Whether you are training for your first 5k or your fifth Ironman, there comes a time when everyone hits the wall and gets discouraged. Those thoughts of, “I’m not strong enough,” or “I can’t do this,” start to creep in—and they can make or break your performance. That’s why it’s so important to make sure your mental game is just as strong as your physical one. What does that mean? It means that you have to train your brain to succeed much in the same way that you train your body to perform.
For me, the wall came during my first open water swim. Up to that point I had been training in 100-meter increments followed by 20 second breaks. I didn’t realize how dependent I’d become on those 20 seconds until I was in the middle of a lake! Once my brain realized that my body wasn’t going to stop, it started working overtime. It began telling me I was tired, that I wouldn’t make it back---that there were giant fish underneath me (yes, really). My breathing became shallow, my heart started racing, and I realized at that point that I had to hit override or I was going to be in some deep trouble in even deeper water.
I flipped over and started floating on my back while I talked myself off the ledge. I reminded myself that I had been training for months and that I was conditioned to handle this distance with or without the breaks. I did a quick assessment of my body and realized that nothing was physically wrong. I wasn’t fatigued—nothing hurt. I was simply uncomfortable in the unfamiliar surroundings, and my adrenaline was high. I reassured myself that I was not in trouble, and reminded myself that I knew what to do to survive—either flip over and float (done) or pull the flotation device strapped around my leg (duh). I told myself that I was in no danger of drowning. And as for the giant fish—well that one I still struggle with but I try not to think about it. If anything—I use it as motivation to swim faster—you can’t bite what you can’t catch!
Once I had slowed my breathing, and my overactive brain, I resumed my swim and just like that, my body stopped fighting me and did what it knew how to do—and the day was a success. The experience was a turning point in my swim training as I no longer rely on the breaks—even in the pool. I successfully “retrained” my brain NOT to expect them and to tell my body that we are fine without them.
When you are pushing through those last miles of a half marathon, struggling up that steep hill on an outdoor ride, or trying to get that one more rep on the squat rack, your mental game has to be on point when things start to get uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean ignoring real pain—if you’re seeing spots and getting dizzy while running in the heat, by all means STOP! But if it’s just the usual self doubt that comes from pushing your limits—tell yourself that you’ve got this—that you are strong and capable. That you trust that your body knows what to do—and then, in the words of Nike--just do it!
Words of Wisdom: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—You’re right!” –Henry Ford