Set Your Mind To It

“Damn girl, you strong like bull!”

Karen Mirlenbrink StartThose were words screamed at me by my shocked Russian client when she found out that I paddled 31 miles in one race last year. Her reaction has stuck with me and brings a smile to my face every time I think about it. It’s not just because of how she said it with her strong accent, but also because of how surprised she was to find out that I did such “crazy” things.

I’ve never thought of myself as crazy, or at least crazy enough to try very hard things. I’ve always thought of myself as pretty level headed and normal. Some people would say it takes a certain level of crazy to push yourself beyond where you ever think you could. In my case, it was paddling 6-11 hours non-stop. I admit, it does take a different mindset than your normal goal to get ready for such things, but I think that if you can take yourself to that mindset, you can accomplish a lot, maybe more than you ever thought you could.

I’ve had some friends ask me in the past year to help them train for events that took them outside their comfort zone. Besides the obvious physical training that they would need to do, I can think of a few things that they can do to prepare their minds for such a challenge.

Keep it positive

My outrigger coach told me years ago that, “once you let the darkness into the canoe, it will never leave.” He was absolutely right. It’s a challenge to avoid the negative self-talk that seems to always sink in when things get hard, but it’s important to do your best to keep the darkness out. Distance events are more of a mental game than anything, and once you let your mind get the best of you, you are done. When you are training, change those “cant’s” to “cans,” change those “nevers” to “always.” The more positive words that you can add into your mind, the more mental strength you will have. Also, try to find the things that will help you keep positive. It could be a visualization or a picture of something that inspires you, or it could be very positive music that you can sing to (my personal favorite). Whatever it is, keep it positive, and you will go far.

Be prepared to be uncomfortable

Let’s face it, it’s going to hurt. Your muscles will burn, your eyes will sting, and your stomach will hurt. And, depending on your distance sport of choice, you’ll experience a number of any kinds of things. I was prepared for blisters on my hands, sunburn, numb feet, and back pain. I did what I could to prevent those things, but, inevitably, I knew I was going to experience some of that. The better prepared you are for those uncomfortable things to happen, the more successful you will be. That preparation happens in your training.


Visualization is a type of mediation commonly used by athletes. It helps the athlete be prepared to compete in their personal best scenario, in their minds. Visualization is easy, and it doesn’t have to take a long time. However, it’s a great tool to use when getting ready for a major distance event. Here’s how it works: sit or lie comfortably in a quiet room. Close your eyes and start to take deep breaths. You can choose to listen to music if you like, as long as you can focus on your meditation. Once you have settled in, start visualizing your event from start to finish. Think about your experience during the event, from what you are wearing, what you are eating and drinking, what the starting line and finish lines look like, what the course looks like, what the starting horn sounds like. Imagine what your perfect race would be like, down to every last detail. Think about everything from how well you start, how well you compete, how you pass landmarks or competitors, and how you finish. Once you get through the entire visualization, open your eyes. You can do this visualization frequently, from the start of your training to the day of the event. Just to note, pay attention of how your visualization changes as you become stronger through training.

Practice, practice, practice

Practice makes perfect, and in this case, there is a lot to practice. You are going to practice the physical part of the event in your training, obviously, and you also should practice all of the little details that go with the event. Everything from how your shoes will be tied, what you are going to wear, the nutrition you are going to use, and the gear you plan on taking should all be tested and trained with prior to your event. Our goal with practice is to try to prepare the body and mind to be used to whatever we are going to do with it. If you go into an event without practicing your nutrition, for example, be prepared for a very rough time. You have no idea whether those supplements agree with you, and if they end up not working, the results are pretty terrible. Make a list of all of the things that you need to practice, and start working on them one by one, so that when the event comes, you are set and good to go.

Karen Mirlenbrink at the Carolina Cup

My first distance event was a 70-mile paddle in 2010 that took us 10 hours and 40 minutes. I trained for 6 months prior to the event, and used all that I knew to make the experience as great as possible. Since then, I’ve competed in several long events, with the 31-miler in October 2012 being my most recent and best personal performance in a distance event. Each time I go for a big event, I learn something more about my true self, and as my friend Christian says, it’s a time for “pure honesty.” The biggest lesson that I have learned from these events is that it is just as important to be prepared mentally as it is to be physically. If you lose the mental game of a distance challenge, it will be a very serious physical challenge. To keep the mind and body connected, keep it positive, accept the pain, visualize, and practice. You can do it!

Meghan L

July 03, 2013 at 10:43 am

Strong like a bull??!!

I suppose strong like a cow isn’t any better a simile, is it? LOL!


July 19, 2013 at 8:18 am

Athleta Is My Favorite Clothing Company In The Whole Entire World! I Am So Glued To Athleta, I Would Love To Have At Least 50% Every Single Time!

Leave a Reply