Creating Your Mental Edge
Endurance sports offer us a very unique challenge in the sense that we are often made to push ourselves past our preconceived mental and physical limits to reach our quest for success. The times that we reach our achievement and goals are often made that much more special knowing just how far we have had to push ourselves to achieve this success. For many triathletes this could consist of setting a new personal best half marathon time, winning a big event or even a World Championship. The reason why these achievements feel so special comes down to our willingness to push ourselves mentally and physically to a higher level than we have done before. As the saying goes, ‘to achieve what you have not achieved before, you need to be willing to do something that you have not done before in order to achieve it’.
In theory, this all sounds nice and simple, but the question remains as to how we can step up to another level and teach ourselves to push past our preconceived mental and physical limitations. One of the key points that I like to consider, and what has helped me as a professional triathlete, is firstly to be very honest with yourself and understand that this is not an easy task, and is something that takes a high level of focus, grit and determination to make happen. For me, in the days leading into a big event, I like to run through the race mentally. You can do this by simply finding a quiet space and then with your eyes closed, mentally visualise your ideal race from start to finish. This is a great way to mentally prepare yourself for what you can expect to experience on the race course in the coming days. The key objective is to mentally prepare yourself before the race and set your thought process prior to the race itself.
To be able to push yourself to a greater level of achievement you need to have a strong ‘why’ behind wanting to push yourself harder than you have done before, both mentally and physically. Your ‘why’ should always have a strong meaning to you. While I believe that it is important to have outcome-driven goals like a specific time or race result, this is not what you should spend your mental energy on during your race. A firm belief of many great coaches and athletes is that your goals on race day should always be process driven not result orientated.
What this means is that while you are racing, you should always be focussing on getting the best out of yourself and not spend your mental energy on those around you, and what they are doing. While competition always helps to push us to a high psychological and physical level, the key message is to always be focussing on your own race and performing to the best of your own ability, and allow the final result be a result of following a specific plan of action.
When many people think of pushing themselves to another physical and mental level they might tend to think of this in terms of setting a new personal best time or winning a major race that they have targeted. However, speaking from my own experience, I can say that I have pushed myself to a new level of physical and mental limits in races where I wasn’t setting a new PR or winning a race. Having a great race often means that you feel a sense of flow and rhythm, which allows you to push yourself to your limits much more easily. It is races or training sessions that may not be going to plan that really allow us to test ourselves mentally. This is where we need to draw on our focus, why and process driven motivation the most. When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
Many top triathletes understand that the hardest races are often not the ones that are won, but more so the hardest races are the ones that are a battle; where you need to step up to a great level of mental focus and drive. In regards to this, one of my favourite mental ‘tools’ are quotes or sayings that I draw upon when I am really hurting or finding it hard to mentally focus during a race if things aren’t going exactly to plan. Having mental cues where I tell myself things such as ‘love the pain’, ‘days when you are hurting the most, are the days that give you the opportunity to test what you are truly made of’ and ‘embrace the pain’ are just a few of my favourites that I draw on during times of mental and physical ‘pain’ when training and racing. This has been a great tool that I have used; however, everyone is different in which mental cues resonate with them most. Personally, I recommend that you sit down and come up with your own list of sayings or quotes that you can repeat to yourself to help you to push through the pain and, stay positive in your training and racing.
Pushing yourself to find your mental and physical limits is something that should never seem like a chore but more so as an opportunity to test yourself and find out what you are truly made of. One of the greatest feelings in endurance sports is pushing past our own individual
Words: Sam Betten
Images: Rebecca Ohlwein