Sunday, August 15, 2010

10 mental techniques for when the going gets tough

After a 100+ degree triathlon event recently, a highly educated training buddy confessed that her mind was a bigger obstacle than the actual race and polled the posse’ for tips on what worked. Not surprisingly, no one in our group was immune from negative self talk, including our admired coach. What to do?

Our creative cadre of compatriots came up with a wide variety of suggestions.

The techniques generally fall into the categories of dissociative techniques, associate techniques and self-talk. Dissociative techniques take our attention away from our body and the sensations of the moment. Dissociative thinking is designed to literally disassociate us from our discomfort or boredom.

Associative techniques, on the other hand, bring our mental attention and focus to our bodies and bodily sensations. Associative techniques can help us monitor our performance. Self talk is that inner dialog we have with ourselves.

Which are best? Some studies show that associative is best. Others studies document the benefits of positive self-talk and disassociation. Still others match technique to conditions faced. In The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer, while author David Whitsett expresses a preference for using associative techniques because these keep our focus on the activity that we are performing, he makes it clear that the best technique is the one that works for you.

Following are 10 plays to try next time your head declares “game on.” Give them a try and leave a comment on what works best for you!

1. Count me in. Until this past week, I’d discounted counting. That changed this week when Grasshopper shared her wisdom. “If I don’t address the voices in my head, they can’t talk back.” Hmmm.

At Rocketchix Indian Creek triathlon, I decided to give Grasshopper’s wisdom a try. On the swim, I decided to engage by counting my strokes. I learned from Coach Canada, that each stroke roughly equated to a meter. So 100 strokes would get me about 100 meters. As I started the swim this time instead of thinking “be the turtle” or checking in with my physical self, I counted. On the third set of 100 I lost my place. No problem, I just start over. The next thing I know I’m past three bouys. Wow! I hadn’t “checked in” with myself, but I felt great.

2. Sing a song. For my training friends that love their iPods and mp3s, nothing works better than singing a song for getting them through a hard workout or a competition. Beyond distracting yourself from the effort, singing a song can provide cadence, rhythm, and if the message of song is uplifting, it can provide some inspiration too.

3. Chant a mantra. Have you ever experienced what I call “exercise brain”? For some reason there is a time when my heart rate gets to a certain point that I cannot do simple math much less think of the lyrics of a song. For those times a simple mantra works best for me. Some favorite mantras include:

I am strong I am fast I am kicking a@%
Feet don’t fail me now, feet don’t fail me now
I don’t know but I’ve been told...
I’ve got a pain (I've got a pain) in my back (in my back) I don’t care (I don't care) I like it there (I like it there) [repeat with other body parts!]

4. Offer it up. Growing up Roman Catholic in south Louisiana, the concept of offered up suffering is not something completely new. However, it wasn’t until I heard an interview on Sr. Madonna Buder (aka the Iron Nun) that I thought of using it as part of training or racing. The video interview reports that Sr. Madonna offers up each race she does for a special intention. This makes great sports psychology as well as great spirituality. When I offer up any discomfort for something bigger than myself or larger than that moment in time, I am better able to tolerate the discomfort and push through.

5. Focus on the bigger picture. This technique can have the same affect as “offering it up”. When I put my pain in the context of a larger goal, it helps to push through past the discomfort.

Looking for motivation during the race? Try visualizing the proud faces of family and friends when you finishes.
6. Talk back – Encourage. To me this is the classic positive self talk segment. Here you remind yourself that you’re prepared and that you can do this.

7. Talk back – Negotiate. My training partner uses this with success. When her head sends her messages that it’s time to stop, before she acquiesces, she negotiates. Picking a spot in the distance, she’ll continue on until she reaches that spot. Frequently, by the time she gets to the pre-negotiated spot, she has given her mind a chance to readjust and keep on going.

8. Visualize. A mind game for the mind. Some visualize themselves as a fit gazelle. Other may  visualize themselves as a locomotive with the legs being the wheels of the engine, pumping one after the other.

9. Externalize. There are times when there’s nothing like a friendly face or a well placed chalk message to lift the spirits. During a recent triathlon, someone chalked an encouraging message and our training teams names on the road. As we ran up the hill and saw our names, our spirits lifted as did our strides. It worked.

10. Check your nutrition. Are the voices still talking? Our coach finds that when her mind won’t hush, it’s a sign that her hydration or nutrition is off. During her most recent Ironman event, she had a particularly low down time. Coach literally checked in with herself and realized that she had not eaten in some time. She slowed down, took in some nutrition and within minutes reported feeling better physically and emotionally.

Tried everything, but the negative chatter continues? Perhaps it's time to check your nutrition and hydration?
So, what are your favorite mind games when things get tough? Share yours below!

The 2040 Project acknowledges and thanks the collective wisdom Fitbird Fitness training group. See


  1. I had a break-through with the mental challenges this weekend at training camp. Two things I learned:

    1) after analyzing my emotions and reactions that occurred during a really poor race, I was able to identify and change some of my coping techniques to better deal with my anxiety and lack-luster performance.

    2) I made myself completely block all thoughts during my OWS in the gulf - no positive talk, and no negative talk. I just thought "swim" and "just do it". Every time my mind started to talk I repeated those two phrases... and guess what? It finally WORKED!

    The nice thing about offering up these techniques is that it gives plenty of options. If one doesn't work, there is another to work down the list. That might be a good technique in itself! Start at number one on the list and by the time you've tried everything the race is probably over!

  2. Don't give up on something until you've made a committed effort to do it. That's a rule. If that wave looks too rough to swim over - don't breaststroke until you've given it a solid effort. If that trail looks too steep to ride and people are walking it - don't get off your bike until you've actually tried to ride it yourself. If you are sure you can't sprint that last quarter mile - don't give up until you've actually busted out a sprint and gone for it.

    And the hardest - don't stop giving it ALL you have until you cross the line or they pull you off the course. Stop accepting less than the most you can give. you can walk away from anything with your head held high if you gave it all you had out there.

    To quote the race director from Leadville. "you are better than you think you are. you can do more than you think you can."


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