Friday, January 13, 2012

About The Fifth Element

Many say that triathlons have four disciplines:  Swim, Bike, Run and Nutrition.  I'd like to add Mental Strength as the Fifth Element, specially if you're involved in long distance triathlons.

It is without a doubt that an Ironman event is the ultimate test of speed, strength and endurance; a physical test like no other.  However, it is very possible that the triathletes mental strength will be tested to an even higher degree.

Making it through one of the world's most grueling events is not a matter of chance.  No doubt you will come, as most do, physically prepared to endure the challenge.  You will be ready to swim the 2.4 miles, to ride for 112 miles on your bike and to run a marathon (26.2 miles) because you have done your work.  And all this, you're asking your body to do in less than 17 hours.

But making it through the event is the easy part.  Getting there is another story.

At this moment you could be in the honeymoon phase of training.  You're just getting started.  Maybe you just returned to the pool and are getting a feel back for the water.  After your session you still have a smile on your face.  If the weather has been nice, you have a few rides and/or runs under your belt.  Nothing long, nothing hard. You're just getting your legs ready.  You still have a smile on your face.

A little further down the road, a month of so (depending on the date of your event), your training will be a bit more structured.  Perhaps you have hired the services of a coach, perhaps you depend on a close friend or an online buddy to get you to the finish line.  Regardless, structure will follow.

Then the miles will start piling up.  Your one a day sessions become two a days.  20 hours per week of training added to your normal, everyday obligations.  Insane. Your day off will be spent sleeping.  You will be tired.  Very, very tired.  All the time.  But this is normal.  Isn't it?

You will soon begin to questions your motives and your sanity.  "What was I thinking?", "It seemed like a great idea back then".  Doubt will begin to creep in.  This is your mind trying to tell you that the work is hard, very, very hard.  Your mind wants to know what you're made of.  Your mind is tired and it wants to quit.  So, what are you made of?

Your "I can" and "I will" self talks are beginning to change.  You will soon be saying "I can't" or "I won't".  As athletes we are very good at self talk.  Unfortunately our negative talks find their way into our mind much to often, much to fast.  They will, if we allow them, overpower and overcome the positive talks.  Again, if we let them.

I remember that one of my toughest challenges was climbing hard hills on my bike.  I would go around them.  I would dread the fact that I had to tackle them when there was no choice.  I would look at the top of the climb as literally say "this will never happen".  I also remember the day I was climbing this particular one and when things got iffy I started repeating The Little Engine That Could:  "Yes I Can, Yes I Can, Yes I Can."  And yes, with the "chugging" sound to go along with it!  Then, with a smile on my face, upon arriving at the top, I remember saying:  "Yes, I Did".  I repeated this each and every time I came upon a tough hill, including those at the Louisville Ironman.

Whatever your strategy is to eliminate negative talk, the most important thing is to recognize it and address it fast.  Do not let it take control.  Once it does, its hard, very hard to eliminate.

During training it is important to take continuous mental note of how you're feeling.  Your body, your mind.  There will be times when you're on a swim, a ride or a run when you just want to stop.  You're tired, you're in pain.  You just want to stop.  Acknowledge this and have a plan to deal with it.  Unless you are Superman or Superwoman, this will happen to you.  And at this moment, stopping is easy.  You're still training, there's always tomorrow.

At some point during the Ironman you are going to feel bad as well.  It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when.  Again, it is important to have a plan.  A clear, specific plan.  What will you do?  Swim the back stroke, stop spinning, walk?  It is very important to remember that this will pass.  It always does.  Your  mental approach to pain will be the difference between a finish and a DNF!  Practice your mental plan to deal with this during your training.  You will have plenty of opportunity to do so.

My favorite strategy for dealing with misery during Louisville Ironman was to involve others.  I remembered that misery does indeed love company.  You can read my detailed account of this on my "About Becoming An Ironman" race report.  It was an amazing thing!

Before you even get started on your journey you must really have a clear and concise reason as to why it is that you're doing this.  Chances are that when you signed up for the Ironman you had goals and as you made your journey to the starting line, these goals turned into reasons.  Coming down the stretch, somewhere around mile 17 of the marathon, when you hit "the wall" things are no longer about your physical conditioning, your physical fitness.  All of the sudden things are about your "mental strength", your desire and your "reasons".  If, way deep down in every fiber of your soul you don't have a clear reason for finishing, chances are it may not happen.

Reasons are very personal.  They should be yours and no one elses.  What will motivate you to the finish line is highly personal.  The key is to have "your" reason(s) clear in your mind before the gun goes off, not at mile two of the swim, or at mile 90 of the bike or worse yet, at mile 18 of the marathon.

All during training, visualization and mental repetition will be your best tool.  When things get tough, look ahead.  Specifics will help.  See yourself crossing the finish line.  See your family and friends waiting for you with open arms.  See yourself feeling something in your gut you have never felt before.

Oh yeah, don't forget to have FUN. (it takes less muscles to smile than it does to frown, hence less energy spent). You will be nervous as you wait your turn for the swim.  Smile.  You will be in pain as you climb those hills on the bike.  Smile.  And as you progress through the run, yes... Smile.  Enjoy the Journey.  Be Proud. This will be YOUR day!

***There has to be a million and one stories of how different athletes deal with the mental aspect of training and racing, not just in triathlon but in any other sport.  If you are so inclined to do so, I ask that you please, use this post's comments to share yours with the rest of us.  Ideas and thoughts are always welcome.

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