Too often athletes leave the mental game as an afterthought or leave it out completely from their training. They expect that on competition day they’ll just be “tougher” and be able to have those break through performances – like magic.
They key is to integrate mental game training into your workouts. When you train to be tough in practice you will then increase the chances that you can exhibit this on competition day.
Interval training is a good opportunity to do this. Whether you are a swimmer, cyclist or runner at some point training programs require some kind of interval training. [Interval training takes many forms but they have the basic structure of a hard effort for a specific time or distance interval followed by a recovery time or distance interval.]
Most athletes go into such workouts thinking I have 12 repeats to do or 16 or whatever and “let’s just get them done”. If these are timed it is common that somewhere around the 8th out of 12 or 12th out of 16 for example, the pace or times are slower. Then in the last couple reps the pace is regained. This is a sign not of physical fatigue but mental fatigue. If it were truly physical – you did not have any energy left to keep the pace – then in fact you would not be able to access some magic reserve and finish the last reps back on pace.
We know now that there is a strong mental component to fatigue and pain/discomfort. Intervals provide the perfect opportunity to explore HOW you can push yourself to stay on pace. It is in the “how” that you learn what works for you in keeping you going in the face of physical fatigue. It is in that “how” that you learn what you can do in competitions to maintain the pace despite fatigue setting in.
Here are what we call task-specific cues that help you focus (a mental game skill). Tune in to the tension in muscles at a given pace, stride rate, stride length, the feel of your footfall, the rhythm of your leg turnover, your breathing, your arm carry. These are specific feelings or sensations that are specific to the pace you wish to run. This gets you to tune into pace. You should be able to run 400 meter repeats for instance within a second of each other – even without a watch.
Strategies to overcome fatigue (a mental game skill) include tuning in to pacing as just described, and more. If you run with others it can include sticking with the pack, following closely and keeping your eyes to the lower back or butt of the runner in front of you, listening to foot steps or how others are breathing. These serve to keep you going while keeping your mind off your own fatigue.
What you focus on is what you’ll get. Focus on your fatigue and you feel worse. Focus on specific cues and it keeps you in the moment and executing (that is running, swimming or biking at the pace required).
Where does your mind go around that 3/4s the way done mark of your intervals? Catch yourself! Then refocus on things like: taking one step at a time, one lap at a time. It includes refocusing on only the single task at hand – this ONE next rep. If you are on #9 out of 12 you do not think about “ohmygawd I still have 3 more to go” instead you repeat to yourself “just this one – stay on pace”. Then during the recovery time, let go. Just let go, and let your mind wander and recover too. When your time is up – get back on the line, and immediately go into the “just this one – stay on pace” mode.
There is no past or future (another key mental game skill). So one more aspect to practice is staying only in the present moment. You do not control that you missed your split time on the last rep. You do not control rep #12 when you are on #9. You only control your effort and your attention on rep #9. And much of your fatigue is the mental fatigue induced by thinking about how many you still have to do!
My athletes will hear me say this all the time. Just one. Just take this one rep. Learn how you like to mentally break up a workout. If you are on a track is it by straights and curves? 200s? On the roads is it telephone poles? Streets or blocks? Traffic lights? What is your cue to keep you focused only on the one rep or segment of your run that you are handling right now.
Once you practice and hone these skills in training you will then be able to call upon the same techniques in your racing. Now, go get ‘em… one at a time.