When it comes to training our bodies to deal with the demands of our sport, endurance athletes have no problem putting in the time and effort. But as for training the muscle between our ears? That’s another story. We’ll spend hours obsessing over our splits, researching gear, and studying race courses, but far too many of us neglect one of the most important aspects of training: what goes on upstairs.
When I first got into endurance sports, I struggled with mental toughness. When conditions were great, I was a champ. But when things got hard I whined, complained, and psyched myself out.
It was only when I began incorporating what multisport coach Celia Dubey calls “mental strength training” that I found myself achieving a new level of performance and pleasure when it came to training and racing. (Celia Dubey is an elite duathlete and triathlete and the owner of Tarpon Total Sports in Tarpon Springs, Fla.)
Dubey has worked with over a thousand athletes of all ages and abilities in her eight years of coaching, and over that time she’s developed a three-prong process for training her athletes to get the best out of themselves.
Use Breath to Stay in the Moment
I used to do all sorts of things to distract myself when I was racing or training. I’d tell myself I had to run three minutes before I could look at my watch again — anything to take my mind off what I was doing in hopes of being able to endure the suffering or boredom.
The paradox is that making an effort to focus on the present has actually increased my capacity for dealing with these things and also makes the time pass a lot faster. When I pay attention — including to how I feel and what my body is doing — I start to experience what’s been described by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as “flow,” or a state in which people “are completely absorbed in an activity..” During this ‘optimal experience’ he says they feel “strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities.”
Cultivating flow, also called mindfulness, can be challenging for endurance athletes. This is why Dubey teaches her athletes to focus on their breathing. “A fundamental aspect of being aware in the moment is being aware of one’s breath, she says.” By focusing on our breath, Dubey says we can shift our focus away from suffering.
Whenever I catch myself trying to play those distracting mental games, particularly when I’m far from the end, I’ll take some deep breaths, run through my internal checklist, check my form and my pace and remind myself to just be in the mile I’m in. This tactic has become one of the most powerful tools in my mental arsenal. Like a lot of endurance athletes, I had tricks I’d use to distract myself from suffering and boredom, but ironically, working on my focus through deep breathing helped me better withstand the challenges of our sport more than those tricks ever did.
Cultivate Positive Self-Dialogue
When I first started racing, the chatter in my head was a relentless stream of criticism: “This is so hard.” “This is the stupidest thing you’ve ever done.” “Why are you doing this to yourself?” (Interspersed with lots of four-letter words). The futility of this tactic became apparent during the steamy last 10K of Marathon Bahamas. The heat had reduced me to a stumble, but I somehow managed to make myself run. In a desperate attempt to keep my feet moving , I told myself I couldn’t stop (again, with lots of four-letter words). Alas, the moment I stopped was the moment I started walking again.
Dubey says that the majority of the athletes she works with are, like me, highly critical of themselves. She first asks them to pay attention to what their inner dialogue is saying: “Is what you’re saying to yourself something you’d say to someone running next to you?” she asks them. “Would you let someone speak that way to you?”
Dubey says that once most of her athletes realize their self-dialogue is negative, they work together to come up with a simple, positive mantra to use when things get tough. This essentially takes the thought process out of it, she says. She recommends sentences like “I am strong” or “I am fast” or “I am loving this.” She stresses that it needs to be simple and that it shouldn’t contain negatives, even such as “I’m not going to stop.”
Sometimes I still succumb to those old nasty habits but for the most part, when things get tough during racing and training, I’ve found that turning to those simple mantras helps me cope. Dubey’s simple trick helped me start treating myself as if strength and capability were my default settings, a tactic that has made me start operating off the assumption that I can and I will. In short, making an effort to be encouraging with my self-talk works far better than when I try to go all Full Metal Jacket drill sergeant on myself.
Surround Yourself With People Who Energize You
Humans are social creatures, a fact that can work for us or against us. Dubey believes we feed off each other’s energy, and that we do well to be aware of how that affects us.
“We have a tendency to be either charging or draining to others,” says Dubey, who asks her athletes to look at how they interact with others. “For the most part are you charging others, making them feel good about themselves? Or are you a downer? Are you critical and a complainer?”
Dubey says her best friends are also her fiercest competitors, and that that she often has breakthroughs soon after they do. She also says training with people who are faster is important, but perhaps even more crucial is training with people who genuinely like and respect you.
I’ve found this to be true in my own life, specifically when my husband and I joined a local racing team. Within months, I became faster and more confident, a fact my coach noticed the last time I saw him. “It’s like you’re an entirely different athlete,” he told me. My teammates believe in me when I have trouble doing so for myself, and I do my best to return the favor — to be what Dubey calls “a charger.”
All my work to become mentally tougher has been paying off in ways I never dreamed possible. Last year I completed two ultramarathons — finishing toward the front of the field in both of them — and my first half-distance triathlon. And just last month, I achieved a goal that seemed impossible five years ago when I qualified for the Boston marathon.
Mental toughness won’t turn a back-of-the-packer into Chrissie Wellington. It’s not even a guarantee that you’ll achieve all of your wildest athletic goals. But what it will do is make you the most resilient, confident athlete you can be, which is a goal we can all strive to achieve no matter our physical ability.
Originally written for IRONMAN by Caitlin Constantine. Posted here with permission by IRONMAN.