I frequently get into discussions with athletes about how to achieve optimal mental focus in endurance sport racing. As endurance sport athletes we have a lot of alone time. Whether we are staring at a black line at the bottom of a pool while swimming, staring at a white line on a roadway while cycling, or staring at a endless tarmac of asphalt while running; we are alone with our thoughts. Those thoughts can be positive, negative, distracting, motivating, painful, etc. Point being, we have a plethora of thoughts running through our mind at a million miles an hours at any given second while performing our sport. When it comes to endurance sport racing and the agony associated with the distance and stress placed on our body, those thoughts can become major hurdles to success.
How do we overcome the negative thoughts that creep into our mind while racing? I always say endurance sport racing is 90% mental and 10% physical. We have done the training and put in the necessary hours to successfully complete our given sport, but as we close our eyes the night before the race, line up to hit the start line, hit mile 1.5 of the swim, ride through mile 70 of the bike, and run past the 18th mile on the run, many times the thoughts start to turn from the positive “can do” to the negative “This hurts!” “I hate this!” “Why am I here!” Our body succumbs to our mind, our pace slows, and we stop getting the most out of our effort. This happens to everyone!
What separates the top performers from the rest of the athletes is their ability to recognize these thoughts and refocus their attention onto the present. Thinking of the past, the future, the pain, or the outcome does not achieve anything but negatively impacting your performance. Getting the mind to focus back on the process allows the body to work at it’s true potential without the mind telling it otherwise. Focusing on the process is a way of saying, “Be present.” To be present you must focus on the action being performed. For example, the feel of the hand entering the water on every swim stroke, the feel of the contact point between the sit bones and the saddle on the bike, or the feel of the relaxed shoulders on the run. What ever your preference is, you must refocus the attention back to this point when the negative thoughts start to creep in.
How do you know what the focus point is? You MUST practice, practice, practice. This is like a carpenter seeing a nail and puling out a hammer. He knows what he needs to perform the task and he naturally pulls out the right tool because he has done this thousands of times in the past. Every training session you perform, you should be finding a point of focus within the process of your sport and put the attention on that focus point. When the thoughts creep in, good or bad, acknowledge the thought, and bring the attention back to that focus point.
I have been racing at the Professional level for 8 years. Whether I am performing well or not so well, I can tell you I am always engaged in this practice. I do not think of the pain and suffering I am going through, I only think of the current action I am performing. On the swim I use my breath as my focus point, on the bike I use a complete pedal stroke as my focus point, and on the run I use the contact of my foot as it strikes the ground as my focus point. If you ever see me race, I thinks it’s pretty easy to tell that I am engaged in the process. I will race an entire Ironman and not be able to tell you one thing about the views on the course because I am so focused on the process.
This does not mean you can’t have fun and smile on course. You need to enjoy yourself and stay loose while racing, but you must know, when you need to dig deep and make all of your hard work worth while, you can sustain the effort because you have practiced the right mindset time and time again in training.
You may have heard this mental approach called “Flow” but ultimately it is a form of meditation in which you are not thinking you are just doing. We need not waste energy thinking of what did/could happen. We must put our energy on what IS happening by focusing on process.
If you want to read a good book about athletes who have successful and unsuccessful experiences with “Flow” read The Rise of Superman (available on Amazon). Also, download the app Headspace and complete 10 minutes a day. We must practice this mental focus in order to pull it out and successfully use it on race day.
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