Train for an Ironman Mentality
In the final weeks before an Ironman, athletes begin to decrease training volume, add pre-race segments to workouts, and consume fuels to fill muscles with glycogen.
Decreasing training volume frees up time normally spent doing physical training. While this extra time is good for your body, it can be tough on your head.
Sometimes the mind strays toward thoughts of uncertainty. This thinking may include doubts about preparation, the amount of money spent on the sport, the time sacrificed to training, and the simple uncertainty that surrounds a pending race day. These thoughts can conjure up overall feelings of self-doubt, fear, anxiety and pressure.
For athletes, patterns of thought and self-talk are major influences on performance. Negative patterns can defeat an otherwise physically prepared athlete. The patterns that begin in the days prior to race day are typically repeated during the race. A race is easily ruined if these patterns are self-defeating.
The good news is you can change negative thought patterns and improve your mental game. Top athletes continuously work on mental toughness--and you should too. This column covers three tools to help you improve your mental assets. Think of it as training your brain to complement your physical training. While the column is focused on mental toughness in training and racing, these tools are directly applicable as life skills.
Take notice of your self-talk when you begin to feel the mental and physical strain of self-doubt, fear, anxiety and pressure. Recognizing the thoughts that drive these negative feelings is a critical first step toward eliminating them.
Below are a few examples of self-talk that drive strong, negative emotions just prior to and during a race:
* The swim course looks really, really long. I can't swim that far.
* What if I have stomach problems? What if I can't keep food or fluids down? My day is ruined.
* What was I thinking, I'm no athlete. I'm not an Ironman/Ironwoman.
* I should have done more training to prepare for this. I didn't do enough.
Once you take notice of self-talk that makes you feel bad, ask yourself if those doubting, self-defeating statements are really true. Are they exaggerations or are the statements just plain false?
Can you replace negative self-talk with positive self-talk?
* The course looks long due to the situation. Something like an optical illusion. I've swum this distance before, in training and in previous races. I know I can do it. I will be fine.
* If I have nutritional problems, I will adjust. Everyone has tough challenges on race day; I am no different.
* I am an athlete and I've done the work to get here. I deserve to be an Ironman/Ironwoman as much as anyone else. Why not me?
* I did the best training I could manage, given my other commitments. I know others train more and some train less. The best times are not always achieved by the athletes who trained the most. Athletes must be smart about training and racing. I am smart.
Do Something About the Here and Now
Many mental meltdowns are due to thoughts and worries about something that has already happened or something you fear is about to happen.
In the case of things that have already happened, you must tell yourself nothing can be done about the past. Take the past and learn from it in order not to repeat the same mistakes in the future. Continually learning from past mistakes and making changes that improve your chances of future success is how you gain mental strength. Like physical training, mental training is a continuous improvement process and not a one-step-to-success program.
As for worrying about the future, the big question is: what actions can you take right here, right now that will have the biggest chance of positively affecting your future?
For example, some athletes worry about the training that other people have completed. Remember, on race day there is only one athlete's training that you can influence--your own. You can do little to nothing about the consequences of someone else's training. When you begin to worry about the past, recognize this self-defeating problem and bring yourself into the present.
Ask yourself "What do I have control over, here and now? What can I do to help me get closer to my goal?
During the swim, set goals of reaching individual buoys, perhaps doing it while overtaking at least one person or remaining in the draft of the fast swimmer ahead of you. When you reach that buoy, set a similar goal for the next one. On the bike, set goals to reach objects in the distance without dropping below a certain speed.
By breaking the race down into smaller segments, you can experience success every few minutes. These small successes are forms of self-reinforcement and can add up to a successful race day.
Keep the End in Mind
When you are evaluating the options of what to do in the here and now, keep the end goal stored in the back of your mind. This will help you make the best decision in the moment of battle.
For example, if you happen to drop your hydration bottle during the race, you might be tempted to keep going and not stop to pick it up. You reason that not stopping will keep your average speed high during the bike portion.
If you get behind in nutrition or hydration later in the race, however, you may be forced to slow down or stop for a while in order to recover. Taking a short-term action that negatively affects your overall goal is not a wise choice. Before taking action here and now, consider any potential negative consequences to your end goal.
These three tips are merely a start on mental-toughness training. The best athletes have multiple mental skills in their toolboxes. They are constantly improving on those tools while adding new ones. They view themselves as top problem solvers and love the process of overcoming potential performance obstacles by just thinking them through.
If you welcome the challenge of overcoming obstacles, you have an edge on athletes who fear problems.
Everyone is doing the physical training to complete an Ironman, not everyone does the mental training. It's a long race to be alone with yourself. Train your brain to tackle problems head on and focus on moving forward to your goal.