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Mental Toughness. Three ways to Elevate your Mental Game.


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IMG_0074Next week I will compete in my second Ironman, in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho.  After completing my first Ironman in November of 2013 and signing up for Coeur D’Alene at the end of 2014, I knew I wanted to improve my mental game this time around.  Looking back, I found training for my first Ironman  to be an extremely emotional endeavor.  I was experiencing everything for the first time, my first 20 mile run, 90 mile ride, 100 mile ride….and that lead to a lot of excitement and pride, but also a lot of anxiety and doubt.  While I worked on visualizing different parts of the race to mentally prepare, all the emotions I experienced in my training left my mental game a bit weak.

Here are three principles I have incorporated into my training this year to develop some grit and elevate my mental game:

1. Be Prepared.

This may seem obvious, but I have seen several athletes that don’t take the time to mentally prepare for a race.  For example, this year I raced at St. George 70.3.  In this race there is a long 10+ mile climb through a canyon and about 2 1/2 miles from the top some lady asked me, “how much further is it, less than a mile right?”  Unfortunately, I had to tell her, “No, I think it’s just over two!”  To avoid this situation it is important to know the course, and prepare for it.  I have studied the elevation profile for Coeur D’Alene several times, I know the length of the longest hills, grade of the steepest hills and everything in between.  Armed with this information, I looked for similar hills near my house, ideally longer and steeper hills, then rode these hills as often as possible.  All of this is of course at the intensity prescribed by my coach, so I’m not overtraining.  The idea here is to make the hills you encounter in the race no big deal, so instead of your legs and mind responding with “this hurts how much longer?” you’ve prepared your mind so the response is “alright I’ve seen this before, let’s go!”  This methodology can also apply to things like weather and water temperature.  I used to avoid riding in bad weather,  but now I never shy away from wind or rain since this weather is more common in Coeur D’Alene.

2. Find Your Focus.

Finding the ability to stay focused is something I have always struggled with in triathlons, especially on the bike.  My mind is always wandering and through studying my Garmin, data I noticed that this impacts my performance.  There have been quite a few times where I have started making a mental grocery list during the bike portion of a race, this had to stop!  I have never been a mantra type of person, but I have found using mantras to be a very helpful way to reset my mind when it starts to wander.  On the bike my mantra became ‘”Strong and Smooth.”  I even chanted this aloud a few times at St. George!  Another useful trick I have used in races when I lose focus is going through a mental checklist on my form, for swimming I ask myself ‘am I rotating my hips, keeping a high elbow and gliding?’  On the run, ‘are my shoulders relaxed, am I light on my feet?’  All these questions help bring my focus back to the task at hand.  When all else fails I have found the caffeine can help with this, especially during the end of a long work out or race.  While the tips I’ve shared are the strategies I employ during a race, I practiced these during training.  In order to figure out what will work for you, you may need to do a few long workouts on your own so you can see where your mind is going to go and determine what strategy will work best.

3. Gratitude is the Best Attitude.

This tactic is not new for me, but I find it very important so I wanted to continue making an effort to work on it this year. Competing in endurance sports is a privilege and I don’t want to take it for granted.  Having a grateful attitude can help you to avoid becoming too negative when things aren’t going as planned.  For me, this usually manifests itself in prayer.   During a triathlon I start and end each of leg of the race with a short prayer that usually goes something like “Lord, thank you for keeping me safe on the bike and allowing me to get this far, please keep me safe during my run and help me to stay focused and most importantly to glorify You.”  I have found that this simple prayer or expression of gratefulness is a reminder that I am not in control.  There are several things I may encounter during a race that I have no control over.   However, I have prepared my body and my mind.  I am focused on the task at hand and no matter the outcome I put my best effort forward and remain grateful for the opportunity to compete.

The face that shows why mental training is so important! Ryan 50 miles into the 2014 Park City Point to Point getting ready to tackle some of the last big climbs after freezing in the cold rain. The race has almost 12,000 feet of climbing and Ryan rocked like a champ!

Now that my training is coming to a close and I am tapering and preparing for the race, I can say that this time around the training has been far less emotional.  As I’ve matured as an athlete I’ve learned to seek excellence and not perfection and to look at failures and challenges as an awesome opportunity to develop grit.  I can’t say it better than this excerpt from an article on Forbes I stumbled across a few months ago,

“Perfection is someone else’s perception of an ideal, and pursuing it is like chasing a hallucination. Anxiety, low self-esteem, obsessive compulsive disorder, substance abuse, and clinical depression are only a few of the conditions ascribed to “perfectionism.” To be clear, those are ominous barriers to success.  Excellence is an attitude, not an endgame….It is far more forgiving, allowing and embracing failure and vulnerability on the ongoing quest for improvement. It allows for disappointment, and  prioritizes progress over perfection. Like excellence, grit is an attitude about, to paraphrase Tennyson…seeking, striving, finding, and never yielding.” – Margaret M. Perlis

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