It’s an age-old saying, but without question, in the sport of triathlon nothing can be as close to the truth as “It’s all in your head.” Sure, as athletes we can get ourselves into amazing physical shape, but at the end of the day, the single limiting factor for racing well always comes down to how well an individual can deal with those tough times in a race—when things just hurt. It is what happens in those moments when your body starts to rebel, your mind wanders and things start to get really uncomfortable that ultimately determines just how fast or how well your race goes.
The thing is, no matter how fast you are, this sport challenges everyone on the same level, and it is this very challenge that draws all of us to the start line. If it were easy, everyone would do it.
Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand my methods for dealing with race demons. I understood that, physically, I could only get to a certain level, and that level was good enough to win races all around the world. But I wasn’t always winning, and this was frustrating. The only thing that limited me from winning some races was what happened in the moment where I was suffering most. At that point in a race, fitness or training meant nothing. It came down to how well I could mentally deal. I became fascinated with that specific point in a race—I felt that by understanding how I dealt with pain, I would ultimately become invincible. The better I became at dealing with pain, the better I would be as an athlete.
Ask yourself right now, “What do I say to myself when things are getting tough during a race?” Do you have any idea of where your mind goes during those moments? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, how can you possibly know what to do during a race? I asked my- self those exact questions and I could not give myself the answers, and I wanted to know why. I think to some degree the mind tries to protect itself from this moment by shutting out intense experiences of pain and, for this reason, answering these straightforward questions can be difficult.
I discovered that I hid from the purity of this part of the sport—the suffering. It intimidated me, and I didn’t want to think about it. Sure, I threw around some brava- do and mantras, but to openly deal with it I had to be comfortable with first confront- ing it. Learning how to create methods of dealing with pain is tough to do. You have to learn more about yourself during these moments to better understand how you can create methods of improving.
Coping with pain in a race is all about your state of mind and being honest with yourself about suffering. It is going to come; it’s part of the wholeness and beauty of triathlon, and I see it as an emotion that is totally personal and real. Once you accept this, you can move onto how to fight it the moment it comes. You have to be comfortable with pain, and, in a crazy way, look forward to dealing with it, telling yourself that it is the reason why you play in the first place. In fact, without pain, the event would not be worth doing. With this mindset you can be at peace with the process and confident in the outcome. I call it “embracing the suck.” The more you suffer for something, the more you value it, so embrace this moment.
My pain strategy starts with self-talk. I start with manifesting pain as a sort of old friend. “Oh, here you are. How are you?” It sounds crazy, but it works for me. It buys time and is a great way to create in your own mind a solid tangible that you are dealing with. Then I smile as I self-talk. It’s my way of honouring the moment.
I focus only on the things that I can control. I focus on my breathing, my running rhythm and trying to slow down my thoughts and emotions and keep all thought processes simple. If I am running, I count steps or create a breathing pattern: Breathe in for three seconds and out for three seconds.
By shifting your focus onto things that you can control, you take your mind away from the pain and onto a task that requires concentration. It is a shift in attention and a simple distraction. The longer you can play these simple games in your head, the quicker the body will forget about the pain and the sooner you will be back in the race. Endorphins kick in after periods of discomfort, so I can assure you that most of these fights only last about 5–10 minutes, and the pain will subside. It will return, but you just repeat the game again.
By keeping it a game and embracing the suck, your strength as an athlete is multiplied. If you fear pain, you make yourself powerless against it, so embrace the tough moments.
Start planning in training how you will mentally deal with the suffering. I’m not being negative; it’s about being realistic and empowering yourself. Write things down after sessions and go into workouts with the goal of trying to deconstruct the thoughts that you have at the moment pain presents itself. By writing this down you start to get a picture of just how your mind works when it’s under stress. Once you get more familiar with this place and these emotions, you learn to no longer fear them.
Embrace the suck. By doing so, I promise you will be much more powerful.