Athletic Performance

People often ask me, “Why triathlon—what possesses you to race an Ironman?” My standard reply is, “Easy; it requires no skill, just hard work for long periods of time.” Of course, this is not entirely true, but you get the idea.

What successful endurance athletes really possess, in addition to a big aerobic engine, is mental toughness—the ability to forge ahead through long, painful training days and a race is one of the most valuable tools in the belt in preparing for ultra-endurance events. Sure, the physical pain brought on by numerous hours of swimming, biking, running, paddling, climbing, etc., is enough to make a billy goat puke, but it is equally, if not more important, for newer athletes to understand the degree of mental toughness required to get through those long, hard training days and for a successful consummation of the sport.

The mind and body are marvelous mechanisms. The ability to compensate, improvise, overcome, and adapt has evolved over millions of years as part of the evolutionary process. Yet, the mind will mostly likely be the first thing to shut down when things start to hurt. The accumulation of lactic acid, a climbing heart rate, fatigued muscles, rising core temperature, etc., can cause the mind to go to some pretty dark places as the body begins to reject the task at hand. By teaching one’s mind how to cope with the physical discomfort—or flat out pain in the body—we can endure more for longer,and raise our performance level to new heights.

The only guarantees in the world of endurance sport is that something will go wrong during the race day, and it’s going to hurt (some things can be practiced in training). Whether it’s a flat tire, launched water bottle, a fall, dropped salt pills, GI distress, accumulated fatigue, lactate accumulation, bike crash, or any one of a thousand other potential pitfalls that can plague an athlete on race day, having the mental capacity to stay present and make the adjustment separates average athletes from great athletes. How an athlete responds to any of these things can be the difference between a good or bad day.

When it comes to our physical and psychological self it is also important to understand the mind/mind relationship, to know our breaking point and teach one’s self how to break through the hurt and soldier on. The rule is simple: given the mind will almost always give in before the body, when we call on our body to deliver the goods, it is essential to know exactly what you are asking it to deliver so you can mentally make the adjustment to push the hurt aside, trusting that the body has the potential to deliver. This is, perhaps, the greatest skill we can possess in our sport.

In training, it’s important to address “the hurt” in sessions specifically designed to do so, as a means of testing your mental and physical limits. Further, the execution and even failure at these sessions can be your most valuable assets going into race day.

Many age groupers are unwilling to explore these deeper caverns of the mind and will back off when they think they’ve had enough or when a session is no longer “fun.” These sessions are not designed to be fun. In fact, fun and performance rarely go together in the context of “real time.” The fun comes afterward in reveling in the accomplishment of knowing you were better today than you were yesterday—even if just a little bit.

 

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