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How to become mentally stronger to get better at sports and performance?

What Are You Training Through?

What are you training for?

This is a question most endurance athletes have grown accustomed to answering. As endurance athletes we love taking on big challenges, competing in world recognized events, and pushing our limits to see if we might set a shiny new PR. In the process, we often get swept away talking about the events themselves, telling others about the events and focusing our energy on the outcomes we are seeking, “I’m training for Boston,” “riding Leadville” or “trying to set a PR” are common refrains. We subsequently dedicate significant time and energy to training for the specifics of the event, ensuring that we follow the right training plan and dial in our race day nutrition strategy. What often gets left behind, however, is recognizing and discussing what we’re training through. This is likely a new concept for many, one that we don’t often talk about.

The truth is, as athletes embarking on big challenges, we are each training through something. The through represents any number of things - doubt in our ability to be successful; anxiety about how we might perform; self-transformation about our identities; questioning our ability to comeback from illness or injury; curiosity about what happens during the moment(s) of exhaustion or depletion; ambitious desires to go faster, farther or push past perceived limits; and (most generally speaking) wondering if what we’ve set out to accomplish is flat out possible.

Endurance sports, whether in running shoes, on a bike, or in the water, and regardless of distance, speed or pace, offer us this unique opportunity for self-discovery - an unmistakable underlying reason why we sign up for events in the first place. We want to test ourselves through athletic challenge to find our what we’re made of, or redefine who we are, or realign what we deem possible in our lives, or prove something to ourselves or others. Transformational experience through the process of training, racing, and eventing (yes, I used this word deliberately, not every event you sign up for has to be a ‘race’) is ubiquitous in endurance sport, and yet what we’re ultimately chasing underneath the surface can sometimes feel elusive. Although outcome goals may vary, and speed is relative, the human connection that we are all training through something aligns us with one another and offers a common bond, whether you’re attempting to land on the podium or are finishing just before the time cut-off.

We rarely focus on this aspect of training, yet it’s there, beneath the surface every time we lace up our running shoes or don our cycling kits. It can be uncomfortable to admit to ourselves and to others that we may be experiencing doubt, anxiety, or uncertainty as part of the process of training. Or that your key event is symbolic of much more than merely a race. Dedicating some time and attention to exploring this area of your athletic life can be empowering through your training cycle.

How to recognize what you’re training through.

I’m often ask about the best starting place for mental skills training for athletes. I usually retort with some version of “starting where you are” with the underlying sentiment that you cannot change or work on something that you are not aware of. Here’s a framework practice for getting started.

Recognize that every workout has 3 timeline components:

Pre-training. The thoughts and stories that float through your mind as you think about today’s session. For many workouts these thoughts are likely brief and relatively benign, occurring only in the moments you’re lacing up your sneakers or loading your bottles on your bike. Other sessions (especially those on more challenging workout days) you may start thinking about hours earlier, while your tied up in work or family responsibilities. A great deal of our identity is afloat pre-training in how we talk to ourselves and what we pre-conceive to be our limiting factors. Notice when you start to think about your workout, paying close attention not only to the thoughts themselves, but the quality of those thoughts (for example are they positive or negative? Excited or dreadful? Encouraging or questioning?). What thoughts are connected to anxiety? What about joy?

During training. The meat and potatoes of any sports psychology framework is to be aware of the thoughts and cognitive appraisals that occur while you’re out training, paying keen attention to the qualitative differences between easier and more challenging efforts. What thoughts pop up when you’re tired? How would you describe your use of self-talk? Do you convince yourself you’re strong, courageous and curious and lean into challenge or discomfort? Or, do you tell yourself you’re unable to continue? Do you talk yourself out of hard efforts or tough segments out of fear of what may others may see on Strava about your stats? And importantly, how is the effort, intensity, or quality of your session impacted by your attitude, thoughts, and ability to regulate your emotions?

Post-training: How you mentally put your training away is a vastly underutilized exercise in developing an athlete’s mind. Every time you complete a workout you have a chance to enhance your athletic belief system by what you say to yourself in reviewing what you just did. As you hit stop on your watch or bike computer, or hop out of the pool, what do you say to yourself? Do you congratulate yourself for staying with harder efforts, and remind yourself of how you stayed mentally tough? Or do you blast yourself for cutting off the last rep and reinforce the ideas that you’re not as mentally strong as you could be? Do you have a mental framework for reminding yourself that today’s workout puts you one step closer to realizing your goals? Or do you continue to question your ability to be successful?

There are a lot of questions to ponder in the above framework that help you identify those key underlying elements you may be experiencing in your athletic mind. I challenge you to not only pay attention and take notes during your own training, but the next time someone asks you what you’re training for, be sure you also include what you’re training through.

I’m Dr Justin Ross, clinical psychologist specializing in health and wellness and human performance. I’m an 11 time marathoner, with 6 BQ’s, and 2 time Ironman 70.3 finisher, and have completed too many other shorter distance events in running, cycling, and triathlon to name. I’ve got my eyes set on a few big goals this year myself, with my biggest focus on the Leadville 100 MTB in August. And I’m stoked to be partnering with The Feed to help me dial in all my nutrition needs. Find me online, lnstagram, or Strava.

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The Feed. / Monday, July 11, 2022