Q&A: The Mental Game

by hillarybiscay

Question from reader Alysha:
I’m getting ready to start my summer training program (racing Olympic distance and hoping to run my first half marathon sometime this year). I’m pumped for the physical side of training/racing, but I know I need to train my mind. How do you do it? I’ve read many articles about you and your mental toughness often comes up; did it come naturally to you or have you trained your mind too? Any tips would be greatly appreciated.

My answer:

Alysha! Thanks so much for this question. It has really made me think about the process of “mental training.” Mental fortitude is something that I work on almost daily in training, because I have to; I have certainly not mastered the mental game and I’m pretty sure that the minute one takes this for granted is the same time that it will slip away. I don’t think that mental toughness is something that can be acquired by reading a book or that is necessarily an innate ability, either; for me, at least, mental strength is something that I must continually be working on by rehearsing these skills in training.

There are three main ways that I cultivate the mental tools that I will call upon on race day.

Conquering My Fears

Races of any distance are often a scary prospect. Arguably, the longer the race, the more difficult it is to wrap one’s head around. I’ve finished 52 ironman races now and I still can’t wrap my head around the thing; I learned long ago not to try!

To this extent, I think there is a certain kind of mental strength to be gained through tackling training sessions that scare the heck out of you. You know—those ones that look impossible on paper, or the classics that you know just never get any easier, or the ones that target your weaknesses and force you to struggle in a most unfamiliar way. Every time you face one of those sessions head-on and come out the other side, you are building your mental arsenal.

I think this is one of the key reasons to have a coach—someone to assign the sessions that you don’t want to do but that make you stronger physically and mentally.


Embracing the Pain

Each time we have a hard training session, we get to make a choice that we will have to make in every single race, if done well: to embrace the pain when it hits and push through it, or to back off, to be “comfortable.” Just this morning I was doing one of the above kind of sessions—short, hard hill reps on the bike. Working on my weakness—a solo “coach’s request” session when my ideal Saturday morning training would be a nice long ride with friends.

About halfway through each of 15 repeats, I had to make a choice: to keep the pressure on the pedals and the cadence up as my breathing became more and more labored and my vision blurry, all the way to the top, where I’d feel like I was hyperventilating; or to back off, and keep the pain to a just-annoying level and my breathing less like a panic attack. After about five reps, I thought I was going to vomit once I got 3/4 of the way through each one. Every time, I had to choose to keep my mind on my goal numbers for each hill instead of on the pain that was taking over every inch of my body.

While the nausea and shaking got worse as the set went along, the choice to push through it became more automatic with each repeat. And the knowledge that I could push through it became stronger with each one. Similarly, I believe that practicing grabbing hold of the pain and pushing through it in training makes this decision come more “easily” on race day as well.


Not Quitting

I think that particularly when it comes to racing long, not quitting is half the battle. I know that even on some of my best days at the races I have had moments where the days looks like it is going pear-shaped or I wonder if my body will even last ‘til the finish line. And then there are the days when things do go pear-shaped and there will be no podium, prize money or impressive time at the finish line; finishing itself will be seemingly the “only” reward.

In preparation for these days, we practice training when we feel like crap. This could mean that we are just smashed from a hard week of training, legs are heavy, and hitting our training targets feels like wrestling a pig. Or, say, we are half-sick or have a bad-stomach day; all these factors could culminate in us not being able to hit our target times despite our best efforts. In either case, I actually think that rather than throwing in the towel on that particular workout, slogging through sessions like this is a valuable piece of our mental training.

Because, last I checked, pretty much every ironman requires me to swim, bike, or run through times when I feel terrible, may be vomiting or having a bad stomach, and most certainly have heavy legs. And sometimes I can still push through all these things and do alright; because I have chosen in my career to not make quitting an option, I always have the opportunity for things to come good again, even hours later.

And then on those training days when I can hardly put one foot in front of the other but do anyways–well, I am showing myself that I won’t die in doing so, and that I will eventually get where I need to go, even if it is slowly. This knowledge has gotten me across the finishline after a few ugly ironman marathons; and for me maintaining this streak is very important. I have seen that it is often those who give themselves the opportunity to take an “out” in a training session who will throw in the towel when things don’t go their way in a race. (Maybe they can live with themselves afterwards, but that is not a choice that I would be happy with for me.) And like all of these skills, I think that our mental tools (or weaknesses) in the race are those that we have ingrained through rehearsal time and time again in training.

Hope this helps!

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