Ironman training for the mind

I recently came across a quote from Roger Bannister, the first runner to break the four minute mile, that resonated with me –

It is the brain, not the heart or lungs that is the critical organ”

As part of my Ironman preparation I spent a lot of time analysing previous performances in order to pinpoint areas for improvement. One area that stood out was my ability to handle the mental challenge faced over an endurance race. One of my favourite articles about IM comes courtesy of and introduces the concept of the line. Essentially the line is a place every IM competitor will reach during the race. It’s the point at which your mind throws in the towel and orders your body to quit. The article outlines a very simple approach to iron distance racing – get yourself to the line in the best shape possible and, when you hit the line, be prepared to deal with it.

The main takeaway from this article is that hitting the line is a matter of when rather than if. Every competitor from a first timer through to the race favourite will reach this point during the race and it all comes down to how you handle it on the day. As Roger Bannister observed mental conditioning and preparation will be equally, if not more important, than physical.

The question is how do you develop a strategy to train your mind so on race day you can overcome your demons and achieve your maximum potential? I took some inspiration from Chris ‘Macca’ McCormack’s outstanding book I’m here to win. In the book he talks about a mental filing system where he stores memories that can easily be retrieved when he hits the line. For example 120km’s into the bike the mental demons might start throwing thoughts into his mind like “this is a hilly bike course, have I done enough training to get through”? At this point he will go back to his filing system and retrieve a memory of a recent hilly training ride where he performed well and remind himself he’s done the training and he can get through this race.

I’ve taken this thinking and applied it to form my own strategy, now this may make me appear a little schizophrenic but there is method to my madness! When I analysed my previous races I identified three destructive personas that can emerge and negatively impact my performance

  1. Tantrum James – Maybe it’s windy, maybe it’s wet, maybe my gears keep slipping, maybe all of the above. As I get tired and the pressure starts to build I can throw my toys out of the mental pram. In my head I feel like the world is against me, it’s all a big conspiracy and I may as well just give up, go home and sit on the couch.
  2. Negative James – This race is really tough, why am I doing this, I’m not strong enough, it’s too hard. This is definitely the most damaging persona as the metal doubts can swarm through my mind and before I know I’m walking the run course.
  3. Tetchy James – This can often be a prequel to Tantrum James making an appearance. Little things like tightness through the shoulders or sore hamstrings can start to wear me down mentally. These minor issues snowball and before I know it the toys are out of the pram and I’m heading home to the couch

I know that to achieve my IM goals this season I need to deal with these personas and control them during the race. First of all I need a plan to handle these personas when they appear in the same way Macca uses his filing system. Secondly I need to take Bannister’s advice and practice this strategy as part of my training so I’m prepared come race day.

My approach is really simple and a bit dorky but it seems to be working for me. I go through a process where I visualise my negative persona – e.g tantrum James jumping up and down throwing stuff all over the place – and I put them back in their box. To do this I use some of Macca’s logic and recall examples of the tough training sessions I’ve completed and remind myself that I’m ready, I can handle the course, and to stay positive. As I go through this process I visualise my negative persona getting back into their box which gives me a sense of closure and I can get back to focusing on the race. As I write this I realise this must sound extremely weird or even borderline crazy but so far I’ve found it to be really powerful. What I learned from this exercise –

  1. Be honest with yourself. I spent some time looking at my previous races and was really honest with myself about my performances. Admitting mental weaknesses to anyone, including yourself, isn’t easy but once you do it becomes a lot easier to take positive action. I think the catalyst for action was seeing a photo of myself from a race last year and I look really pissed off! If I’m going to invest so much time and effort in my training surely I should be loving race day, it’s the day when all your hard work comes to fruition. Looking at the photo made me realise that a negative state of mind was impacting my ability to perform to my potential and, left as is, would probably make me end up hating the sport one day.
  2. Learn from the experts. I’ve referenced just a few resources in this post and there are plenty more out there. I don’t mean take what every ‘expert’ says as gospel but invest time in studying what rituals and routines the elite swear by and apply them to your own training regime.
  3. Simulate race conditions during training. I’ve placed a much greater emphasis over the past few months on attempting to  simulate race conditions during my training. I certainly believe this has provided some physical benefits but the primary benefit has been mental conditioning and preparation. I still have a lot of work to do but I feel mentally stronger and better prepared to handle the stress and pressure of race day.

1 Comment

  1. I have had the same three phases with me when I want to train for rock climbing, except the phase that worries me the most is “I need to eat to be stronger at this”.

    I have found that I can climb through most things as long as I can believe in my head that I can do it, irrespective of what my arms or legs are feeling.

    I especially like and agree with point 1! Honesty with oneself holds one in very very good stead!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s