I was swimming and thinking the other day (which I often do), “which is the better investment in training- physical or mental”. While we always know the necessary physical training that is required for race day performance, the key to real race day success seems to be in the way you think during your race.
One of the questions I ask new athletes is ‘give an example of what you consider was a great race for you’. Almost 100% of the time, athletes point to a race where they executed their race plan, finished strong and had a positive overall race experience. It’s not always the race where they were the fastest. It’s the race they felt the best. And why did they feel so good? Chances are they performed well but even greater chances are that they were mentally strong through the event, keeping a positive outlook, cheering themselves on and achieving what they thought was possible.
Conversely, a race you remember not so fondly probably had to do with poorer performance but also is likely to include some kind of mental beat-down. You know what I’m talking about. Those races where the wheels come off and all you can do is add to the crisis by reminding yourself that ‘this isn’t really your race’ or ‘ I should never have missed my tempo runs’ or my favorite ‘this goal was never really attainable anyway’. At some point, with some tough circumstances, our brain said ‘yep, this is too much, and oh by the way, you suck’.
This is something I struggle with and I see athletes struggle with all the time. So how do you get better at the mental part? I have some techniques that I use like mental race maps, positive mental chatter and race day mantras, but there’s more to it than that. A recent article really dove into how real the concept of mental training is and actually highlighted a program that induces mental fatigue so that you learn how to focus on pushing through the mental fatigue that races produce.
Mental fatigue. Yes! How mentally exhausting is it to focus on racing for 3-5 hours in a marathon, or even 90 minutes of a sprint triathlon? Turns out mental fatigue could be more powerful in holding you back than physical fatigue.
It’s not lactate levels in your blood or oxygen shortages in your muscles that force you to slow down, it’s how your brain interprets those signals. In other words, the effort of running is only as hard as your brain perceives it to be.
Scientists have since demonstrated that seemingly absolute physical limits are imposed by the brain—not the body.
So of course, we need to train our body to perform at the level we are trying to attain, but training the brain is critical as well. I, for one, will be looking into more of this kind of training for my athletes to try and provide as much preparation possible for successful racing.
You can find more details in the article “How to Build Mental Muscle” on Runners World.