The human brain is a powerful thing. Unfortunately, many athletes fail to recognize the power and importance of training the mind. Your mental fitness is every bit as critical to your success as your physical fitness.
Mental Fitness: for Amateurs & Elites
Most new or less experienced athletes will make big gains in performance by simply focusing on the physical training. However, as you improve your physical fitness over time and get closer to your ceiling of physical potential. At this point, improving ones mental fitness becomes essential to maximizing performance.
That’s not to say that mental fitness is not valuable at low to mid-level fitness abilities. We’ve all seen the athlete that crushes their training partners in training sessions to only fall well short of their physical ability on race day. Not to mention the seemingly ‘weaker’ athlete in training outperforms their ‘stronger’ counterparts on race day. These questionable performances are almost always directly related to the athlete’s mental fitness.
On the higher end of the performance spectrum, elite athletes in a given sport are equally well-trained and talented. The higher the level of competition, the more homogenous the physical fitness and talent becomes. For this reason, many top level elite athletes recognize the importance of mental training in allowing them to be successful. Often what makes the difference between becoming a champion, and not breaking through, is their mental fitness.
Mental Fitness in Two Parts
The topic of mental fitness, or sport psychology, is a big one and can include many areas of discussion. We’ll focus on two areas importance for endurance athletes that are relatively simple and effective to integrate into ones training. The first area is related to planning, organizing, and rehearsing your performances prior to them occurring. The second area is the ‘in the moment’ techniques to help you achieve a higher level of performance on race day.
PART ONE: Preparation
Goal Setting –
Goal setting is one of those things many people know they should do but few actually do effectively. Setting goals takes time and consideration. Goal Setting is best done at the beginning of your training season. You need to establish both long term goals (1-5 years) and short term goals (1-5 months) that are quantifiable, challenging, and achievable. Once you have your goals established, you need to figure out the steps you are going to take to achieve these goals. Then you need to share these goals with friends and family. Also, making your goals visible in your daily life to serve as reminders of why you are working towards these goals further enhances the effectiveness.
Perhaps one of the most valuable training practices is visualization and imagery. What we see happening in our minds as ‘virtual reality’ has a much higher chance of occurring in reality. If we routinely see ourselves performing a skill, or putting out a great effort, our brain will begin to accept that we are capable of actually doing it. Elite athletes utilize the strategy of visualization leading up to important competitions by imagining their races in great detail from both start to finish or in smaller segments in great detail. Then once they are actually in the moment on race day their minds are better prepared and capable of managing the real life situation.
Race Strategy –
Less of a mental fitness exercise and more of a straight forward planning and preparation exercise. Forming your competition strategy is an important element of success. Use your brain power to identify your own strengths and weaknesses, your competitor’s strengths and weaknesses, the course elements and other ingredients that will constitute your race day challenges. Form a plan on how to pace your efforts, decide who/what you will respond to and what/who you will let go, what and when you’re going to eat and drink, when you plan to conserve energy and where you plan to empty the tank. All of these factors go into your race strategy and will lend to a more successful racing experience. It is also important to understand that even the best race strategies can quickly go out the window mid-race and you must be willing and able to adapt to the challenges.
Believing in one’s self is critical to success. If you do not truly believe you can accomplish your goals, visualize yourself succeeding, or executing your race strategy then you’re setting yourself up for failure. It’s easy to think or say we believe in ourselves; but it has to be a real and unshakable belief to be effective. Much of a person’s self-belief is instilled in them from their childhood, life experiences, and parental influences. However, self-belief can be changed for the better through disciplined mental training, just like exercise can alter their physical fitness.
PART TWO: Competition
Race Persona/Alter-Ego –
Competition requires being a fighter. On race day, particularly in the race, you need to be excitable and aggressive to fight your way to the top of the podium. This does not mean that you need to be this way in your regular life. In fact many of the world’s best athletes are actually quite calm, cool and humble people that change when the gun goes off getting into ‘race mode’. Recognizing this transformation and actively using it to your advantage is a classic sport psychology strategy (particularly for those calm, cool, humble athletes). Creating an alter-ego to be used on race day can get you in the mode to be focused and open your willingness to suffer to your fullest and attack the race with everything you’ve got.
Gaining and maintaining focus is perhaps the most important mental fitness element to competitive success. The longer and less intense the event, the harder it becomes to maintain focus. Staying in the moment allows you to identify and respond to your efforts, and the efforts of those around you. Losing focus allows your mind to drift and inevitably your pace slows and your performance deteriorates. Maintaining focus is tied into your self-belief. What you think you can truly achieve and whether you feel it’s worth the effort is critical. Staying focused will allow you to embrace the challenge and short-term discomfort. In-turn, this will keep you from the long-term disappointment that occurs from losing focus.
Willingness to Suffer –
Make that ‘ugly face’ and get to work! Some amateur athletes are either unwilling or don’t know what it means to truly suffer in the heat of the moment. Whether it’s a short, fast, intense race or a long distance grudge match; being willing and able to suffer is crucial to reaching your fullest potential on race day. Staying in the moment and maintaining focus will improve your willingness to dig deep. Equally important is understanding that the pain is temporary but the disappointment is forever, will allow you to crawl deep into the pain cave in your priority events.
A great tactic to help maintain focus and keep going in the face of pain is using mantras. This is repeating inspiring words or short phrases, during the tough moments of competition. Mantras work by keeping your focus off the pain and on the job at hand. It can be helpful to incorporate a rhythmic mantra that you can repeat over and over at a particular cadence to keep you moving along at your desired pace.