Ironman Mental Strength: the Fifth Discipline
By: Alex M. McDonald, MD
Medical Doctor and Professional Triathlete
Making the commitment to train for and race a triathlon is commendable, regardless of whether it is the local sprint or an Ironman. Many of the driving factors (commitment, mental strength, desire, time management, goal setting, etc.) that motivate you to sign up, train, and get to the starting line of the race are valuable tools not only for triathlon, but also for life in general. However, many people who see these qualities as important underestimate their importance on race day, particularly the mental strength required to complete an Ironman triathlon.
Many people say that an Ironman is really four events: swimming, biking, running and nutrition. Well, I would argue that there is a critical fifth discipline — mental strength. Some feel that an Ironman triathlon is a test of strength, speed, and endurance like no other on Earth; these skills are certainly put to the test on race day. However, it is possible that an athlete’s mental fortitude or strength is tested to an even greater extent. Some people get to the starting line in peak physical condition, while others may not have trained as much as they would have liked or needed to. The difference between finishing an Ironman or not, whether you set a PR or not, is often all in your head — literally.
Having the mental fortitude and strength to make it through one of the world’s greatest endurance events is not simply a matter of chance. Some athletes are naturally better at these mental skills, while others are not as well versed. Mental strength and conditioning are indeed skills, and while some individuals are naturally more gifted at utilizing them, you can train your mind, much like the rest of your body. Everyone can benefit from working on and exercising their mental skills, regardless of whether you are an Ironman World Champion or training for your first Ironman.
The mind-body connection is fascinating, and it has been the subject of numerous research projects over the years. For example, there has been a lot of research examining the effect of laughter and joy on sick patients and how the resultant endorphins and neurotransmitters released by the brain can alter the course of disease. There has been specific research into how world-class athletes ready their minds and their bodies for competition — how mind and body must be in sync for an athlete to be best prepared for peak performance. Yet, despite all this research, very little is truly understood about the mind-body — or psychosomatic — connection. All we do know is that the mind can have a powerful influence over the body: As the mind goes, so goes the body.
The following are some mental exercises that will help get you through training — as well as race day.
Most athletes are very good at self-talk; the problem is that most athletes are very good at the destructive, negative self-talk and not the beneficial, positive self-talk. Every athlete has been in the middle of training or competition and had thoughts that begin with “I can’t” or “I’m not.” These negative thoughts are often self-defeating, and the body tends to fulfill whatever the mind may be feeling or thinking. As a result, the body feels worse, causing more negative self-talk, and a downward spiral can quickly ensue.
Getting rid of these negative thoughts can be very difficult. The key is to become aware of when you are having a negative thought, and then replacing it. Often, replacing these thoughts with “I can” or “I will” or “I am” will make the body feel better, and positive thoughts, energy, and motivation will follow. Doing this will become easier with practice.
Some athletes find it challenging to do away with negative self-talk and almost impossible to replace it with positive self-talk. If this is the case, simply focusing on something else can help. Some athletes like to count arm, pedal, or foot rates while racing; others like to look at the scenery. Find your own focal point.
Regardless of what strategy you use to combat negative self-talk, the most important aspect is to recognize it and simply be aware of its presence. Many athletes are surprised when they begin to keep track of the number of negative thoughts they have while training and racing. Recognition is the first step to changing your behavior.
Whether you finish an Ironman in 8 or 17 hours, it is a long time for anyone to be in motion. Over extended time periods, your body becomes fatigued. Your form may suffer or you may expend energy inefficiently. For example, after several hours of riding, you may be tensing your shoulders and wasting energy. Or after several miles of running, as you fatigue, your form may deteriorate and become less efficient. Also, small or chronic injuries or a strain may become irritated over the course of a long day.
Take care of things before they become problems — nip them in the bud. Again, awareness is often all that is required. Performing a self-check or physical assessment every once in awhile can help you become aware of these potential problems. Just take a moment to try to sense any unnecessary tension in the shoulders or faltering form while you still have the energy to correct it. Or briefly stretch and relax a muscle to avoid having to stop later in the race.
A self-check can be mental and/or physical. I recommend performing one at least once an hour over the course of an Ironman to keep you moving efficiently and effectively towards the finish line.
This too shall pass:
At some point, perhaps several points, over the course of an Ironman, you are going to feel bad — very bad. It is not a matter of if but of when this will happen. It is important to know that it will happen, and to have a plan to handle it when it does. The key is to keep moving forward, even if this means walking, spinning the pedals, or swimming breast stroke. Be aware that this sense of misery will pass and that you will feel better. Often, the physical and mental anguish will subside within 5–10 minutes, and you will be able to resume your effort and pace and to continue towards your goal.
Although it’s less of a mental strategy, standing down can help you avoid mental struggles and mind-body conflicts later in the race. If pain or a mental low point does not seem to pass after a few minutes, an old or chronic injury starts to act up, or cramps begin to take hold, it is all right to stop — momentarily. One of the benefits of having all day to complete a race is that taking a minute or two early in the day will not make much of a difference in your overall finishing time. In fact, taking a minute to stop and take care of yourself may allow you to finish faster and more comfortably than if you had not taken that moment to nip the problem in the bud.
Manage the pain:
Pain is part of the Ironman experience, and no matter how long an athlete takes to complete the race, suffering will happen. Working through and conquering the pain is part of what makes Ironman finishing-line emotions so special. So don't ignore or fear the pain; embrace it and manage it as part of the Ironman journey, knowing that ultimately it will make you stronger and your sacrifices and victories all that much sweeter. Your mental approach to pain can be the difference between a finish, a PR, and a DNF. Have a plan of what to do or think when the pain seems to be too much, and practice this in training and on race day.
Misery loves company:
Talk to people when you are out there racing. Although you may be competing in an individual event, you are far from alone. I like to think of racing as hard training with 2,000 new friends. Some people have made race-day connections and friendships that last a lifetime. This can also be a welcome distraction from any negative self-talk or pain that you are experiencing.
Have a reason:
Chances are if you have signed up, trained, and made it to the starting line of an Ironman triathlon, you have not just a goal but a reason for your endeavor. Ultimately, the last several miles of an Ironman event are no longer about your fitness; they are about your mental strength, your desire, and your goals. And about that all-important reason. When the going gets tough, everyone needs a reason — not just a goal — to focus on and keep us driving forward. If deep down in the very fabric of your being, you are not 100% committed or do not have a reason to finish these last several miles, it may not happen. Some make the commitment for a charitable cause, a friend or family member, or some other deeply personal reason. What motivates a person is highly individual; I encourage you to find your incentive. The key is to find this reason before the race starts, not at mile 18 on the marathon course. Spend some time in the week leading up to the race thinking about and focusing on this reason, bury it deep, and then bring it out when the race becomes difficult.
Enjoy the process! Be proud of all your hard work on race day. This day is what you have been working toward — and for what you have sacrificed so much for. The psychosomatic connection is very important, but you can also trick your mind into feeling better through physical actions. For example, studies have shown that the physical act of smiling, even without the mental state of happiness, can result in positive thoughts, emotions, and energy. So, remember to smile because even if you don’t think you‘re having much fun, you will be surprised at how much better it can make you feel.
As mentioned before, during an Ironman you are going to feel bad — very bad. Your mind will start to wander, your legs will feel flat, and your body will beg you to stop. But the way that you mentally handle these challenges can make a huge difference in your Ironman experience and in your result. The fifth discipline of Ironman racing — mental strength — is what will get you through these tough times and help you have a breakthrough performance. Regardless of what motivates you, practice these mental strategies in training and racing, and the joy of crossing the finish line will be unlike any other in your life. And that memory will stay with you forever.