Friday, April 7, 2017

Building Mental Toughness

What is mental toughness?  It's a hard thing to define but you always know when someone has it.  I like to think of it as the ability to suffer through adverse situations to achieve a goal. 

If you are an endurance athlete, chances are at some point during a race, things are going to hurt and you're going to question your reasons for signing up in the first place.  You're going to feel like crap or maybe your perfectly thought out race plan is falling to pieces.  Whatever the case may be, I can guarantee there will come a time when you will have to rely on more than just your body to get you across that finish line.  That is when the race becomes a mental battle.  

How you react to adverse conditions like weather or a having a mechanical issue, will also ultimately affect your race experience.   Luckily, these are things that you can (hopefully) prepare for.  I say hopefully because you can't always control the weather.   That being said, this is Ontario, chances are you're going to get rain and possibly even snow on some of your early season outdoor rides.  When I see rain in the forecast for an outdoor ride, I often think about doing it inside on the trainer.  But doing that would be the easy thing to do.  Getting out in the crappiest of weather and getting your workout done is a good thing.  Yes, it sucks when you're doing it.  I can remember many a bike ride that was done in pouring rain and wind and almost always ended in tears.  But I went out and got it done.  You can't control the weather so what happens if you get a torrential downpour on race day and you've never ridden or run in the rain?  How do you deal with that mentally?   Do you resign yourself to having a less than stellar day?  Your reaction to all of this is a choice.  You can choose to embrace it or you can choose to worry about it. 

If you want to work at building mental toughness, you need to actively expose yourself to being uncomfortable.  Get out when it's raining (but be SAFE).   Go out when the winds are howling (again, be SAFE).   Workouts like these are called "character building" for a reason!   Mental toughness (and confidence) is built by pushing beyond your perceived limits and realizing that you are capable of doing more.  Just like nailing a hard workout, gritting it out in less than favourable conditions gives you a certain sense of accomplishment.  So when faced with said conditions on race day, you are ready.  You've been there.  

How do you harness this toughness when things start to go sideways?  For me, I find I have to just focus on the task at hand, what I'm doing in that exact moment.  I don't think too far ahead because then my mind starts to wander and I lose focus.  If you're in the water, think about your stroke and your breathing, focus on that until you get to the next buoy.  On land, think about your cadence and your breathing, focus on what you can control.  If you're like me, then you're probably carrying on a conversation in your head.  This is the time to rely on your positive self talk.  Don't think about what could go wrong, or what you should have done (shoulda coulda woulda!).  If you have a phrase or mantra, keep repeating it.  The body achieves what the mind believes so keep things POSITIVE.  

Take the opportunity to practice getting uncomfortable in your training and learning how to deal with those feelings.  That's part of what training is all about.  Race day will be the sum of all of your training experiences.  Make sure you're ready for anything!  

What are your go to mental strategies?

~ Coach PK

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