Mental toughness

Mental Fitness, Coach Betsy’s Story

As I prepare for my final week before Ironman Kentucky, I am taking a close look at my mental fitness.  This is not something that I considered important until recently.  I am competing for a slot at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, HI.  I will need to finish in the top three in my age group in order to accomplish this goal.  I have had this goal for a few years.  I thought I had it in the bag last year at Ironman WI, but got sick a few days before the race.  I was still able to race strong, but the medication that I was taking caused me to get dehydrated, and as a result, I did not have the run that I was capable of having.  I was devastated, but I had to adjust my goals during the marathon.  Instead of a podium slot, I was fighting for a top ten slot.  I was able to pull this off, but it required me to dig deep when I was completely depleted, let down, and wanted to give up Ironman forever.  Regardless, I had a great race and learned a lot from it. I know what I am capable of, I am confident in my ability, and I believe that of any of the women in the 40-44 age group, there are some really strong women out there, but generally speaking, I can stand toe-to-toe with the best of them.

So what is the difference between the athletes finishing in the top three versus those in 4-10?  For some, it is a true difference in physical fitness and ability, but mental toughness, confidence, and focus also play a role.  I have read a number of books on the topic of Sports Psychology and even went to see Sports Psychologist, Dr. Stephen Graef, at OSU Medical Center, to help mentally prepare myself for Ironman KY this year.

We spend a lot of time training for physical fitness.  We make sure we complete all of our workouts, plan meals, track protein and calories, and we work on recovering properly with stretching and rolling out.  Think about how much money we spend for this sport; coaches, bikes, equipment, races, nutrition, memberships, massage, trainers, the list goes on and on!  And we spend a lot of time each week doing our workouts and trying to make our schedules work.  Our sport is extremely important to each one of us.  It has become a lifestyle and we have made some of our best friends out there doing the same thing.  Mental fitness/toughness should be part of your training regime as well.

Mental toughness is the ability to bounce back or deal with adversity, motivation to do your best, regardless of the situation, the ability to stay focused during important competition, and the ability to remain poised under pressure.  Some people are wired this way and some people have to work to become mentally tough.

Confidence is the pathway to mental toughness.  You need to be 100% confident when you are out on the race course trying to achieve whatever goal you have (ex. Finish the race, a PR, or a spot on the podium).  Setting and achieving goals is the route to confidence.  You need to set meaningful, achievable, measureable goals and succeed at these goals (this is exactly the same as what we do in the workplace and other aspects of our lives).  You need to maintain motivation and focus in order to achieve your goals.

There are ways to work on each one of these attributes:

  • Set goals.  Set off-season goals as well as in-season goals.  For example, your off-season goal might be to become a more effective swimmer.  Then come up with a plan for how you are going to achieve your goal.  For example, taking a swim lesson once a week and enrolling in a Master’s swim program.  Your season goal might be swimming 100yd in 1:40 with only 10 seconds rest.  The path for achieving and measuring this goal would be swimming certain intervals.
  • Discuss these goals with your coach at your pre-season meeting, they can help you set reasonable goals and can help you come up with a plan to achieve them.  These goals need to be measureable and achievable, so time and power goals are perfect.
  • Measure and track the progress of your goals.  A great way to track your progress and keep you motivated is to rank your workouts with a 1-5, with 1 being lousy and 5 being outstanding.  If you have a long list of fives, then you have reason to be confident.  If there are some twos and threes, then this is a good indication to your coach that you are not feeling good about your workouts and there needs to be a discussion and likely some changes.
  • Adjust training as needed.  With this information, you and your coach can take actions to adjust your training so that you can succeed and as a result, feel confident in yourself and your training plan.  Training and racing is really a science, so data (real numbers) are necessary in order to make adjustments so that the athlete can reach their fullest potential.  These numbers have been tested in every training session, so the athlete is confident in using these numbers on race day.  They also give the athlete a process to focus on during races, and are used to track progress so motivation is easily maintained for those that are result driven.

Once we have confidence from our training there are a few other steps that need to be taken to physically and mentally prepare ourselves before we are ready to head to the start line; a race plan, a pre-race routine, and a plan for during-race self-talk.

The race plan should include your nutrition plan (how many calories, how many electrolytes, how much fluids, how often and what to eat) as well as swim effort, bike power or heart rate, run pace and heart rate, and any tactical plans.

Having a consistent pre-race routine can reduce anxiety and set you up for a successful day.  The pre-race routine needs to be an event or a sequence of events that you do to prepare yourself for the competition.  I describe my pre-race routine in my blog, “Managing Ironman Race Day”.  This routine mentally prepares me for the race; it creates focus and psyches me up without creating nervous energy.  Come up with a routine that works for you.  Some people have a playlist that they like to listen to while doing some light stretching.  The goal is to be excited for the race without being overly anxious.  You do not want racing thoughts, a high heart rate, and tight muscles.  If this happens, then take a deep breath and come up with a cue word to calm yourself down.  It could be as simple as, “Relax” and then, “Let’s do this”.

Next we need to come up with a plan for our during-race self-talk.  I have always been a big believer in pre-race imagery.  I think about each part of the race and imagine myself executing each part perfectly.  But, if your race does not go as imagined, pay attention to your self-talk.  Think back to your past races.  There have been races where I have been screaming at myself the entire time, which is ineffective and miserable.  Alternatively, I have had some great successes when I have been in bad situations and given myself positive words.  For example, while I was racing Ironman Wisconsin last year after recovering from an illness.  I was able to acknowledge the state that I was in, I shed one tear, and told myself that the goal had to be revised to finishing the race as close to the top as possible.  My focus shifted to taking what I needed at the aid station and telling myself, “Keep steady, I’ve done this many times before”.

I am guilty of having my share of races with negative self-talk.   I had a sub-par race at Age Group Nationals this year.  I was trying to qualify for a slot at 2016 Worlds in the Olympic distance and this was a pretty important race to me.  I had been nailing all of my workouts, went through the race imagery in my mind, and followed my usual pre-race routine.  The routine was broken up because transition closed at 7:30AM and my wave didn’t go off until 9:18AM.  The water was 64 degrees, but I did my warm-up and hung on the dock until the race director blew the horn.  I went out hard, but not too hard.  All of a sudden I couldn’t breathe.  I was so angry.  I slowed down and still had trouble.  I told myself to take a couple of breast strokes, relax and then go again.  I still couldn’t breathe.  I also was having trouble sighting, which is unusual for me.  I didn’t really have a plan for this.  I just kept going, but it was not in a good mindset.  I got out of the water and told myself to forget about the swim and focus on the transition.  I got on my bike and started riding.  I wasn’t able to hit the power that I was planning on riding.  I had not had trouble with this in the past.  Meanwhile, I’m flying by tons of women in my age group that beat me in the swim and I’m thinking, “What was wrong with me”!  Needless to say, the bike and the run did not go well.  The cold water may have had a negative effect on me physiologically, but a mental plan would’ve been helpful and definitely would have made the race less stressful.

My performance at Age Group Nationals left me asking many questions.  What happened? Why couldn’t I pull it together?  I was confident in both my abilities and my training, but realized that I might not be in peak mental fitness.  I had a long discussion about this with my coach.  She told me to acknowledge the performance, see the race in the rearview mirror, but don’t stare at it, you will crash (let go of the race an put it behind you).  My coach suggested some books to read and gave me some mental tools to try.  I started reading up on the mental aspects of racing and went to see Sports Psychologist, Dr. Graef at OSU.

In talking to Dr. Graef, he said, “in this case you should React, Reset, and Reload”.  I should react and get pissed off because this is a crappy situation; your thoughts are probably racing right now because you are so mad.  Accept what has just happened as quickly as possible.  Next, hit the reset button.  This should involve taking a few deep breaths, which will slow your racing thoughts down.  Now you need to reload your mind with something else to focus on.  Dr. Graef explained that your thoughts are like a parking space, only one vehicle, or thought, can be parked there at one time.  Replace your thoughts with something productive.  This is where your pre-race preparation comes in.  Have these thoughts already in your mental tool box so you can pull them out as needed.

In applying this to my Age Group Nationals race I should have let myself get pissed off when I was having a difficult swim.  Then I should’ve started in on my cues of listening to my breathing, feel the pressure of the water on my hand and thinking, “Long and Strong”. This is good because it is part of the process and I’m now thinking about form instead of my place in my age group.  Come up with a list of these cues for each part of your race.  Dr. Graef also warned to keep these simple so that you aren’t struggling to remember each one.  They could be feeling the wind on your face from the bike ride and the smooth pedal stroke or your fluidity and breathing on the run.

Make these cues specific to a process and NOT about the outcome.  We don’t want to think about the outcome, it adds stress and causes our hearts and minds to race, which is exactly what we are trying to prevent with these cues.  We don’t have control over the outcome, but the process will help us reach our desired outcome.

The other important thing to think about for our mental fitness is perspective.  What happens if you don’t reach the outcome that you want?  Dr. Graef explained that the thought of me achieving a Kona slot is no different than the thought that there is carpet on the floor.  They are two thoughts, the difference is that I’ve attached way more emotion and thus pressure to one of them.  It’s good to try to take as much pressure off your thoughts to relieve anxiety.  This makes sense!  I had been thinking about what I would do if I didn’t get a Kona slot for next year and I was feeling bad about having those thoughts.  I felt that this was a cop out; that I need to have 100% faith in myself in achieving that goal.  The reality is, I have no control over my goal other than to do my best and execute my race as my coach and I have planned.  In the end, I am still Betsy Thompson, a Research Scientist at Battelle, Dan Wesley’s girlfriend, a triathlon coach, a good friend to many, Zipp’s mom, and a strong athlete.  I can always try again next year or I can move on to other goals.  The bottom line is that I will walk to the start line this year with more preparation, tools and confidence.  Let the cards fall where they may.  I’m ready!