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A Long Day Outdoors: Mental Conditioning for Ironman Triathlons

July 17, 2011
By

 

by Will Murray

“Sixteen hours is a long time and you can live a lifetime in that span.”

Sister Madonna Buder, finisher of 44 Ironmans, now age 80

 Long-course and Ironman-distance triathlons are very long events, 70.3 and 140.6 miles long, respectively.  And they take a long time to finish.  The world record Ironman time is about eight hours, and the cutoff time is 17 hours.  It’s a long day out for everyone on the race course.  An Ironman starts at 7 A.M. and triathletes are still coming in right up to the last minute—at midnight.  The training time leading up to an Ironman or long course race also really adds up.  Many triathletes dedicate a year of training for an Ironman.  Eight to 17 hours is a long time to race, and a year is a long time to train.

During your training and racing period, you will have many opportunities to cave in.  Caving—giving in to that internal chatter that wants you to stop, or reduce your effort, or shift your focus to something else—is a common experience that all long-distance triathletes face.  You are zipping along in a training ride, and at the 60-mile mark of your ride, you do the math, “Hmmm, 60 down, only 70 more miles to go on this ride.”

Then a voice in your head starts in:

“Gee, we’ve been out here three and a half hours already.  I’m tired.  My legs are starting to feel like lead again.  70 more miles.  That’s four more hours.  Is that a thunderstorm coming?  Hey, I have an idea!  Let’s pack it in for the day and do this workout tomorrow.  Yeah, that’s it.  Besides, you have a bunch of phone calls to return and the emails are really piling up and all that yard work waiting waiting waiting for you.  Good, let’s head for home, whaddya say?”

Does this sound familiar?  It’s that part of you that wants to cave in.

How do you maintain your focus and your resolve during this training and racing time and resist the temptation to cave?

Two practices can help bolster your resolve and maintain your determination to do what you must do.  First, realizing what your event is truly like will help you focus your expectations.  Second, practicing your responses during your training sessions will prepare you for your race day experience.

Step 1.  Know this: Ironman is Hard

There is a reason they don’t call it Donut Man.  Orienting to the magnitude and difficulty of the goal is the first step in gaining a useful perspective to confront the cave.  Julian Morrow writes in an earlier edition of Podium:

“Unattainable aspirations as well as unrealistic self-assessments typically lead to negative self-talk which stirs up feelings of anguish and apathy. Inevitably, these feelings will morph into diminished energy and a “why even try?”attitude. This is why it is wise to incorporate “keepin’ it real”as your omnipresent mantra. It will serve you well as you as you proceed on your journey.”

Know going into your Ironman or long-course journey (training, racing and recovering) is going to be taxing.  Your training and racing will be difficult, and for these distances, difficult is normal.  It is realistic.  It’s what you signed up for, voluntarily.  When you get clear on why you are doing it, you can do the mental reward-return calculus.

Step 2. Reorient to Your Goals

When you registered for the race, at least one part of you had images of great things in your mind’s eye.  Seeing the finish line, the cheering crowds, maybe even your spot on the podium are the kinds of images that make you want to compete in a long triathlon.  Maybe you imagined the accolades of your friends, the amazing shape you will be in, the medal around your neck.  When you recall these images, you can refocus on the “WHY” of it all.

Articulating clear goals in writing is key to keeping your determination through the training and racing journey.  See Julian Morrow’s post for useful guidelines on goal setting: Researched and Tested Guidelines for Goal Setting.

Come race day, another realization common to long-distance traithletes comes in: the cyclical nature of a long race.

Step 3.  Let the Wheel Roll

Professional triathlete Angela Naeth talks about her experience at the Leadman triathlon, a 250 km race, “I learned that it’s very much a mental game.  I had some extreme highs and lows, but they always seemed to come around in a complete circle(Johnson 2011).”

Triathlon legend and Ironman World Champion Chris McCormack describes Ironman-distance triathlons as a big circle that rolls throughout the race.

At the start, you are full of adrenaline and your muscles are packed with glycogen.  You are rested and trained and healthy and have been waiting and working for this moment for months, at least.  You are at the top of the wheel and you feel wonderful.

As the race goes on, the circle at some point will drop a bit.  You don’t feel quite so wonderful.  Maybe you swallowed a bit of water or absorbed a kick to the side in the swim, or your legs are a bit heavy.  You might start to wonder what this all means.  You were hoping to be so fresh, and already this dead-legs feeling is creeping in.

The race goes on more, and now the circle has dropped to the bottom.  You are hungry, you are tired, you are bored and you have niggling pains here and there.  Maybe some of those pains are more than merely niggling.  You wonder who invented triathlon anyway.  Who thought this was a good idea?  Did I think this was a good idea?  I could be having pancakes with butter and syrup somewhere, but instead I’m out here suffering.  What on earth ever got into me?  This is all just crazy.  I must be some kind of idiot.

But then, somehow, the circle rolls again, and it starts coming up.  Maybe you really are feeling a bit better. That stitch in your side, hey, you just noticed it’s gone.  Maybe that last gel just kicked in.  This isn’t so bad after all.  Sure, I’m still in the thick of it, but I did after all sign up for this voluntarily, and I have been training and preparing for a long time.  I don’t feel great, but I am feeling much better, and I like the trend.  This is actually pretty great that I’m here in this event, by golly I’m racing and hey all those spectators are cheering and smiling.

And the circle rolls again and you are back that the top.  You feel great, even though you are working really hard.  Things have come back together.  You can hardly imagine doing anything else.  This is a blast.   You can hardly believe your great good fortune to be able to do this triathlon, to be one of the tiniest of fractions of a percentage of those people in the world who have ever done this.  All your planning and training and preparation and fueling are paying off.  Life is pretty wonderful.

And then the circle rolls again, and maybe you don’t feel so great after all…

If we could call this the Macca Cycle, named after Chris McCormack’s common nickname, it’s a useful concept for long races.  During a half-ironman or full ironman distance race, you may go through one or maybe several cycles.  It helps to realize that this is normal and isn’t a signal that something is going wrong.

You may feel off a bit, and say to yourself, “Oh, this must be one of those parts of the circle.  I know about this.  You feel great, then maybe not so good, then maybe pretty awful, but then it gets better.  This is probably about normal.  After all, I am racing 70 or 140 miles, and it’s okay for a human being to suffer a bit with that kind of effort.”  Or you may feel great, even elated.  And you tell yourself, “Hey, this might be the top of the cycle.  This is great.  I’ll be patient here, stay on my race plan, and not get too giddy about it. And I’ll enjoy it while I’m here.  I am so glad to be doing this.”

Getting Out of the Bottom

“Losers visualize the penalties of failure.  Winners visualize the rewards of success.”  Rob Gilbert

Beyond realizing that the Macca Cycle is a normal part of a long race, you can do some things to get yourself out of the bottom of the circle.  Speed up, slow down, eat something, drink something, walk for a minute or do some other change to break up the pattern.

Also use your mind.  Make big, bright, close-up mental images of the finish line, or the faces of your spouse and your kids and your coach.  Listen to the famous voice of Mike Reilly that’s about to come, announcing your name and saying, “You are an Ironman.”  Recall a really great swim or bike or run workout or race leg from the past, and see what you saw then, feel what you felt then, hear what you heard then.  And keep moving, the incessant forward motion that long triathlons call for.

Bobby McGee, elite running coach and author of the wonderful book Magical Running, talks about concentrating on form.  When things get especially rugged, focus entirely on what you are doing.  For one minute at a time, observe a specific element of your running form:

  • the 90 degree bend in your elbow
  • peppy cadence
  • stacking your shoulders over your hips
  • your proper forward lean from your ankles up
  • refocusing  your gaze 35 feet out
  • relaxing your shoulders and dropping your chest.

Focus exquisitely on your form, on exactly what you are doing right this second. As McGee says, “Concentrating on your form is the purest form of concentration.” 

Podium Reviewed Magical Running in a previous post.

 Smile.

Whatever else you do to get through the bottom of the circle, smile.  This one thing is the easiest to do and begins to change the Physiology of the Bottom.  Smiling actually puts your endocrine system into a different set of activities. Two-time Ironman World Champion Chrissy Wellington is a great example of someone who smiles through the rough parts of the race, and she does pretty well at this sport.  So smile when you least feel like it, and notice how you start to feel better right away.

Stretch the Time at the Top of the Circle.

If the circle of a long race like this has to roll, maybe there is nothing that says you can’t slow it down and pause it near the top.  To stretch your time at the top, where things are pretty fine and fun and wonderful, try these things.

Anchor it. 

Identify in detail, what exactly are you feeling at this moment.  Create an anchor to that feeling by experiencing that feeling and making a small gesture, such as tapping your thumb and index finger together or by associating this feeling with a word or phrase, such as “this is why I do this.”  When you feel the sensation slipping away or to regain it when it’s gone, fire the anchor to get it back.  Anchors are a common NLP technique with a long history (see for example http://www.steveandreas.com/Articles/resource.html)

Give it away.

When you have this really great, top of the circle feeling, imagine that you are spreading it around you to the other competitors.  Pick a shape, such as a rainbow or sphere or the wake of a boat, and imagine spreading the experience of your feeling throughout that shape.  Everyone who enters your sphere will pick up some of that feeling, whether they know if or not.  Grow the shape to whatever size you need, and retract it when appropriate.  Share the feeling to keep more of it.

Smile.

Have you heard this before?  Smile when you feel like it.  Smile when you don’t.  Smile at the aid station volunteers.  Smile at the spectators.  Smile at the traffic control officers.  Pretend you have a mirror in front of your face and smile your prettiest, most heartfelt smile into the mirror.

That’s your race day plan for not caving in to caving in.  But you have a lot going on on race day, too much else to focus on, to think about this.  So “How” do you nurture your immunity to caving so that you have it on race day?  That brings us to the second point: practice.

Step 4.  Practice Your Response

“I don’t think I was a fine game coach. I don’t think I was a great strategy guy. I think I was a good practice coach.” –UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden

Before starting each workout, state your goal and purpose for the workout.  Consider P3 Thinking If the workout is about Lactic Threshold training, say that.  “I have some very hard sets in this workout to enhance my abilities at my threshold.” Then make a brief video in your mind’s eye of exactly how you want your workout to happen.  Now you are ready for your training session.

If you incorporate in your training session some race simulations, come race day you will already have a database of accomplishments to draw from.  On one training ride, at the end of 130 miles, I had four repeats of a 1 mile hill ascending between 12 and 16 percent.  These last four repeats had little to do with physical condition, but everything to do with being prepared mentally on race day.  If things got hard, when the circle rolled to the bottom, I could always say, “Heck, this isn’t nearly as hard as those four repeats on Olde Stage Road.  Let’s get going.”  This is like using a mantra, but to be effective mantras have to be grounded in truth.  Your training sessions, properly focused, give you a body of truthful evidence to call out when you need it.

Then you can let the circle roll up, and ride it up like a Ferris wheel, toward the top.

 

References:

1.  Jones, Laura S. (2011) The Iron Nun.  Swimmer.  2011 7:4.  p. 18

2. Buder, Madonna (2011) The Grace to Race.  Simon & Schuster, New York, 2011.

3. Morrow, Julian (2011) Guidelines for goal-setting: Researched and Tested.  Podium Sports Journal. http://www.podiumsportsjournal.com/2011/04/07/researched-and-tested-guidelines-for-goal-setting/

4. Johnson, Courtney (2011)  Consistency.  Training, Resources, Insight  August 2011 p. 48  http://bluetoad.com/publication/?m=16599&l=1

5. UCLA Magazine (Summer 2000)

Will Murray is a three-time Ironman finisher, a certified NLP Practitioner and has coached more than 100 endurance athletes on mental training.  Will is also an experienced mountaineer, having climbed all 68 14,000 peaks in the continental United States in addition to having reached the summit of Island Peak (20,300’), Lobuche East (20,078’) and seven peaks 18,000 feet and above in Nepal, Citlaltapaltel (18,400’) in Mexico and Batian on Mt. Kenya (17,058).  His most recent project is as the author of Uncle! The Definitive Guide for Becoming the World’s Greatest Aunt or Uncle (Morgan James Publishing, 2011).

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11 Responses to A Long Day Outdoors: Mental Conditioning for Ironman Triathlons

  1. Kevin on July 18, 2011 at 10:44 pm

    As a coach to many athletes from beginners to experts this is definitely an area that more of us need to focus on. Being able to empower people with knowledge to help them obtain their goals is a large focus for us. I’d like to use this mental training more and more as a coach with our athletes.

    Ponder this realm in training and there is no end to how focused we can be.

  2. Steven Zawaski on July 19, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    Smile for the cameras and anytime spectators are watching. Smile when the other guy looks nervous on the starting line knowing you’re about to have a blast. Smile when you execute your race plan. Smile when you fly past someone. Smile when they fly past you knowing that you made them suffer and you may get them yet. Smile for yourself when you’re alone on the course finally meeting your true self. Smile because you are doing what you love with the people you love. Do this and you will find a new energy deep inside that will let go faster than you believed.

  3. Mike Ricci on July 19, 2011 at 8:33 pm

    Very nicely done Will.

    Almost every athlete who sends me their season goals are over the top and I have to bring them back to reality. “John, you ran a 20:00 5k last year, so chances of you running 15:00 are not realistic.” – no joke.

    There was a guy this year who ran the Cleveland HM in 2:30 and wanted to know what it would take for him to be top 10 in 2012 – under 1:10. He wanted to stop training for triathlon b/c he thinks he can make the 1:10 goal a reality. This is the same guy who can’t swim 4 laps of the pool!

    I always question the realism for goals. I read somewhere that in order to hit your goals, you need a few layups first. One technique I’ve used with my athletes and personally is A B and C goals for every race:

    My Boulder Peak Goals were:
    A) Under 23:00 swim, B) Under 24:00 swim and C) Under 25:00 swim
    A) Under 1:12 bike, B) Under 1:13 bike and C) Under 1:14 bike
    A) 41:20 run, B) 42:30 run, C) under 43:30 run.
    I KNEW I could hit C for all those. That’s a 2:25 or something with transitions. The B goals are around 2:22 and my A goals were 2:17:30 ish.

    So, even if I hit 2 out of my 3 goals, that’s pretty solid! 2 A’s and a B! Most people want all A’s or the race is a failure which makes me wonder WHY they do this????

    There is no perfect race and even if there were, there will be something to improve!

    Thanks for writing a great piece.

    • Stephen Walker, PhD on July 20, 2011 at 2:43 pm

      Hey Mike,
      Thanks for the comment. You know another key element to this is knowing “how” to set the process goals. You really honed in on this by illustrating how people can be so unrealistic with their sense of direction. By providing a clear target for “each” event in the triathlon (could do the same with transitions too) – you narrowed the focus for each – and – your targets were realistic. Triathlon, more than any sport, requires this type of thinking in goal setting. If we can perform as well as a quality training session – in any of the three – that should be a great day. To hit more than one is fabulous!
      Stephen Walker, PhD

  4. Barry Siff on July 24, 2011 at 10:16 pm

    Great stuff! You’re right, Will, there is a reason it’s not called “Donut Man.” It’s hard, it’s tough, it’s awesome, it’s epic. Having the mental conditioning you speak about is certainly an important tool in anyone’s preparation, and you have chronicled an excellent view and thoughts on this. Thanks!

  5. Ani de Leon on July 25, 2011 at 2:02 am

    great article will! thanks for this :)

  6. Sara Beck on July 31, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    Thanks for writing this article, Will. I found it very interesting. I really like the wheel analogy. I felt that way on the run segment in Challenge Roth (my first ‘ironman’) and realized it corresponded directly w/ my cola intake. I had a lot of messages running around my head the entire day. For the most part (especially during the swim and bike), they were very positive (no ‘splitting’), but it was increasingly hard to maintain the positive messages throughout the entire run. I’ll try that with the wheel analogy in my next ironman. :)

  7. [...] This is not a substitute for actually understanding how best to mentally prepare for grueling endurance events.  Recently, Podium published a valuable guide for mental training specifically addressing IronMan Triathlons.  Check it out: A Long Day Outdoors – Mental Conditioning for IronMan Triathlons.  [...]

  8. Owen Hammond on August 30, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    Great article, Will! “Letting the Wheel Roll” is a great concept. In my latest ironman, the key points in this article really helped me stay calm and focused on the big picture goal of the race (and not giving too much attention to small picture “how do I feel right now.”) Powerful stuff; thanks!

  9. [...] or sets, or when there is a designated break in a workout, like Fight Gone Bad.You can also focus solely on your own technique, as highlighted in the Podium Sports Journal. Bobby McGee, an expert running coach, writes, [...]

  10. Anonymous on August 7, 2013 at 9:05 am

    Hello, how’s it going? Just shared this post with a colleague, we had a good laugh.

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