For access to all of our training, gear, and race coverage, plus exclusive training plans, FinisherPix photos, event discounts, and GPS apps, sign up for Outside+.
Written by: Danelle Kabush
Training the Mind-Body Connection
If there are areas of your mental fitness you can improve, it’s time to come up with a plan for doing so. There is no doubt that the mind is a powerful tool for enhancing physical performance when you tap into its power. While it was previously believed that the ability to voluntarily control bodily functions such as heart rate, temperature, muscular tension and emotional reactions to stressful situations was impossible, performers of all types, from astronauts to performing artists to athletes, now use this type of training to handle stress and perform optimally under any circumstances.
My first introduction to mental training was in high school when my dad gave me a book on relaxation training. I was running track at the time. Over the next three months, I worked on my breathing and learned to progressively relax every single muscle in my body with a short daily routine. While strengthening your muscles through resistance training doesn’t happen overnight, neither does the ability to relax under pressure. With progressive relaxation training, I was amazed by my ability to make my body relax to an optimal level immediately before a race with just a few deep breaths. Even in the heat of a race, it is important to relax the muscles you do not need, breathe efficiently and deeply, and send all the oxygen and power to where you need it.
Another powerful mental skill that can be trained is visualization. Think of the last time you had a dream so powerful that when you woke up, it took a minute or two to figure out what was real and what was the dream. Visualizing your goals for an upcoming training session, your next race course or how you react most positively to various race scenarios allows you to focus well and commit your body to the effort. Another common theme in best performances is a feeling of being on autopilot, with a feeling of total focus, often tuning out any other thoughts altogether. Part of what allows this to happen is doing all the training and planning ahead of time so nothing is left to chance on race day.
Finding your focus also involves thinking ahead as well. Sometimes it is comical to consider all the thoughts that pass through your mind during a race. Having negative thoughts (such as, “My legs hurt,” or “I don’t know if I can keep this up”) or distracting thoughts (such as, “Wow, I’d love to just dive into that lake right now instead of running”) is normal and not necessarily a bad thing. However, what is critical to staying on pace is how quickly you deal with distracting or negative thoughts and focus on the race. Think about how someone cheering hard for you on the sidelines helps you find that extra gear and spurs you on to the finish. Work on the habit of being your own best coach and encourager. Think about how you will work to quickly regain your focus if distractions or negative thoughts threaten to slow you down.
One aspect of preparing mentally for races is anticipating the pain and suffering inherent in endurance sports and having a strategy to push you through the tough moments. Anticipate the parts of the race that you struggle with most with keep your focus. Are you scared of certain swim conditions? Does your mind wander on the bike? Is it hard to stay positive on a long, hot run? If so, find ways to stay in the moment by focusing on one segment of the race at a time. Depending on the course, you can break your race down into parts of each discipline (e.g. start, middle, finish), miles or landmarks. Give yourself a simple cue to focus on for each section, such as rhythm, turning it over, breathing deeply, a strong push-pull (on the pedals) or relaxing your stride–whatever reminds you of what you need to do to perform your best at each particular point in the race. If you practice staying in the present and what you can control, before you know it you’ll be across the finish line and be proud of your effort.
While there is no doubt that physical preparation is key to success in triathlon, you may be surprised to learn how important mental preparation is to the outcome of your next race. Over the next few days, professional triathlete Danelle Kabush uses her doctorate and background in sports psychology to provide a training plan for your mind to bring out your best performance on race day. To see part one click here.