We Are What We Think: Part 2
In my last post, I touched on the ‘whys’ and ‘whats’ of mental training as we started thinking about what our internal brain feed looks like when we train. In this post, I’ll offer you a few tools to develop your own mental training process—wrapped into a real life story. I’ve had quite a few poignant experiences highlighting the challenges and successes of how this work has moved in my life—stories that bring us through jungles, deserts, and on mountains—some of which I’ll share in future posts. But my initiation to the significant power of mental training goes way back in time to my life in triathlon and racing the Ironman distance. So in Part 2 we’re gonna prep to go to Kona—the quintessential geography for an endurance athlete to test one’s mind—and the crux of each of my seasons as a professional triathlete. This is is a story that is edited from my book, Triathlon Revolution: Training, Technique and Inspiration. And yes, there will be homework!
As a preface, I’ll state that in mastering “the mental game” in endurance sports, we come to realize that there is no such thing as “potential” for a long-time endurance athlete. Potential implies an ending place. Engaging in the mental game in sport teaches you that your intellectual and emotional growth as an athlete is limitless. Our bodies may age and slow, but if we train our minds, we can choose to enhance and find satisfaction in our endurance life indefinitely.
A few months before the 1992 Hawaii Ironman World Championships, I pulled my calf muscle while racing the Germany Ironman. En route to a PR (personal record) at the Ironman distance and a blazing run split, my leg came up lame with 5K to go. Despite the pouring rain, I was on fire and too stubborn to let the injured leg stop my race, so I hopped and skipped to the finish, still getting that PR (9:09) and a fast run split. I went home to rehab the injury and figure out how best to alter my training plan to accommodate for the downtime in running. All the while I considered the ugly, twisted effect on my psyche that this serious injury imposed, juxtaposed to the looming biggest race of my season. In short, I had been unwittingly thrown, mid-season, into the biggest game in sport—the mental game.
While dealing with the injury—increasing and refocusing my swim, bike, and strength training and incorporating deep water running into my program to offset my lack of road running time—I pondered my injury frustration. In light of the compromised leg, was I doing everything I could to get myself to Kona ready to race?
Prior to this injury, over many races and countless hours of solo training, I realized I was someone who naturally paid attention to what was happening in my head during training and races. I observed that on days when my attitude was either positive or rational, I had much better performances than on days when I mentally beat myself up. I had sensed that as humans, in the throes of physically brutal endeavors, we could guide our thoughts—direct them to orchestrate fine race experiences. So I played with this concept over the years while out there breathing hard and sweating. Now with an injury and a big race looming, I decided it was time to put that theory to the test.
It seemed rational to me at the time that if your brain can learn, then you can teach yourself to direct your thoughts under physical duress, rather than unconsciously opening your mind to the whims of your random, sometimes unconstructive internal chatter. Through trial and research, including observing of a lot of crazy head dialog by myself and others (clients and friends), I developed a mental training program using goal development, self-talk, affirmations, and imagery. I incorporated these regularly into my weekly training program. I thought through my pre-race routine and implemented a mental training program that addressed my nervousness and need for solo time to get my mind wrapped around the task at hand. Most important, I lived my plan daily, weekly, and monthly. While my body was healing, my mind was growing stronger each day.
I came up with three word cues I used in training—patience, strength, and flow—and partnered each with a visual and a feeling to personalize a complete experience of patience, strength, or flow. These were words that came to me in my training, words I was naturally attracted to and moved by in some way. Over time they just stuck. I said them to myself when I desired to be in each particular frame of mind. For instance, if I was struggling a bit or felt tight, I would think “flow,” and at the same time picture myself moving in my body in a relaxed and open manner. Each time I thought “flow” I would concentrate on my breath—seeing it as a white light moving through my body. When I said “flow” the breath initiated the feeling of relaxing for more speed. Focusing on my breathing and the white light, I would sink deeper into my body to generate a feeling of speed with less effort. Using this type of imagery took some time to fine tune as well as a lot of tough training days in which I had to convince myself blindly that the effort would bear fruit.
Each morning and before I fell asleep at night, I would read several cards on which I had written affirmations for my race. “I am a strong, powerful cyclist” or “I want it more than my competitors” ran through my head each day. Some days I struggled to believe these phrases. I just couldn’t feel their meaning, so I’d say them anyway—repetition, repetition, repetition. Frequenting these affirmations trained my mind to accept them as truth, and over time I noticed the essence of the phrases frequenting my thoughts naturally.
In addition to developing my race word cues, I practiced quite a bit of imagery about specific pieces of my upcoming race, especially my finish. With the advantage of having done the race several times, I placed myself on the course during the swim, bike, run, and each transition. While training in open water, on the bike, or in my many deep-water running sessions, I pictured myself in the heat and wind of the lava fields, conjuring the feelings I sought: strength, patience, and fluidity. I trained myself to attach the race reel in my mind to the feeling I desired. Over time the visuals and feelings started to transfer into performance. I knew from experience that I couldn’t beat the course. We don’t win over nature. I was teaching myself to move with the brutal, renowned elements on the Kona coast.
Before we head to Kona for the big test in Part 3, I’d like you to work on your own word cues. Choose 2-3 words you can use during your activity (or activities) of choice. Words that emulate a desired feeling. Over time develop what each word “looks” like and “feels” like, and attach the look and feel to the word, similar to what I did with the word “flow” in my running. When I said “flow” I imagined a white light moving down through my body prompting me to relax in my core and open for more speed. Allow yourself to see and feel your word as you say it to yourself, just as I could see my light and feel a sensation of relaxation. Get creative and spend some time with this. It is a process to develop word imagery that sits just right. And remember, this is your baby and can be personalized as you see fit. Let me know what you come up with!