Slay Your Brain Demons with These Strategies

This sport is mental—here’s how to deal. 

Long-course triathletes have all kinds of strategies for gutting through the tough times. And like practicing your nutrition or your transitions, training your brain “should be something you’re actively trying out during training rides and runs,” says Chelsi Day, the director of counseling and sports psychology at Indiana University. In fact, Cory Nyamora, a USAT-certified coach and a Berkley, California-based therapist, recommends doing your longest workouts alone so you can figure out exactly what works for you. Here are Nyamora and Day’s best strategies and how to implement them.

Zoom Out

What it means: In moments of agony, Nyamora suggests taking a wide-lens view and thinking about why you embarked on this journey in the first place. “Most of us are doing this for fun,” he says, adding that thinking about how grateful we are to have the health to run, bike, or swim, can help you press reset on those negative thoughts.

Zoom In

What it means: Day likes to have her athletes practice mindfulness during long, difficult events. Focus on what you’re seeing, hearing, and even smelling in that moment. When you’re hours and hours away from a finish line, the end can too nebulous of a goal to be motivating. Bringing your brain into the moment can help you take the race one section at a time.

Smile

What it means: There’s actually research that shows frowning can increase your perceived exertion. Nyamora personally tries to make himself laugh mid-race by thinking funny thoughts. Imagine you’re being pulled along by a water buffalo, or pushed by a pack of tiny-but-mighty mice.

Adopt a Mantra—And a Backup

What it means: Mantras can work, and at the very least they give your brain something to play on repeat besides “ow, ow, ow, ow, ow.” If “can’t stop, won’t stop” feels hokey, pick something that’s grounded in evidence, like “I can do this, because I hit all of my brick workouts,” or, “I can do this, because I am the fittest I’ve ever been.”

Distract Yourself (Or Not)

What it means: Athletes come in two types, associative or dissociative. “Recreational athletes tend to be more dissociative,” says Day, meaning they prefer to think about pretty much anything else besides the pain they’re in. Elite athletes, however, tend to be associative, meaning they revel in the hurt. Figure out which one you are, and plan accordingly.

All-Out

How a hardcore slow-twitcher can mentally prepare for the high intensity of a sprint- distance race.

Be Realistic
Pick goal numbers you actually have a chance of hitting, and you’ll be more likely to push through the hard effort than give up, says Day.

Know the Worst That Happens Isn’t So Bad
Taking some of the pressure off can free your mind. Hit the gas and feel confident knowing that if you blow up before the finish, there’s always the possibility of another race soon.

Use Your Competitive Nature
Nyamora likes to pick a person ahead of him and work to not let them get too far away. This gives you a much more tangible, visual goal.

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