Mental Training: Thinking about Racing while Training
By Shem Leong, ironguides coach in Singapore, ironguides.net
As your fitness improves and your big day draws nearer, race specific workouts are the perfect opportunity to “go there” in your head and visualise how best to handle yourself on the day. After all the hours spent beating your body into peak condition, it’s only wise to spend some time preparing your mind for the unique effort required to perform at your best on race day.
“Visualisation” sounds like a big word (and it may conjure up images of tranced-out pro athletes floating cross-legged in a zero gravity relaxation tanks, chanting mantras to themselves) but in actual fact, if you’ve ever wondered, “What are the winds like going to be in New Zealand?” or “How hot is it going to be in Philippines?”, then you’ve actually just dipped your toes into your very own weightless relaxation tank.
Instead of pulling your foot out quickly at the 1st thoughts of the pain and discomfort of race day, the next time you have such questions, I encourage you to hang around and let your imagination get the better of you for awhile. After all, once you’re locked into an all out 10 min big gear time trail in the last hour of your long training ride, what else are you going to do? (Come on, seriously, who actually enjoys the “scenery” for more than a few pedal strokes over 90km)
Studies have shown that envisioning a tough, painful race experience, compared to a lovely “perfect day” scenario actually goes along way more towards preparing you to push that All Out effort required from you at your A race. Going there in your head, prepares you to go there in your body.
In the last month of training leading up to Cobra 70.3, Philippines, I found myself spending an increasing amount of time, mentally matching different training intensities from different sessions, to various snapshot moments in the race. Time and again, I would catch myself thinking, “This is how I want to feel with 500m left in the swim/at 67km into the bike/ 3km into the run/”. I firmly believe that these intuitive moments were a crucial step in the mind-body process of building the best possible race day pacing strategy.
Here are some more weird and wonderful thoughts that came to me while sweating it out.
While pounding out the “all out” laps on the swim strength sets, I’d throw my arms out hard in front of me to ward off the invisible age groupers fighting for my piece of open water real estate. My furiously churning arms were “enter at your own risk” windmill blades that dared anyone to cut into my line. In fact, my paddles became lethal decapitating blades for those extra persistent irritants that simply refused to swim straight.
Sprinting 110% on the ALL OUT reps was the only way to break free of the washing machine mess at the swim start. And the easy laps after the hard ones were welcome relief after successfully sprinting up to the toes of a faster draft 10 meters ahead.
All this, swimming alone in a 30m pool one a quiet Sunday.
Turning right onto “The Hockey Stick”, a 1 hr out and back stretch, for the last hour of a race specific endurance ride, I was surrounded by rice paddy fields on Cam Sur’s village roads. School children, clutching colorful flags, had come out in droves to see what all the commotion was about. I kept my head down and focused on turning smooth powerful circles as I whacked the chain into the smallest cog. “This is when it counts,” I told myself, “…last 30ks of the bike, this is when NOT to fade.”
Even though it was a warm Singapore morning, I knew it would be hotter in the Philippines. How would I cope with a 5 degree increase in temperature? How would I change up my usual nutrition and hydration plan? In another A race, at the start of the season, I had not taken on enough fluids and suffered devastating cramps on the bike. As a result, I was unable to recover for the rest of the race and suffered badly. “Not going to happen this time…” I reminded myself, as I slowed down to a cruise, picked up an imaginary bottle of water from an imaginary aid station, took an imaginary gulp and emptied the rest down my neck and back. This little mental exercise left me feeling much more confident and well prepared.
Race experience has taught me that it’s difficult to run with my legs still wobbly from the bike so I stride easy with small steps at a decent stride rate while munching on a salt tablet, patiently waiting for my legs to catch up. It’s a good idea to know how your body responds to what you’re planning to put in on race day- in this case, upwards of 4 Nunn rehydration tablets washed down with a bit of water.
“Building into” your long runs in training, progressively increasing the intensity/ perception of effort through the run, teaches you to start easy and finish strong. It is especially useful to cast your mind forward to race day and add the mental filters of suffering, discomfort and heat because this prepares you dig deep, stay calm and in control when the going gets tough on the big day. I believe that I’m generally able to tolerate the heat quite well, because in training, my mind is often running in far hotter places.
Practice fine tuning your mental grip during training teaches you how to manage the red line better while racing. Only by “going there” in training are you able to get familiar with the coping mechanisms that you can employ on race day. Shutting out the pain works only for awhile, soon you realize that the discomfort is very real. At this point, prepare a rock solid answer for when you ask yourself,” Why am I doing this?” What is it about this sport that gives it meaning?
Resign yourself to the fact that, for whatever reason you’re in it, you’ve come this far on your own terms and through your own ambitions and motivations. At this point, realize that embracing “good pain” will only make you stronger and allow your body to follow your brain into new psycho- physical limits over and over again in training. In doing so, you continuously and invariably redefine your pre-existing, self-imposed limits to performance.
So take the ceiling off your perceived best efforts and layer on the race day filters in your preparation to squeeze out every last drop on your big day.
Enjoy your training.
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