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Mental Toughness



Every person deals with adversity in their own unique way.  Some people adopt the "sink or swim" mentality while others gravitate towards "fight or flight."  Whatever the choice a decision is made and one must deal with the consequences.  When I'm overloaded with work I don't throw my hands up in defeat, I buckle down, increase my focus and attention to detail and become extremely efficient.  When I'm stressed out I don't take it out on others rather channel it into something positive, more often than not that outlet is exercise.  When something angers me my first reaction isn't to find a scapegoat rather to become introspective and figure out why I'm so bothered by it.

As triathletes there are many times that you will face adversity and it is how you manage that adversity that will allow you to flourish as an athlete.  Most athletes can handle the stresses induced by training. We are willing to sacrifice our bodies to push it just a little bit further.  The understanding that accompanies pushing your body to and passed its limits is the reward.  The rewards usually are faster times, increased anaerobic and aerobic fitness and a sense of accomplishment and pride.  Pushing through barriers while training is one thing, pushing through barriers while racing is different.

As race day approaches you have made every adjustment to make sure your are physically ready and that your gear is mechanically sound but how much did you prepare mentally? I don't care where you fall on the spectrum of competitiveness, you will be faced with a unique form of adversity sometime during a race.  The adversity I'm talking about comes from within you.  It's a voice that tells you to, stop. It's your mind throwing in the towel because your body is shutting down.  And that voice becomes your worst enemy at the times when you need the most amount of motivation or a beacon of light.  Some athletes refer to this as going to a "dark place" or "hitting the wall" or a "breaking point."

This past Sunday I had a three hour bike and a twenty minute transition run.  I met up with Matt and Anthony, a duathlete making the crossover to triathlon, at SUNY Old Westbury to conquer the north shore hills.  I had a really fun time and worked pretty hard.  I felt very solid for the first 2-2.5 hrs. Then felt good for the next hour and ended the last hour feeling blah.  I was happy with my performance and why wouldn't I feel tired? Trying to keep up with Matt is no walk in the park. (side note: my goal is to crush hills like he does on the bike)

That bike session put me in a vulnerable place physically and would certainly take a toll on future training sessions. Little did I know that two days later I would be put to the test.

Last night I had a very tough run session. It was just over an hour of running.  The hour was divided into 10 minute segments, with each new 10 segment requiring the pace to be dropped by ten seconds.  I knew going into this session I wouldn't be physically 100% which was a serious concern because I truly want to become a better and respected runner. I no longer want to be passed on the run rather, I want to chase people down like Crowie.  Anyway, I jumped on the treadmill and started my warm up. I felt OK, my legs were alternating between firing on all cylinders and a spongy type feeling.  Immediately I began to doubt myself and if I would be able to successfully complete my session and hit my marks.  I got into my first 10 min block and immediately turned the television on to distract me. I surprisingly made it through feeling pretty good but as soon as I turned up the speed to enter my second 10min block that voice started whispering to me. "it's alright to stop, you worked hard last weekend", "just slow it down and dial back the intensity, you have been working hard", "just bag it, there is no shame".  These voices didn't stop and got louder for the next 30 minutes!  This run session had shifted forms. It was no longer a physical challenge rather a mental challenge. How can I tell these voices to shut up and find my way out of this negative, mental state? I managed to fight back the demon voices and finish the last 20 minutes in a very positive state of mind.  
Now I'm well aware that this battle does not mean I will be successful in the war (70.3miles) however, it provided a unique opportunity to improve my mental strength. I know I'm not the fastest athlete but maybe having a strong mental game will increase my competitiveness and place me ahead of my competition.  I certainly look forward to more of these mental challenges and the growth I will reap as a long course triathlete.
Here are a few things I did to dig my self out of that dark place and to turn off the voices.

1. Create super short and immediate goals.  These goals should be easily attainable.  I focused running a minute at a time. "I just need to run for 60 seconds."  By setting super short and attainable goals you allow yourself the ability to be successful which will start to counter your negative thoughts.

2. Instead of tensing up, relax and focus on being fluid with proper form.  If you start to tense up and start to "muscle" through a session you will actually burn/waste more energy thereby installing more negativeness, "I'm working harder how come I'm not going faster?" I decided to loosen up my body starting with my head and neck and making my way down to my toes very similar to how you would relax your body during meditation.

3. Play mind games. When training sessions begin to get tough I imagine myself on the race course( versus on a treadmill or running in the cold).  More times than not I'm picturing myself on the run portion with about 10k left.  I begin to think about how hard I have worked to get to this point and to throw in the towel now would be unacceptable.  This usually reinstates the fire and casts away the negative voices.

4. Another trick is to develop a simple mantra.  Create a phrase that you repeat over and over again in your head. The phrases you chose should be simple and mono syllabic. They should also go with the beat of your cadence. My mantra of choice in the pool is "work-with" I say "work" as my left arm pulls and "with" when my right hand pulls. This is to remind me to work with the water and not against it.

Developing the ability and skills to break through these mentally tough times will most certainly translate to improvement as an endurance athlete.

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