by Maria Alcoke
In May of 2013, I completed my first half-Ironman race, The Wildflower Long Course triathlon. It is a 70.3 mile race consisting of a 1.2 mile swim, a 56 mile bike and a 13.1 mile run. It is considered one of the most challenging 70.3 courses in the nation and my completion of it can be attributed to two sides of training.
First, I gave myself 5 months to train for the event, physically.
Second, I made a conscious decision to focus on my mental training throughout these five months, as well. The overlooked, yet critical factor in all of physical challenge. I knew I had to spend my Saturday mornings on my bike for 4-5 hours at a time, dragging my ass to the outdoor pool in the dark for a 5:30am start, and completing ‘brick’ workouts at Fiesta Island, running and cycling against bayside headwinds. There were mornings when my warm bed was way more desirable than a chilly pool, when the thought of biking until my bum went numb was completely unappealing, when my legs had just about had it. Those were the days where I had to tell myself, “Just keep going. Just keep going. Focus on your goals.” I had set a goal to finish the race in 6 ½ hours. I visualized my finish. I was confident in my training. Physically, I knew I was capable of that time, but the physicality of it was only half of the equation (at most). I needed to have my mental game razor sharp, as well.
On the day of the half-Ironman, things did not go as planned. Whenever you are performing something physically challenging, it likely will not follow a script. You need to be ready to suck it up, and push on.
I was in the middle of the race with 10 miles left on a grueling bike course when I experienced a flat tire that set me back almost 30 minutes. My tube-changing skills were lacking, my compressed air crapped out on me and I was left on the side of the road, sprawled out in the dirt next to my useless bike under the hot sun. It was the most defeated I had ever felt, knowing that I still had to ride my bike another 10 miles to transition, then run a half marathon before crossing the finish line. At the time, it actually felt impossible. Horrible negative thoughts swam around in my head as I waited for someone to take pity on me and give me a hand. I realized that feeling sorry for myself and feeling defeated weren’t going to get me across the finish line in 6 1/2 hours. I knew I would have to be very strategic the remainder of the race once I was up and moving again. I was so fortunate that a car full of coaches were passing by and graciously offered me their hand pump which got me back on the road. Great!
I experienced another flat tire about 7 miles down the road. As you can imagine, it wasn’t the only thing that deflated as my spirits went completely flat. I reminded myself that my misfortune was out of my control. I could not gain my 30 minute loss back, I just had to go keep going. I imagined the feeling of crossing the finish line and cooling off after the race. I eventually made it back to transition and set out on my run, crossing the finish line in just under 7 hours. I did not reach my goal, but because I was able to overcome two mentally defeating flat tires and still finish near my goal, I was ecstatic and overcoming with pride. It was an incredible feeling, even better than I had imagined.
Endure means to suffer (something painful or difficult) patiently; to remain in existence; to last. You can learn a lot about yourself when you test your ability to endure what is uncomfortable. It’s easy to avoid the things that we don’t like. Chances are, they are the things that need the most work. Any idea why my tube-changing skills were lacking during my half-Ironman? Think about why you might not like a certain exercise. Is it because you don’t consider yourself proficient at it? We tend to undermine ourselves, “I can’t run fast”, “I can’t do a pull-up”, “I can’t lose those last 5 pounds.”
Ok, but only if you say so, chief. Just by thinking that you “can’t” do something creates that road block in your head. Rather than saying (or thinking) “I can’t do —x—”, retrain your brain to think “Yet. I can’t do —x—, yet. But I am working towards improving.” We are a work in progress and we should always be striving to improve.
When it comes to your performance, where is your mind at? Here are a things to ask yourself to help strengthen your mental endurance:
#1: Have you set a goal? At P360, we’re driven by goals. We encourage each other to set goals, to work toward our goals and celebrate when our goals have been met. Think one or two goals at a time, don’t spread your focus too thin. Much like a long race where you break down the distance mile by mile, break down your goal from workout to workout. Or better yet, from movement to movement. Don’t just go through the motions, really dial in everything from your technique to your execution. Remember, being physically capable is only half the equation. You have to mentally believe that you can get there.
#2: Do you visualize your accomplishments? Imagine yourself getting under that bar faster to PR in your next power clean. Picture your fast-twitch muscles kicking into high gear before an upcoming timed sprint. The power of visualization is huge and it is a technique that’s used in sport, as well as other aspects of daily life. Want to get closer to your goal? Visualize your success.
#3: Is this something you can control? Maybe you haven’t trained your muscles enough to be able to do a full bandless pull-up. So what? It’s not an unattainable feat, you’re just not there yet. And why waste your precious energy on something you can’t control? Instead, focus on what is currently attainable for you. You have access to the assisted bands, you have a coach who can give you pointers on what to do today to help you reach your goal down the road. Train your brain to focus on how much you can do, just like you train your muscles to perform the exercises.
#4: What’s the worst that can happen? You attempt and you fail. That does not make you a failure. If anything, you’re a better person for pushing yourself out of that comfort zone, for trying something your brain might categorize as ‘risky’. Imagine how many accomplishes would be missed if you stayed in a mentally ‘safe’ place all the time. It’s important to remember that mental toughness is also about understanding your limits and knowing when to back down. For some people, it actually takes mental toughness to step back. You want to be tough enough to go for it, but you also need to be tough enough to say, “Not today.” That’s okay. You shouldn’t be going for a PR every single day. Remember, performance as well as mental endurance take time to develop.
Be your own self-advocate when it comes to challenges inside and outside of the gym. Your mindset can be the difference between a PR and a missed goal. Understand your limits, but don’t be afraid to test them. Be on a constant climb toward improvement and train your mind to focus on the things you can do right now. That will help to motivate you to where you’d like to be tomorrow.
Maria is the head endurance coach at Performance360 and has placed in the Top 10 in 6 separate multi-distance races. She completed the California International Marathon in 3:30, and has placed first in her age group in the Tri Rock San Diego Sprint and the Mission Driven Eco 10k Trail Run. She lives in Pacific Beach with her husband, Patrick, and their dog, Dunkin. Her P360 endurance class meets Wednesday or Thursday of every week off site.