Training for endurance sports is a complex process. We create comprehensive peaking plans to ensure we’re in prime shape for our big event. We make sure these plans target different aspects of our physical fitness, considering each muscle group and the ways our body might be tested on race day.
But perhaps the most important “muscle” we should be considering, and training — and one that often gets overlooked — is our mind. The importance of the mind for an athlete truly cannot be overstated.
As athletes, our mind can be our greatest source of power and strength, or it can be our greatest source of self-destruction. It can make or break a race, and ultimately make or break an athlete. The mind is the great divider at times when we are most tested, separating the typical strong competitor from the truly exceptional. The mind is the cause of many of sport’s greatest “upsets,” allowing less talented or physically fit athletes to prevail, or causing even the strongest to fall apart.
I am confident I have beaten people much stronger, more talented and more physically prepared than me in races strictly because I was stronger in my mind. I was more mentally prepared, and when the going really got tough and it came time to rely on mental strength, I came out on top. Specifically, I was more willing to suffer, more ready to push myself through the pain of race day, and most importantly, more able to control my thoughts and keep my mind in a positive place. Of course, I’ve also fallen victim to my mind at times, letting negative thoughts take over and get the better of me. In these cases, I wasn’t mentally prepared.
By nature, endurance sports are a test of will; a “mental game.” This is why we, as endurance athletes, are often called “slightly insane.” We have to be able to be comfortable with pain, and even embrace it, knowing it’s making us stronger or helping us to prevail. And through that pain, we must remain powerful in our minds, so they keep us pushing out of our comfort zone, rather than holding us back.
Four-time World Ironman Champion Chrissie Wellington wrote in an article for CNN Health this July that, “Discomfort is little more than a conversation between your body and your brain…” We need to acknowledge the truth of this connection, and just how powerfully our minds can impact our bodies and change our physical outcomes as athletes. More importantly, we need to be sure we are able to control the outcome of this “conversation.”
To succeed as athletes, we must teach our minds how to respond effectively when we’re hurting. There is no other way to learn this lesson than by arriving at this place of discomfort in training; by making it hurt, and teaching ourselves what to do in that moment. This way, when we get to those pivotal moments in our race, both our bodies and minds can say, “I’ve been here before, and I know just what to do.”
So don’t wait until your big day to test and train your mind. If you haven’t hit that point of discomfort before, and you haven’t practiced that mind-to-body “conversation,” how will you know what to do when you get there? Just like training your body, practice makes perfect. Experiment with different mental approaches and reactions, and figure out what works for you. Perhaps it’s a certain mantra you need to continually repeat (I’ve got several of these tucked away). Maybe you are someone who benefits from trying to find a “happy place” in your mind, or learning how to just “shut if off,” and let it all go. Maybe you’re someone who prefers to stay focused and aware of how your body is feeling. Maybe, like me, you do best when you just smile and enjoy the ride. We are all different, and our minds work and respond in different ways. The important thing is to understand yours, and to know how to make it work for you.
So keep in mind as you’re out there putting in the hours to strengthen your body that you must work to strengthen your mind as well. Don’t neglect your most powerful asset. Train it, use it, and make your mind your greatest strength. You may be surprised just how far it can take you.
— Kara LaPoint is an elite amateur triathlete competing for LUNA bar, and working up to the pro ranks. She has earned numerous overall amateur podium finishes and age-group wins across distances from Olympic to Ironman, and finished the 2011 season ranked as an All-American nationally among her age group (25-29). Read more about her racing and training at www.karalapoint.wordpress.com. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.