BSJ-Mental-Toughness-e1303266323548I was recently talking to a friend who recently ran a 5k race and in the middle of the race he followed that little voice in his head to slow down. He settled into a pace that is slower than he is capable of. He set a new PR but not what he was hoping for.

We’ve all been there. You heard that little voice and probably listened to it and slowed down or completely gave up. I know I did, not once, but many many times.

As athletes, marathoners, triathletes, 5k runners, cross-fit, project managers or someone who is just trying to loose weight or break a habit, setting your mind to cooperate and do what you want it to do takes a lot of practice and serious mental toughness.

As a triathlete, I had to go through this process to overcome many obstacles in training, running a 5k, going all out in a sprint triathlon or doing a full Ironman.

Getting up at 4am for a training session, heading to the pool in a cold morning, or heading out for a long run in a cold snowy day takes a lot of disciplines and mental toughness.

So what is mental toughness? According to Wikipedia:

“Mental Toughness a term commonly used by coaches, sport psychologists, sport commentators, and business leaders – generally describes a collection of attributes that allow a person to persevere through difficult circumstances (such as difficult training or difficult competitive situations in games) and emerge without losing confidence.” 

In this post, I would like to share some of the things I learned and use when I am going through a tough training session, racing a short course triathlon to a long course:

  • Confidence: This is very crucial. Being confident in yourself, training and ability to complete the task at hand. Without it you are guaranteed to fail. But as long as you believe you can achieve success, you will succeed. In my first ever triathlon, I went to race knowing I will finish. I trusted my training and was confident that I can complete each leg. The only question I had in my mind is whether I can run off the bike and complete the 10k in less than 50 minutes which I did. The worst race I had was one where my mind wasn’t into it mentally even though I was in a much better shape.
  • Break it down And Set A Goal. An ironman distance is 140.6 miles (2.4 miles swim, 112 miles bike, and 26.2 miles run) Just reading these numbers makes me tired and wonder how anyone could possibly do this. However, if you break it down into smaller segments, suddenly it will become a lot more manageable.
    In a recent bike training session, I had to do 5min x10 at threshold intervals. Doing one of these at threshold  is taxing and painful. Now I got to repeat them 10 times. I decided to concentrate on each segment on its own and even I broke the 5 min into 1 min segments. First min get into my pace, 2nd min hold that pace, 3rd min increase the pace by 5-10 watts, 4th min hold it, 5th min see what I have left and finish strong. After each segment recover and repeat and suddenly I am on the last interval. You can do the same thing for a 5k or full Ironman. I do this even at work when I am faced with a large task or project.
  • Talk to yourself. Great athletes talk to themeslves when they reach a low point in a race.  Your body is going through a lot of pain and you will find yourself trying to find excuses to slow down, walk the marathon, stop for a drink, or just give up. When was the last time you tried to use an injury as an excuse to slow down or stop?I recently watched a great IM Kona documentary by professional triathlete Dirk Bockel. He suffered a hand injury during the a training run just days before the competition. During the run he reached a low point and tough of stopping or quitting all together. One of the things he mentioned is he can blame it on his hand injury and people will understand. However, he found eventually found away out of it and finish the race finishing in the top 10.

    Another example, in a recent interview, Ironman Championship Mirinda Carfrae, talked about how she doesn’t like wearing a GPS watch on the run so that she can start calculating her pace in her mind as a way to distract her mind from pain.

  • Arousal Control. I am not talking about that “type” of arousal, you know that feeling in your stomach before the gun start at any race? That panic response many triathletes get before or in the middle of the swim leg?One of the things Navy Seal practice to control that feeling is breathing. Inhale deeply (for a count of six), hold it for a count of two, then exhale slowly, emptying your lungs. Do this three times**. Practice this throughout the day. It works!

Couple of book recommendations that discuss the mental game in details:

  1. Navy SEAL Training Guide: Mental Toughness
  2. Top Dog: The Science of Winning And Loosing

Everyone have their own way to dealing with a tough situation. I would love to hear what you do when you are in that dark place. Please feel free to share in the comment box below.


** source: Navy Seal Training Guide: Mental Toughness