Mental energy in endurance sports.
My good friend Bob Roses, a 74-year-old ski instructor in the Ski and Ride School at Breckenridge, Colorado, likes to say that "skiing is 90 percent mental--and the rest is in your head." Most skiers know that he is not far off the mark. Many endurance athletes would recognize the applicability of the saying to our sports as well.
As far as skiing is concerned, at least until one starts going into rather steep trails, or gets into "the bumps," or sets out to go fast, the technical/mechanical aspects of the sport are pretty simple. It's the mental stuff that's tough: dealing with the fear of falling and getting injured; the counter-intuitiveness of the body movements that produce skiing in balance (e.g., the necessity of leaning forward at the ankles and away from the slope, when our body says, "Stay back and close that protective surface"); and the requirement for staying mentally focused constantly, if you want to stay on your feet, not hit or get hit by objects that could cause harm, and have fun.
Similarly, until you get fairly far along into trying to go fast, the technical stuff in, for example, a triathlon is not that demanding. Swimming for the recreational triathlete is about staying afloat and moving forward at a comfortable rate of speed, while not losing one's way or falling too far behind the pack. For most of us, cycling is, well, just like riding a bike. As for running, other than making sure that your heel strike comes first and you're pushing off from your toes while trying to keep your upper body quiet, it's "left-right, left-right."
As with skiing, until you strive to reach a higher level of proficiency, in triathlon developing the mental skills is much more demanding than developing the physical ones, even for the superfast. Mark Allen is the all-time Hawaii Ironman champion. In 2003, Triathlete magazine designated him as the "Greatest Triathlete of Our Time." He once described doing an ironman primarily as an exercise in pain management, surely a mental process. And so we might want to discuss the matter with our patients/clients who are into endurance sports--especially racing in them--in the following terms.
The mental work begins with the training. Unless you're going to do just one or two races a year, you will likely want to get into shape and stay in shape, on a year-round basis. You must build up your endurance to a level that will carry you through the longest race you plan to do in a particular season, at a speed that is realistic and achievable for you. This takes focus, discipline and planning. This takes the ability and the determination to set balanced priorities for the whole of your life while providing the time and place for your training and racing. It takes training with consistency in time and length of workouts, and regularity in doing them. All of these tasks, central to success however you may define it, are mental, not physical.
Then there are the mental aspects of racing (in addition to Mark Allen's pain management exercise). First are your race-specific strategies and tactics, to which you should devote some thought. There is the necessity of staying mentally focused during the race, although perhaps not on a second-by-second basis as in skiing. But before these and beyond them, if you are going to enjoy the experience, first and foremost you have to set goals for your racing experience that are reasonable for you in the context of other parts of your life.
Do you simply want to cross the finish line, happily and healthily? (If your age group is thin, as it is for many masters like me, maybe you WILL still come away with a plaque.) Do you want to try to go faster, for one reason or another? Is today the day to go for a personal best in a particular race? The mental skills for answering these questions and others come down to assessing yourself honestly, defining success in a way that makes sense to you, and then setting goals that are consistent with your self-assessment and definition of success. These are the keys to mobilizing your mental energy and making it work for you.
Finally, if at some time you feel your mental energy lagging, if you find that you are having trouble maintaining your training program, if you start looking at your races without happy anticipation, in my view (and experience) the first thing to do is go through the self-assessment/defining-success/goal-setting process we have discussed in this column in the past. You may well be amazed at what some realistic redefining of success and resetting of goals can do for your mental energy level.
In training and racing, as in life, we need to keep everything in perspective. To stay up in life, as on skis, we need to get and stay in balance. We need to learn how to use our minds to accomplish these ends. Once we do that we can discover one of the few arenas in life where using energy properly actually creates it, in an amount greater than that spent to fuel the process to begin with, in a lovely upward spiral.
This article was based in part on one that appeared in the column "Masters Mentality," published semi-regularly in americanTRI magazine, for which Steven Jonas is a staff writer. The column in question appeared in the Summer 1 2003 issue.
by Steven Jonas, M.D., M.P.H., M.S.