The physical aspect of sport is a huge component but as I’ve written in the National Champion Mindset Part 1 & Part 2, there is a huge mental aspect in play as well. Often the physical gets so much attention that the mind is left to fend for itself.
Sure if you’re body is ready and the physical preparation is adequate for the task at hand, then you are more likely to have a supportive mindset when you put your body to the test. But what happens when something takes you off-guard, doesn’t go as planned or even something out of your control lands smack dab in your path? That’s when you need the mind to be resilient, adaptive or focused.
General preparation can help you avoid the likely upsets, because really when does everything go as plan on a normal day for a workout; let alone a big event or race day that involves travel, new location, different food, new environment, etc. Those tips are a topic for another day in-of-itself.
For now my focus is on just that; focus. Where is it when you set out for a workout, event, race, or heck even general life? I alluded to it in the national championship when a Jr athlete was so worried about where the next Jr was behind him. Constantly looking back over his shoulder, wondering when he was getting caught! That’s no way to compete.
You’ve got to keep your eyes up the road or trail! Focus on an objective in front of you and your mindset will be in a stance much more adept to face the challenges ahead. There are many tools and tricks that I’ve personally developed over the years of training and competing (whether I knew it during or not) that have helped me succeed in one way or another. I’m trying to share these with you so you can succeed as well because often what one believes is obvious is a nugget of gold to another.
Focus is what I had to rely on during the Telluride 100. Which by the way was to date one of the hardest races I’ve ever done! That’s saying something when stacked against events like Breck Epic bookended with Steamboat Stinger, Breck 100 the day after Pikes Peak Hill Climb, Leadville, National Ultra events like Tatanka 100 in blazing heat or Cohutta 100 in pouring rain, international UCI road stage race on a last minute demo bike, Tour of the Gila, etc. The sustained steep climbing (often maxed out in lowest gear if not walking!), high altitude, super fast descents, endless amounts of pedaling, and changing weather are all things that made this a tough day. Consider the 1st climb was 3800ft of gain in 9 miles at a average over 10%!
It’s easy to say sitting here now, but actually putting it into action when all the adversities are smacking you in the face and beating you down is the task. I often say it to the athletes I coach day-in and day-out, “Focus on what’s in your bubble of control.” because wasting valuable energy on extraneous things is fruitless and frustrating.
Here are my tools to direct focus forward and they all spur from #1; (worth noting these are mostly directed at longer endurance events)
- Eyes up the road or trail – Sure Captain Obvious, you say; that’s where you have to look. I’m referring to farther than actually what’s within sight. Focus on what’s ahead because you can effect the outcome of that where-as you can’t effect what’s behind you. Forget that flat, missed feed, missed connection to a group of riders, stupid crash, hard climb, or the guy chasing you. Just keep focus forward!
- Use visualization – You can direct this for the next section of the course, whether that’s a relief after a steep climb, a less technical break from a challenging stint, a piece of single track that will be fun, a smooth climb to get consume some nutrition, a summit of a pass, breaking into the sun, ducking out of the sun into some shade, etc. Use your unique situation and preferences to offer up something to set your sights on that will help you get past the current slump if you happen to be in one.
- Thrill of the chase – Use that “rabbit” mentality to set your focus on chasing a competitor in front of you. Actually catching a glimpse of a rider in the distance helps, but you can still use it whether you can see them or not. If you see them, start taking time splits from land marks with intent to lure them in. Work on pushing harder on sections that suit your strengths, whether climbing, descending, steeps, flats, etc. Put a plan in place to fuel up for the push if necessary for example. Or be stealthy as possible until you get to them.
- Self -talk – If I’m chasing, I often talk to myself when my focus is ahead on a competitor in the above scenario. Things like “I can see you’re suffering and I’m coming to get’ya!” or “Oh I’m gonna own you soon enough and nothing you can do about it!” Sounds odd or cocky, but if you set your mind that way, it’s amazing how it takes the focus off of your effort or discomfort and puts it behind you with greater purpose.
- Misery loves company – If you’re not into competition or “owning” the person up the road, but more into having someone to share the experience. You can then set the goal to catch someone so you’re not alone. Talking about the experience often gets your mind off the discomfort or fact that something isn’t going as planned. Knowing that someone else is in exact same position as you may help you keep going.
- Set mini-performance goals – In examples 3-5 above, visualizing ahead start bridging a gap, but what actually gets you there? Not to sound yogi, but attention brings intention and vice versa. By this, use tools at your discretion whether that’s power output, HR feedback, RPE (rating of perceived effort), time splits, landmark challenges, mile markers, etc. Be creative! My example from the Telluride event (among many others) is seeing where my HR or power is and trying to inch it up a few beats or watts higher. Often this doesn’t result in much higher RPE than before but gives you an immediate purpose. Sometimes individuals try to inch it up to points seen in training, which can work, but often can backfire because it’s not immediate and doesn’t take into account all current variables. For example in ultra racing for myself and many I coach, I see heart rate become suppressed, so it can be deflating and could serve as a negative (see #7 below). Instead take it for what it is and roll with it. I usually race at threshold heart rate of 155-163bpm, but that day after a couple of super demanding pass climbs and multiple hours, I was barely seeing 145-148bpm. So what did I do? I took inventory. Asked myself how I was moving (speed) or what was my power? Both were still holding sound so I decided to push into the low 150s. I also caught a glimpse of another rider, started some self-talk from #4 above, an then started taking splits from land marks as the rider passed. I was luring him back in. This process resulted in me catching 2 riders and getting into the top five after 7 hours of racing and being in a pretty dark spot.
- Glass half full – Optimistically thinking vs the latter of pessimism can be huge. “I’m almost out of water!” sounds much worse than “I’ve got half a bottle to left to finish and I’m light to the summit.” So your perspective can be a huge game changer with how things effect you. So if it starts to rain, think “it’s cooling me down so body under less stress” versus any negative thoughts
- What is now will change – Endurance racing has similarity with weather where I live here in Colorado, where the saying goes “if you don’t like it (the weather), just wait and it will change.” The same goes for endurance racing. If you feel rough, often you can ride it out and tables will turn for the better. Unfortunately same goes for feeling good. That may not last forever, but at least you can ride the wave of knowing it will flip back to good again. *Note this doesn’t mean you can be reckless and it sway back in your favor, but you still must maintain good habits of nutrition, hydration, pacing and realistic expectation for that instance.
- Take inventory – this is HUGE when the riding the peaks and valleys of a long day especially when you’ve been more flexible with your plan. Tap your fuel gauge from time to time and see what you need for the next stint. This requires both reflection of what has actually happened to plan or improve the near future. Was your plan to pick up a hydration pack at an aid station but decided to use bottles? Or did you get behind on eating some nutrition and thus now feeling behind the 8 ball? Asking some questions sets you up to finish the remainder of your nutrition at a faster rate or double up on calories if you’ve been focusing more on hydration, or to grab the right things at the next aid stop.
- Have it work for you – The saying goes “hindsight is 20/20” and you can use this forward-thought mentality to improve each segment of your day. Executing things in advance-of or specifically timing so it makes next section work for you is an art of proactive thinking. Most of this revolves around fueling and hydrating with examples like; eating just over the summit of a climb so when you descend at a lower heart the food can hit your system during a period of reduced cardiac demand, fueling in advance of a really challenging stint (technically or physically demanding) so you can tackle it with energy, using liquid nutrition over solid when the demands are high (like early in the race or event) and you can’t or don’t want to fumbling with wrappers and chewing at an elevated breathing rate. Or it can be timing of other necessities like stopping to relieve yourself or lubing my chain after hours of being in the saddle where elements had taken their toll on the drivetrain (which I chose to do simultaneously on a couple demanding climbs since already moving at slow speed versus stopping at points where momentum was lost while additionally benefiting with heart rate recovering breifly as well).
Progression in sport; whether that’s long term or even within an instantaneous moment like an event, requires multiple components to be simultaneously working at a variety of levels at different points. Physical, mental, social, emotional, etc. all have their rolls, but don’t let the mind limit what the body can actually do. There are great studies out there that show the body is always holding onto reserves. You can dig deep, develop grit and tenacity with these tools to go farther and achieve more than you thought possible.
Thanks for reading.