Mental strength

Our exclusive pro columnist gives an insight into his own brain training – from conversations with himself to
recharging the grey matter

Once the pain sets in during a race, I cut myself off at the neck and don’t let those negative thoughts go down to my body, like an autopilot choosing to ignore the warning signals

A great coach once posed a question to his athletes after an Ironman: “What percentage of your result was attributed to your mental strength?” Those who weren’t happy with their race answered with an average of 30 per cent. Those with greater results answered with an average per cent. The correct answer, of course, is the latter.

The mind is like any muscle; it can grow stronger with training, but it also needs rest. Going out and swimming, riding and running is simply not enough. You need to be focused on what you are doing both for your technique training (muscle memory) and for your mental strength training. One aspect of mental strength is learning to deal with pain, and another is visualisation to help you stay focused.

Every time I’ve run up a hill in the last couple of months, I’ve visualised Palani Road – the toughest hill on the Hawaiian Ironman course. It focuses my mind on the job and, as a result, my body becomes more efficient and stronger with better technique. Come race day, when I’m running up Palani Hill – and every other hill on the course, for that matter – it will feel easier and more familiar mentally, and therefore physically too.

Running the hills hard is also practice for dealing with pain and exhaustion. Training to deal with pain is an integral part of training. Running on a hot day while doing efforts is the best for pain, but not something you want to do too often, as you will run the risk of injury and dehydration. Bike intervals work great too.

Getting used to pain and learning coping mechanisms is vital to a great day of training, and great race results. I tell myself the pain is not real. And mostly I’m right (injuries being the exemption), because the mind is powerful and controls what you feel.

Sometimes I’ll have a conversation in my head, telling myself that it’s not that hot. And once the pain sets in during a race, I cut myself off at the neck and don’t let those negative thoughts go down to my body, like an autopilot choosing to ignore the warning signals.

On top of all that, I’m often having motivational monologues when training solo (which is 90 per cent of the time). Whether it was a movie I’ve seen recently, a quote from a sportsperson, a motivational YouTube, an inspiring book, or thoughts of those who support and believe in me, I’ll use them as a tool to relax my body while boosting focus and adding a little adrenaline.

This amount of mental focus in the lead up and during the race makes your mind as tired as your body post-race. And for some, it’s obvious their body and brain needs a rest; for others, not so. It’s important to understand that your mind does need a
rest, and a change. I know that after a race as tough as Hawaii, I need a holiday. After three months of 24/7 worrying about doing everything to get in the best shape possible and focusing on pain, efficiency, strength, pace, and motivational thoughts, I need to relax my mind and have some fun of a much different variety.

Recharging the grey matter is as important as letting the body recover. For me when I’m in the off season, I’ll be holidaying with Jaimie, partying with friends and family, surfing, fishing, hiking, maybe doing a little bit of photography, attending speaking engagements…  It’s an important part of my routine.

Stay sharp.