dad would always say, and get it done.
I did a lot of thinking during those last 20 miles about the difference between what I am physically capable of and what I am mentally capable of. I came to the conclusion that being able to strengthen the mental muscle is as, if not more, important than strengthening the physical muscles. How we think about any situation can ultimately determine the outcome. While thinking about all the things I do to build my own mental toughness, I decided to compile a list of techniques that I have used to help me build a more resilient mentality over the years.
Bad days are good – Not every workout or training day is going to be a good day (if you have never had a bad day, please, do share your secret). I’ve had my fair share of workouts that have felt ugly and wasted. But in reality, we need days that put us out of our comfort zone and into unfamiliar territory. These bad days help me learn to handle different kinds of stress and situations that are out of my control.
Great days are good too – These are those days that make us feel like an Olympian, if only for a moment. Take notes on these days as to why they are so good. Did you eat something different, get lots of sleep, listen to music? If we can replicate the things we can control, it can up our chances of repeating those “Olympic-like” days.
Train in all kinds of weather – I am guilty of choosing the treadmill when it is raining, or setting up on my trainer when it is windy or cold, but come race day we do not get the luxury of choosing the conditions. When I was training for the Seattle Marathon, I did a majority of my long runs in rainy/windy conditions. Come race day, when the weather report called for rain, I felt prepared (although it never rained that day). Better to be prepared than letting it mentally affect the way you feel going into the event.
Train alone – When you hold yourself accountable for some task, and no one is looking, how will you perform? I find that when I train on my own, that is a true test of my mental strength. Will I complete the entire workout? Will I run or bike or swim or (insert here) as hard as I would if I were working out with others or will I slack off? Will I complete the miles, or cut it short? When I am alone and put forth a hard effort with only myself to keep me accountable, it makes me feel much more accomplished and mentally prepared for future workouts.
But also with others – To the same extent as training alone, it is also good to train with others. Some of my best and hardest swims are done with my good friend Kalie, who is also training for 70.3 Boise. When she is going hard and has her mind set on a goal, that mentality spreads to me as well. People have a special way of encouraging and inspiring one another to be better. Whether you are training together or getting support from a loved one or friend, when people care about your success and hard work, it makes the act more mentally rewarding.
It will end – When you know there is a finish line, it is important to remind yourself that there is an end. It may hurt and it may be exhausting, but it will end. And if you can endure something until it is finished, it’s a good reminder that you can probably endure more.
Who is waiting for you at the finish line? – I have actually used this mental technique a lot during my races and it really helps to give me the extra push I need to finish strong. It’s a type of visualizing that emphasizes a very personal connection you have with another. Basically, if I am running a race and am hitting a wall or mental “funk” I start to think to myself, “what if my dad were waiting at the finish line? How much effort can I put forth to make it?” And those thoughts alone erase any uncertainties or negative thoughts about whether I am going to finish – because I know I would do anything to get there. Although I know my dad will not be at the finish line, I have a spiritual connection with him and know he is there every step of the way.
Catharsis can actually backfire – Catharsis is the idea that when you vent your emotions, it can relieve them as a result. However, this doesn’t actually work with aggression and strong negative emotions. Research suggests that it has the opposite effect and can actually increase aggression and anger. Yesterday, when I was facing that strong head wind, I found myself getting really upset and frustrated. This lead to cursing some pretty negative things, as though the wind was going to hear me, apologize, and instantly come to a stop (that would have been nice). What I realized is that yelling negative profanities into the air was not going to change anything. Actually, it made me feel even more negative about the entire situation. I decided to change my mindset and focus on more positive things, which over time helped me to stay strong. Which leads me to…
Stay Positive – So cliché, right? Sometimes it can be downright hard to stay positive, I know, I’ve been there. But how we think about things is ultimately a reflection of how we think and feel about ourselves. If I believe I can finish and maintain a positive perspective, I can finish. If I do not believe in myself, and spiral down a black hole of negative thoughts, then I can expect the outcome to be the same. Staying mentally positive and optimistic is critical to our physical success. I try to stay positive by having a mantra for each activity I do. Yesterday it was repeating “strong legs, healthy heart, willed mind” over and over and over. I also try to smile when I can.
Small goals achieve big things – It takes accomplishing a lot of smaller goals, and reaching little milestones, to put us in a position to grow. Each time we run a little faster, add a few more miles, swim a little harder, these are “wins” both physically and mentally. When I finish a workout, or accomplish something a little outside of my comfort zone, I take another step and build another level of confidence. Eventually all the steps in that staircase will lead to some significant larger goal or purpose, but you can’t get there without triumphing over the smaller goals first.
Visualize – Visualizing techniques are some of the most commonly used by sports psychologists when working with athletes. When an athlete can see himself or herself crossing the finish line, hitting a home run, making a free throw, or scoring a touchdown, envisioning that behavior over and over again can actually increase the likelihood that the visualized outcome will occur. Whenever I am in any type of sporting environment, I mentally focus on using these techniques to help me stay positive and focused. Yesterday I visualized myself approaching different areas of my route and found it to be very rewarding when those visions became reality.
Don’t overthink it – Overthinking leads to increased anxiety, which can cloud our decisions and increase fear. Before I went out on my ride, I asked my husband if I should postpone my long ride for another day, go a different route, just ride on the trainer, wait to go with someone else, etc. etc. etc. I was WAY overthinking my schedule and whether I should ride. Justin just looked at me and said, “go do it.” That was that. I did the ride. I find that the more I ruminate on where, when, how, with who, the more I stress about and am hindered by these hesitant thoughts. This is probably the mental exercise I need to work on the most.
These are the mental “guidelines” I am trying to keep top of mind during my training for Ironman 70.3 Boise, along with other races and events. Everyone knows that physical strength can be a big boost for mental strength, which is why we train our bodies. But it’s a good reminder that the opposite is also true: that mental strength can and does play an important role in the development of our physical strength, and can even be the “x factor” in helping us achieve and surpass our goals. If we also train our minds by developing the mental will and capacity to overcome obstacles, push through adversity, and pursue our goals—whether it is a marathon, sprint triathlon, 5K, Ironman, or just being active—our physical body will follow what the mind strives to do.
Which of these techniques do you use? How do you strengthen your mental muscle?