Mental training: The neglected discipline of endurance sports
As endurance athletes we spend a lot of time training our bodies to either complete or compete in various events. Depending on our sport or next event, we invest countless hours running, swimming, cycling, planning meals, strength training, and learning how to be better or go faster. We also strive to balance our training demands with important demands at home, work, and other community obligations. With these demands it is easy to understand why we don’t want to add anything else to the mix. However, many of us neglect one of the most important parts of being an endurance athlete—mental training.
Many athletes and coaches have stated that 50 to 95% of completing or competing in an endurance event is mental (Loehr, 1991). We intuitively know the importance of the mental side of endurance sports but it is most neglected aspect of training (Friel, 2009) and we spend less than 5% of our time in mental training (Loehr, 1991). Worse yet, when we experience failure or stress we assume we need more physical preparation and vow to train harder and do better next time, which can lead to increased frustration and possible overtraining. While we cannot neglect the physical side of endurance sports, a small investment in training our mental capacities can reap large dividends for everyday training and competing on race day. One simple, but important step in mental training is to drastically reduce negativity and replace it with positive emotions.
Negative thoughts waste energy but worse yet, researchers say they can actually have a negative impact on our health and performance (Childre & Martin, 1999). Negativity, stress, anger and frustration contribute to heart beat inconsistency, which is not the same thing as an irregular heartbeat that can be fatal. Within the last decade research on the heart has discovered that our heart is much more than a pump that we monitor to workout in a prescribed zone. Our heart is part of our nervous system and even has it own brain. Additionally, researchers originally thought that our brain controlled our heart but we now know that our heart can influence and even override signals from our brain while regulating our body (Childre & Martin, 1999). In sending signals to our brain and to aid in body regulation our heart produces neurotransmitters and hormones. One of these is hormones is atrial natriuretic factor (ATF) or the “balance hormone”. This hormone regulates many of our bodily functions important to endurance events, including keeping our sympathetic and parasympathetic systems in balance as well as our blood pressure and electrolyte balance (Childre & Martin, 1999). Our parasympathetic system is responsible for calming us down while our sympathetic system regulates the fight or flight responses. Additionally, blood pressure and electrolytes are important during training and even more important during a race. Having systems balanced and being calm and relaxed is key to training and performance.
Studies have shown that we have the ability to control our heart and have influence over being in balance. Getting away from some of the negative thoughts and feelings in our head such as frustration, anger and stress and focusing on our hearts with positive feelings of affection, appreciation, love, compassion and gratitude keep or heartbeat consistent and coherent and allow us to perform at our best (Childre & Martin, 1999). It appears that there is more truth to the statement “try with all your heart.” An example from one of my training runs this past winter will illustrate how this works.
One night it snowed a lot. I was scheduled to go for an 8 mile run the next morning. I grew up with cold winters and spent many childhood days playing in the snow and as a teenager many weekends skiing. However, since moving to the south I have come to appreciate the warm winter weather and the luxury of year around training outside. I looked out the window and the negativity started; I hate being cold, I don’t need this workout, I can’t run that far, etc. With encouragement from my wife I got dressed and headed out. I discovered early on that I was correct—it was cold outside and I hated it, my legs felt like cement and I had strong doubts about completing the workout, and I thought I should just stop and go home. As I rounded a corner the wind started to blow snow from the trees into the sunlight. It was absolutely beautiful. My focus shifted from negativity and doubt to appreciation for the scenery, my ability to run, and being grateful to be outside. My ability to perform dramatically improved. My legs lightened up, I did not notice the cold and had a great run. What made the difference? I shifted to positive emotions (different from just positive thoughts) and the subsequent physiological heartbeat changes that accompany those feelings. I have used that moment and others to train myself to have that performance state more often.
So what are the keys to applying this information to performance and enjoyment within endurance sports? First, monitor your thoughts and feelings as you get ready to train or race and during training or racing. When you notice anything negative tell your self to stop (Loehr, 1991). I have found it helpful to think “stop” it or if I am by myself I will audibly tell my self to “stop it.” Next, you need to focus on the positive emotions of appreciation, caring, and being grateful. It may be helpful to focus on the scenery, the enjoyment you get out of participating in endurance activities, or think of someone you love and appreciate. It is important to practice these skills at various times during the day and during training. Build them into your race plans and make them a part of your routine. While these skills take practice the return on the little investment of time will be worth the rewards come race day so you can “race with all your heart.”
Childre, D. & Martin, H. (1999). The heartmath solution. San Francisco: Harper.
Friel, J. (2009). The triathlete’s training bible, 3rd ed. VeloPress.
Loehr, J. E. (1991). Mental toughness for sports: Achieving athletic excellence. Plume.