Triathlon and Mental Health: Balancing the Two
“Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny” – C.S Lewis
The prevalence and awareness of mental health concerns are growing in our population – “one in five Australians experiences a mental health condition in a given year, and almost one in two will experience a mental health condition at some point in their lifetime”.2 As a coach, I observe the effects of anxiety and depression in my athletes, and the wider endurance community, on a regular basis. Sometimes it’s hidden beneath the surface, requiring an astute level of reflection/insider knowledge to recognise and acknowledge it. Other times it’s immensely prevalent and too hard to ignore. Despite the varying scale of anxiety and/or depressive symptoms, athletes of all levels can end up being impacted by debilitating symptoms. In fact, a study found that in a group of elite athletes, (from Australian National Sporting Organisations) 46.4% of athletes surveyed experienced at least one mental health concern.1
This may affect their training consistency, training performance/ outcomes, day-to-day mindset, training enjoyment, racing performance and mindset, or it may be the driver that attracts them to participating in triathlon. Triathlon can provide a vehicle to fight inner demons through cultivating purpose, direction, filling a void, improving health or creating body composition change – all of which are incredibly positive outlets. To help you, your significant other, your athlete, your friend or training partner continue to seek out positive results from triathlon, while working through anxiety and depression, I’ve penned some key action steps to apply, with the goal to maintain consistency of movement, wellness and performance when the going gets tough.
Part 1: Shift your mindset
When feeling down or anxious, shifting your mindset is much easier said than done. The goal here is to take some small practical steps, which work towards easing the pressure on your mind and thoughts that may be fuelling your mood. I have a question I get athletes to ask themselves in times of adversity: “If you were to get out of your own way, what action step would you take?”
The premise of this question stems from the all too common human habit of thoughts, problems, or worries being greater in our mind than they are in reality. If this question can help you identify the areas that your own thoughts are hindering you from moving forward in a positive way, you’re winning; acknowledgement is the key. These thoughts are often what lead to “decision or task paralysis” – where the training session, nutritious meal or a simple shower all becomes too hard. To reduce the intensity of these thoughts that are often created in black or white (all or nothing), here are some athlete specific tactics to help you find the grey area:
Drop the data, expectation and comparison-itis.
If the decision to go out for a training session has you in decision paralysis, ask yourself: “What’s the grey area?” Let’s say you have a two-hour hilly ride planned, but you feel too flat or anxious to make it happen. Tap into what does feel comfortable to shift the incessant thoughts of worry about the “two hours”. For example, the grey area might mean adjusting the plan to a 45-60minute flat ride, then see if that shifts your mindset to get started. If that plan still doesn’t feel right, give yourself the plan of just starting or just getting dressed, remove any structure or expectation, and just start moving. I like the 10minute rule. If after 10minutes you still feel horrible, turn around and make your way home, guilt-free, knowing you achieved what you set out to do what you started.
When feeling low or anxious, it can also be helpful to drop the data and forget your detailed metrics. All that matters is your mindset, being outside and simply moving your body. Often this provides a wonderful reset for the following hours, or day, to set you up for future success. The only instance in which this 10-20minutes of getting started becomes a “waste” is if you beat yourself up about it, only to get in your own way again.
A cheat sheet to shifting mindset:
- Leave your watch/data at home
- Just start – use the 10minute rule
- Find the grey area
Part 2: Gather the troops!
Alright, Superman or Superwoman, it’s time to take off your cape. Are you ready?
This step is going to require big deep breaths, vulnerability and openness – tough at times, I know. When you feel down or anxious, keeping your worries and woes to yourself will only keep you running around the hamster wheel. It’s time to step off and reach out to those around you, both personal relationships and professional services.
The first step is to communicate to the close relationships in your life. Let them know you’re not feeling yourself right now and you would value some support. Depending on your own needs, this support could come in a variety of ways. Perhaps a simple hug, a friendly phone chat or a walk together is what you need. Or maybe some practical help with cooking, cleaning, babysitting or “life admin” tasks. Now, you might already be feeling anxious or guilty at the thought of asking for this support but let me ask you this, are you a good person? (The answer is yes). And if you had a friend or family member reach out for support would you be happy to assist them? (I would say yes). Close relationships are reciprocal and unconditional. Have faith and trust in those around you – I’m sure you would value the same faith and trust?
Once you’ve lightened your load, both mentally and practically, this allows space in your mind to look at the key areas you can outsource and receive from professionals, setting you up for strategies in the future. You might want to initiate or increase support from a counsellor or a psychologist, or get a cleaner once a month/week? Perhaps book regular relaxation sessions such as Yoga, massage or acupuncture?
If you have a coach, do you need to schedule a support call with them more regularly? And if you don’t have a coach, is it time to seek out that level of support for your training and performance?
Support can come in a variety of ways; it’s up to you to identify the type of support that enhances your vitality the most.
A cheat sheet to having support:
- Be open to vulnerability
- Communicate to friends, colleagues and family
Part 3: Shift your physiology
Stress, depression and anxiety are all innate, physiological responses in your body that present as symptoms. Symptoms aren’t something to be shunned, ignored or to be frustrated by. They provide you with valuable information about what your body and mind are craving. How you move, think, eat and rest impacts this physiology, in either a positive or negative way. Feeling low, negative, grumpy, tired, worried or anxious can all manifest from your training, nutrition habits, sleep hygiene and mindset. Likewise, feeling energetic, positive, calm, collected and focused can culminate from your training, nutrition, sleep hygiene and mindset.
So, what does this mean for you?
The opportunity to turn a dark day around is within your grasp utilising these handy hints and tips:
- Try a Yoga class – I recommend Yin Yoga if you’re feeling flat or anxious. If you’re a familiar Yogi, perhaps you could increase your Yoga practise frequency for the next week?
- Just move – again, this doesn’t have to be formal exercise or training. It could mean taking the stairs instead of the escalator or having a phone conversation while walking through a park. It could mean stepping away from your desk to eat lunch in nature, commuting to work or doing mobility exercises in front of the TV at home.
- Mindfulness and breathing – I recommend an App called ‘buddifhy’, which presents an opportunity to connect to your breath while going about your regular day – moving meditation. The simple act of connecting to your breath stimulates the vagus nerve, which sends messages to your brain, shifting your physiological state, making it much easier to develop peace of mind.
- Change your environment – this can be in the form of changing where you typically run or ride, perhaps even re-arranging a room in your house or adding something new like a plant or painting
A cheat sheet to shifting physiology:
- Accept what is
- Breathe deep, from your belly
- Focus on nutritious food, sleep hygiene and movement
- Practice mindfulness
If you’re experiencing mental health concerns while working towards a key race or simply building fitness, it can very easily become all too overwhelming. Thoughts of giving up on triathlon or training may haunt you. As someone who has waged many wars with mental demons, I’ve won more than I’ve lost and that’s what counts. If I had given in, I would have missed many opportunities for athletic achievement, friendship, connection, fitness, strength and power. Despite the tough times, I believe that triathlon is a reason to continue, not a reason to give up when the going gets tough. After all, “the one who falls and gets up is so much stronger than the one that never fell” – Anon.
- Head strong: Dave Asprey
- The Happiness Trap: Dr Russ Harris
- First, we make the beast beautiful: Sarah Wilson
- Women’s Wellness Wisdom:
Dr Libby Weaver
Resources for Mental Health: livin.org.au / beyondblue.com.au