Endurance sports present athletes with three specific challenges: pain, intensity, and fear. These challenges are not solely psychological, but how you identify, interpret, and choose to respond to each, determines your success.
Pain is both a measure of effort and intensity as well as a physical warning to the body. A high heart rate, build-up of lactate, the end product of glycolysis, the depletion of muscle glycogen, fatigue from respiratory muscles, dehydration, and more all convey information through the sensation of pain. When the pain you experience is non-functional, it’s time to stop or at least modify part of your movement. When the pain is functional, it’s essential to control your interpretation of it. The defeatist mindset interprets pain to mean this sucks, I obviously didn’t train hard enough and now I’ll never achieve my goal. The competitive mindset, on the other hand, interprets pain to mean my body is talking to me to either let me know I need to adjust some aspect of my activity or dig deep for that extra motivation to power through. Once pain becomes less of an enemy and more of an ally, you can use imagery (A.K.A. visualization) to power through. To find that last bit of motivation, distract yourself away from the pain by imaging skill mastery such as getting up that hill, completing the next mile, maintaining your cadence for the next four minutes, etc. This is a form of the mental toughness tool called Dissociation. The objective is to tune the pain out by imaging a specific and successful aspect of your performance. Another option is Association that requires tuning into the pain. You can send your breath to the specific body part in pain or focus on a specific tactic or technique that will raise the level of performance in that area.
Endurance sports present athletes with the challenge to preserve and apportion energy as needed. It’s important to prevent the expenditure of too much energy due to elevated intensity during “comfortable pacing” portions. It’s as important to execute high levels of energy when it matters. A great mental toughness tool to help maintain proper intensity levels is Verbal Attentional Cues. Attentional Cues are pre-determined triggers that improve your ability to concentrate on the relevant parts of your performance. During your performance, ask yourself questions such as “Does my race feel faster than I am accustomed to?” “Am I thinking clearly?” and/or “Is fatigue setting in more quickly?” These verbal cues could be set up as reminders in your performance monitor device or they could be part of your audio playlist. Strategically including them in your plan will work to keep your intensity in check, ensuring you have efficient energy for every aspect of your performance.
Despite excellent training and nutrition, your fears can take over and sabotage your efforts to perform your best. Have you ever been concerned you won’t be able to make it up that hill? Have you been worried you may get injured? Have you been afraid of not achieving your goals? Once you do achieve them, have you been afraid of never performing at that high level again? If not properly dealt with, your fears can cause mental distraction resulting in a lack of physical coordination and subpar performance. When you catch yourself reliving past negative experiences or creating future negative what ifs, replace them with positive thoughts and feelings. Take a moment to review your past accomplishments, list your current strengths, focus on your short-term goals, or completely distract yourself with positive music or an empowering affirmation. Another mental toughness tool to cope with fears is to turn them into challenges. Fears make us retreat while challenges make us defeat. Reframing your self-talk from “I’m afraid I won’t keep my pace for the entire run” to “To keep my pace, use my two-to-two breathing rhythm” will create a mindset that facilitates your personal best performance. A final mental toughness tool for coping with your fears is to feel your fears and do it any way. When you try to pretend your fears don’t exist, you unintentionally make it worse for yourself. It’s like trying to hold a beach ball under water. You’ll never succeed at keeping it under water, but you’ll get awfully tired trying. Rather then spend endless amounts of energy trying to resist or deny the existence of your fears, face them head on. Understand that the pleasure of performing your best is worth experiencing some fear along the way. Accept the possibility of your fears coming true and choose to focus on why you want success so badly. Every endurance athlete, even the pros, is challenged with pain, intensity, and fear. More important than these challenges is how you choose to cope with them. Experiment with the mental toughness tools presented here, take back control of your mind and body, and give yourself the best shot at peak performance.