By Kaye McClaren, BA, MS
We all say ?The race is 90% mental!? but what are these, quote-unquote, mental skills anyway? Athletes easily respond to the tangible (HR, cadence, etc.), yet don’t really understand how to address this fluffy mental stuff. We all go to tri-chat sites where the threads go on and on about wattage and AeT. This is fabulous information ? if – (a BIG if) – you have clarity to use it when your mind feels threatened and turns on you during a killer day. What good is paying a triathlon guru all this cash for his scrupulous (and brilliantly colored) training plans if your anxiety about the swim start interferes with your focus in packing those dreaded transition bags? What good is maintaining a Zone 2 HR on the bike if your legs start listening to your-brain-turned-adversary when it screams ?this hurts too much I have to stop? on the run? What if you could train your legs not to listen? Better yet, what if you could train your brain not to turn against your body when it is feeling threatened in the first place? Just think about how empowering all that tri-chat information would be then.
Mental skills (motivation, confidence, intensity, focus, emotion & pain tolerance) are trainable. When we work a physical drill such as a swim stroke, once the motor pattern is established, it becomes automatic. This is exactly the same for training mental skills. Regulating those anxious thoughts with specific mental drills can become automatic. We are familiar with looking up our daily physical workout. If we could take the mental fuzz and put it into a daily workout format which we are comfortable with – we would be inclined to train these mental skills along with our physical ones.
SO, what are these ?mental skills??
Motivation: Not only what we expect to accomplish, but importantly, what we expect to sacrifice and gain. It is only when we appreciate the foundation of why we want to train can we take full responsibility for the work required to achieve our goals.
Confidence: How strongly we believe in our ability to achieve our goals. Preparation creates confidence, and adversity instills confidence and even the smallest of successes ingrains confidence. Self-talk is essential for monitoring confidence. Your body listens to your mind: if you tell yourself you will bonk, you will. If you tell yourself you can overcome fatigue, you will. Think about how confidence affects all other mental skills (motivation, intensity, focus, etc.).
Intensity: How our physiological activity is perceived. This is crucial: endurance sports are about saving energy. Physiological activity can be perceived as anxiety and tension which literally eats energy up. Positive perception of this activity is empowering and energizing to the body. Over-intensity manifests in the body as anxiety and fear which drains energy. You choose this perception.
Focus: The ability to stay focused on the process of performing your best despite internal and external distractions. Triathlon requires strict focus on race-relevant cues like breathing, pace and nutrition. Being distracted by irrelevant cues such as others, past races or future parts of the race takes you away from your present performance.
Emotions: Your ability to control your emotions. Emotions are raw. All athletes feel the whole spectrum of emotions during a race. If you don?t have the ability to change them so that they become helpful, they become an obstacle. If they control you then you succumb to the vicious downward spiral of negativity. If you control them then you can use them as a gauge, and tell them to energize, not drain, your body.
Pain tolerance: The ability to differentiate pain (performance vs. warning). How you interpret the pain will determine how it affects you. Increase your tolerance and use it to indicate positive performance progress.
Triathlon requires tactical, technical and physical plans, all of which need full mental strength to regulate. At the end of a race our body starts to fight with our mind, it feels threatened. Unless you have trained your mind to respond properly, your technique, tact and body give in and you deteriorate. Like any physical challenge, how could we expect our body to perform unless we’ve trained it to do so? How then would we expect our mind just to become mentally tough without specifically training it to do so?
Given that the nature of triathlon is extremely focused on details (zones, splits), you need to give the same diligence to quantifying your mental plan as your physical regimen. It is easy to quantify physical limiters and address those skills in our daily workouts. What athletes need is a systematic way to address those mental limiters. Training your mental skill set (along with your physical drills) is the only guarantee to racing at your true potential.