The Mental Game
Hello and welcome to my first blog for Bonk! I am an Ironman athlete and triathlon coach. For my first blog I decided to do a training article on training your brain. Something a lot of us neglect but can help us all not only to help when the going gets tough in a race, whatever the distance, but also when the going gets tough during training.
Being positive and mentally focussed will not only help you achieve your race goals but also keeps things positive during training so you get the session goal done!
If you don’t stay motivated how are you ever going to get those sessions done during the winter when its cold and raining?
This is an extract from my blog after my 2011 race at Ironman South Africa titled “Into the depths of pain!” This was a race where I struggled and ended up walking home to 18th place.
“I was ready for the run, 3 laps of 14km each. The first lap felt easy I was holding back as I didn’t want to go off too hard and blow. I went through lap 1 in just over the hour and I felt I could hold this pace easily. It would have given me a sub 3.10 marathon split and an overall time of around 8hrs 30min. I tried not to focus on this and just focus on staying relaxed, but it is funny how the head starts to play games with you. The more I started to think about the times the more pressure I was putting on myself and I could feel my relaxation going and the tension building. This tension then started to feed negative thoughts into my brain. By the 18km point I was still in the top 10 but my form was going, I was starting to delve into the depths of pain! At this point I started to get stomach cramps, they weren’t that bad but my head made them bad. My head was starting to look for excuses to stop. This was the first negative thing to happen throughout the race and my brain jumped on it in a negative way straight away. The real battle had begun.”
And this is an extract from my Racetime Raceteam blog I wrote after this years Ironman South Africa where I RAN home to 7th place!
“At 25km I started to feel sick and bloated and couldn’t face any more gels, so laid off them to let my stomach settle. Because of this the next 10km or so were really tough. I started to really struggle but I kept running. Going into the last 8km I got passed by 2 of the guys that were chasing me but I couldn’t go with them, I was doing all I could to keep running at this point. I did manage to keep the 7th place guy in my sights with the hope that my legs and energy would come back. I’d been caning the coke to try and get an energy spurt and with 5km to it came! I was starting to catch 7th place back up and was feeling good again! With 1km to go I got on his shoulder and was contemplating a sprint finish with him but I decided to use my momentum and go straight past him and see if he could run with me. I didn’t look back until about 300m to go. I was expecting him to still be there but luckily for me he wasn’t. I didn’t have to sprint but instead I could enjoy the last 200m of the race and come in 7th!”
The biggest thing that strikes me is that in the first extract it is all about being negative and how it took over my brain and ultimately my race. Whereas the second extract from this year’s race, where it clearly shows I was struggling physically, is about how I stayed focused and was able to come through that tough bit without my brain being negative and ultimately run home and actually pass someone!
The reason for all of this wasn’t luck or where “my mind was” at that time, but it was down to training! Specific training to my brain!
Since that 2011 race I had been working with a sports psychology coach, Janet Sayer, from EMD Coaching. It wasn’t all plain sailing from the start and if anything things got worse before they got better. Three months after Ironman South Africa I did the Ironman European Championships in Frankfurt Germany. At this race I pulled out on the run with no physical reason to do so. Mentally at this race I had cracked! I was ready to pack it all in and even nearly put my bike up for sale! Janet told me to take a break and to not be so hasty. So I went on holiday and re-evaluated what I wanted to do. I came back ready to carry on. I carried on working with Janet as I started my physical training again as I had realised that if I wanted to race well at Ironman then I needed to keep improving my mental side of things and to train my brain to become indestructible!
This time the process was working and I noticed it working throughout my training during the winter. During harder sessions or longer sessions, when the weather wasn’t so good, when I would have been in a battle before the sessions had even started with my head, there were no negative thoughts. Janet had given me cues to use in races that I started using in my sessions. These cues were things like “Pain and Suffering are irrelevant!” and “It’s part of the job!” “Get the job done!” With these cues I just got on with it and with that the quality of my sessions improved and I was hitting every session perfectly and getting out of it what I should have been.
Because of my new improved trained brain I had ultimately put myself in much better physical shape than ever before! I had been doing less training volume during the winter, but working much harder with more intense speed work and had not missed a session due to lack of motivation. I had also stayed more focussed on my nutrition side of things, something that you need will power for, especially if you’re like me and you enjoy all the things you shouldn’t, like biscuits, cakes and sweets!
I was trimmer, I was fitter and I was ready to win! I went into Ironman South Africa 2012 in such a positive frame of mind as I knew I had done the training and I had my nutrition dialled in. And I also knew that with my mental tools that I had used all winter, I could execute my race in a positive way.
Below are five tips from sports psychology coach, Janet Sayer of EMD Coaching, for staying motivated and focussed during training and racing.
- Set Goals That Are Performance Related
Performance goals are those where you strive to achieve improved times or techniques. Make goals challenging and break them down into short, medium and long term goals. Always write goals down along with the specifics of how you are going to make them happen and by when.
- Positive Self-Talk – Consider What You Are Saying to Yourself
Make sure that what you are saying to yourself in your head is positive and motivational. Spend time experimenting with key power words or phrases to find the ones that you can repeat to motivate, push yourself and feel good.
- Prepare Well Mentally for a Race
Mental preparation involves visualisation. Research the race layout and if possible look at videos of previous races so you can sense the atmosphere and finish line. Mentally rehearse the race and visualise yourself completing it successfully.
- Break Down The Disciplines In a Race
Swim – Reset
Bike – Reset
By breaking down the disciplines in a race and considering each as a separate element will help your head feel clear and fresh for the discipline. This also helps mentally move on if something has not gone to plan.
- Race Yourself Not Other People
Focus on yourself, what you need to do and what you want to achieve.
I cannot underestimate the power of training your brain and being mentally strong not only for racing but for staying motivated during training. It is during training where you do the work to reach your race goals. The race is the icing on the top of a very big cake with lots of different layers in it!
Don’t neglect this side of things, it might not be made of carbon or cost thousands of pounds and it is not something you can show off to your team mates. But when the going gets tough, in that race that you had all been training for all winter, and your team mates are floundering, this is when you can show off that invisible power and steam past them like they’re going backwards!
Until next time, stay strong!