Updated: Jan 16, 2020
by Chris Palmquist
Endurance athletes work hard to develop speed for the sports that we love. Track workouts, hill repeats and swim sprints are all physical training sessions required for becoming fast. It is equally important to train our brain along with our physical body to fully prepare for our sport. Developing strong mental skills allows us to stay focused and efficient during tough training sessions and races. Good mental skills decease anxiety and make our experience more enjoyable which often translates to faster racing. Think of mental skills training as “speedwork for the mind.”
What does “Mental Speedwork” look like?
Step One: Honestly Assess
As an athlete, spend some time evaluating how you view your racing and training. Ask yourself some of the following questions.
What skills and abilities do I have? What have I been able to accomplish or improve?
What things about training and racing give me the most joy?
What training and racing goals are most important to me and how will accomplishing these affect my life?
What steps (that are under my control) can I take to move towards my goals?
Questions like these help us to recognize our accomplishments, clarify our goals and highlight what brings us joy in our training and racing efforts. Doing this work now means that when you are in a difficult stretch of training or within a hard race, you can go back to the foundation of why you are working so hard and why you want to persevere to the finish. Pinpointing what we can control is critical. Focus on the controllable process rather than the outcome (i.e. - do the training, get good sleep and eat nourishing food vs. “win first place”).
Step Two: Learn to Focus on the Current Moment
It is overwhelming to think about an entire race or training season all at once. We might have to do that occasionally in preparation to tackle the challenge. But after setting up goals and outlining training or race strategy, it is important to bring in our focus to the current time that we are in. During a day of training, just focus on getting through the training session or the interval or the mile that you need to finish. During a race, break down the distance into short segments (i.e. the distance to the next aid station). Check in with yourself frequently to ask, “Am I doing what I need to be doing right now.” If you are, good. If you are not, then adjust and re-evaluate in another few minutes. If you do this all race long, you will stay focused, you will execute the race skills that are important to your success and you will finish the race knowing that you gave it your best effort.
Mindfulness practice can be helpful for developing the skill of focusing just on what you need to be doing right now. If you do a little research on mindfulness you can find many resources to help you with this practice. It can be as simple as sitting down, setting your phone timer for about 5-10 minutes, closing your eyes and focusing on your breathing. As your mind wanders, simply bring it back to your focus on your breath. This practice is also very rejuvenating in the middle of a stressful day.
Step Three: Gratitude and Appreciation
Once you have assessed and practiced focusing on the moment at hand, it is time for the most important skills of all: a strong sense of gratitude and appreciation. Do whatever it takes to remind yourself of how lucky you are to have the health and means to train and race an endurance sport. As you stand on the starting line with a stomach full of nerves, think, “I am so grateful to get the chance to race today.” Appreciation pushes that nervous stomach away before the race and help us to stay focused on the moment during the race. Finally, gratitude helps us to appreciate our best efforts with joy – something that will help us to remain lifelong endurance athletes.
As you finish up the current racing season or begin to prepare for next year, don’t forget to do your mental skills “speedwork.” If you have honestly assessed your accomplishments and priorities, practiced focusing on tasks required by the current moment and developed a strong sense of gratitude and appreciation, you will become faster and stronger as an athlete.