Whether you’ve qualified or trying to qualify for the Big Island upping your mental game can add a huge advantage to your performance.
Since most of the readers here are Ironman enthusiasts each of you will no doubt be very driven and motivate individuals that aren’t ones to shy away from long miles or hard training. But, have you ever had those days where you just can’t be bothered? I’m not talking about when your body has given up and generally moving feels like swimming a max 400m. I’m talking about when you’ve had a long day at work, spent hours in transport or had disrupted sleep for whatever reason. In these situations your body is more than capable of throwing down, you’ve literally done nothing physical for hours, but for some reason you brain is shut down mode. A lot of people will say that’s a sign you need to rest BUT I’m about to give you a secret training tip for these situations! “Harden up”. Yes, those are the days and the sessions to get out and really test yourself. Why? Because some stage during an Ironman your mind is going to roam and your body is going to start sending signals for a system shutdown. However, system shutdown can be avoided if you can keep concentrated and use some mental strategy to stay in the game. Here, I’ll describe why, how and when.
Over recent years a Sport Scientist by the name of Sameul Marcora has developed a theory around fatigue called the Motivational Intensity Theory (MIT). His theory suggests that we decide to “give up” (i.e., disengage from the task) either because the effort required by the task we are doing (running 3hr marathon pace) exceeds the greatest effort we are willing to exert in order to succeed in the task (the so-called potential motivation), or because effort is so high that continuing for much longer seems beyond our perceived ability. The “perceived ability” is key here. Think 4 minute mile. It wasn’t until someone perceived they could run that fast and endure that discomfort that everyone began to perceive the same thing. “Personal beliefs are self-fulfilling”. In other words it’s that voice saying “No way man this is too fast, this hurts, no honestly this hurts please stop” that causes us to stop or slow down rather than some biochemical or neuromuscular failure or limit. This holds true when you think about it in context of an ironman. Even if you bonk you still have your unlimited fat stores to use but most people stop and walk because the “perceive exertion” goes through the roof due to brain trying to conserve blood glucose.
Therefore, if we are able to get on the turbo, jump in the pool or jog out the door after a sleepless night or long day in the office we will be better off despite feeling like death. In these situations our brain is tired and our ‘perceived exertion” is going to be high for whatever task we do, that is, running/ swimming or cycling at your normal training pace is going to feel harder. Heck even sitting in front of a computer is going to feel hard. This is fine though because in these situations we’re not worried about physical performance we’re focusing on mental performance. In my opinion there are 3 pillars to training and performance; Fitness, Skill and Mental capacities. In other words I believe you need to:
1. Improve fitness and physical conditioning,
2. Develop the sport specific neuromuscular skills,
3. Have a mental approach to endure the stress your specific discipline is going to induce on you.
For ironman this is the mind numbing dull ache that naggingly says slow down, stop, I’m tired. This is very different to a sprint distance triathlon where there is screaming noise of STOP from mind and body. We can train ourselves to overcome this “voice in our head” without physically putting ourselves in a hole. We do this by simply performing mind numbing tasks that require large amounts of concentration along with physical exercise. Think running 20-30km on the track or treadmill, 5hrs on the turbo or 2-3hr pool sessions. Training these type of sessions well below threshold at sustainable intensities means that the major contributor to you not completing them will be your lack of concentration. Integrating these sessions into your Ironman build up is only half the trick the other half is your mental approach. When the going gets tough (or boring) you need a personal strategy to keep you in the game mentally. One of the best methods is “chunking” this is where you break your task down into smaller more manageable parts. These “chunks” can be pre-planned for the early stages and then integrated during the task/race for the later stages. That is, you can say to yourself I’m going to have a drink every 5min for your 3hr treadmill run which will be a good way to break it up early and gives you small achievable goals. But after 1.5-2hrs 5min might seem like forever so you will need to adjust your “chunk” into an even smaller achievable goal. “I’m going to focus on leg turn-over until the next minute, ok now I’ll go until the next minute”. Doing this keeps you in the “now” and only focuses on the task at hand which is running until the next minute. During this you want to avoid thinking about the next 1hr or however long the gap is between the NOW and the finish. This gap will only ever be filled with an exaggerated feeling of your current mood state which is generally negative and will probably sound like “I can’t hold this for another hour”. Whereas 1 minute is far more a positive and achievable goal.
Another tip is to avoid trying to distract yourself from the discomfort/pain but rather accept that’s there and don’t let it be a factor. When you go into a race or hard/long training session you need to go in knowing that at some point discomfort will arise and you will want to slow down or stop. By preparing for this before the session you will be more mentally equipped for when it arises. If we go back to the 30km treadmill run example, you should go in knowing that some parts are going to be hard. Then when the “lows” occur you can be aware of the discomfort but don’t label it as pain, hurt, soreness or anything just acknowledge that it’s there and focus on the task at hand. Personally when the discomfort hits I think to myself “sweet my training buddies arrived, let’s go” and that’s about as much thought as I’ll give it. From there I’ll look to reduce my “chunks” and focus on various aspects of form leaving the feeling of discomfort as just another feeling.
Mental training sessions can be very taxing and require recovery just like any other so don’t under estimate the impact these sessions can have. I would recommend incorporating 1 session a week that is mentally challenging. Like physical training these sessions should start out at short and increase in duration as you get closer to your key race. For an Iron distance race you should look to incorporate mini training camps over a 3 day weekend around 6 and 3 weeks out that are both physically and mentally challenging.
In summary, our brain will give up a thousand times before our body does so we need to be as mentally fit as we are physically. We can do this by incorporating mentally challenging sessions and developing personal mental coping strategies for the various highs and lows that come with racing ironman.
For those of you wanting to learn more you can listen to my IMtalk.me interview (#397) or I would recommend reading “Going Mental in Sport” (http://www.hwassociates.co.nz/books.html)*.
School of Sport and Exercise
*I work with the author professionally but have no financial associations with the book or company.