In endurance sports, so much emphasis is placed on mental strength. Dr. Jarrod Spencer, a Pennsylvania-based sports psychologist, says that beyond an athlete’s cognitive thinking, he also wants to know about their emotional state. So, that’s your goal for today’s part of the Triathlete Challenge. Answer this question: How is your emotional stamina? Read this article, write thoughts on the subject in a journal, and then give yourself some takeaways to apply to your life and training moving forward.
“When I think of fuel, I think it’s really important to have good thoughts and good feelings for healthy emotional energy,” Dr. Spencer says.
He defines emotional stamina as how clear someone’s mind is and how much space they have for physiological stressors. Put another way: “A person can be in really great physical shape, but they might be going through a significant breakup. Physically they look great; emotionally they’re a wreck.”
But depleted emotional stamina can and does manifest itself physically too. Dr. Spencer refers to the commonly used phrase “hitting a wall” to explain how an athlete’s drained emotional capacity can impede their training or performance.
“Despite an athlete’s ability to typically get through that wall, even though the body can supply the energy, it takes them a lot longer to get through it. In more extreme cases, an athlete will break and tears start flowing. We see people running a marathon and crying; it’s because their gas tank is completely empty.”
“It’s like when the car’s gas tank light comes on and you realize, ‘I’ve only got a couple of miles left before I’m in trouble.’ The tears are the same warning; you’ve got to get across that finish line very soon or you’re either going to slow down, stop or cry before you’re depleted” Dr. Spencer explains.
Interestingly, Dr. Spencer notes that this psychological depletion is actually the essence of endurance sport: “You’re training to get to that point of depletion and breaking, then finding a way to operate in that space for as long as you possibly can until you either pass out or get across the finish line.”
But if your mechanics (read: emotions) are off, it’s easier for things to fall apart and body parts to become worn out. Take, for example, if you have an underlying injury as you start your race. Once you’re emotionally depleted, you become fully aware of the physical pain.
“Essentially you knew going into the race that your knee was hurting a bit,” Dr. Spencer surmises. “But now your emotional stamina has run out and you’re feeling the pain more.”
The emotional energy scale goes from 0-100. If you’re feeling like your emotional energy is in the 90s, an A+, you’re likely to have a really good race that day. However, if negative thinking starts to creep in, you’re going to be far lower on the scale and not perform your best.
“If you’re dealing with something, be honest with yourself,” Dr. Spencer advises. “If you don’t have the emotional stamina or energy, there’s a good chance that this won’t be your best race ever.”
Say if you are dealing with a breakup, a bereavement, or something else in your personal life (like, the effects of a global pandemic), Dr. Spencer says it’s ok to lower the bar for yourself and take the pressure off.
“Say to yourself, ‘I’m still going to compete and this is my best given the context,’” he offers.
So is emotional stamina inherent, or is it something we can work on?
“It’s nature versus nurture,” Dr. Spencer explains. “We can be born with great emotional stamina, good genes, and good genetics, but a big part of it is the environment and it can be learned.”
If an athlete comes to him with an issue, they work together to clear the emotional stressors out of the preconscious mind, giving the individual more emotional stamina.
“The fastest way to build emotional stamina is sleep. The second fastest is talk therapy. The third way is head knowledge: learning skills, listening to podcasts, reading books, working on breathing techniques,” Dr. Spencer adds.
There’s also a fourth element to building emotional stamina: faith (whatever that means to you in your life).
Dr. Spencer points to the legendary late British runner, Eric Liddell who once said, “The secret of my success over the 400 meters is that I run the first 200 meters as hard as I can. Then, for the second 200 meters, with God’s help, I run harder.”
This is because emotional stamina also has a root in spiritual faith, which makes sense when you think about it. When we’re running out of energy and the finish line is just in sight, we all tend to look for a sign or a boost—whatever that may be—to help get us through.
Featured image by Alex Caparros/Getty Images for Ironman