Building Mental Toughness

You may have seen the finish of the 2015 ITU World Triathlon Yokohama when Alistair Brownlee and Javier Gomez each put in surge after surge trying to drop each other to no avail. Gomez ended up winning by maybe a second in what is surely one of the most amazing finishes I’ve seen. Or how about in 2016 when Josiah and Braden Currie had that crazy finish at the Pan Am Championships? So what gives any athlete the mental toughness to not only finish a race like that, but to push hard enough to put themselves in that position? In this article we dive into some of the building blocks that help athletes develop the mental toughness needed to compete at their absolute best.


In order to compete at your best you need to commit to a race, your training, and a schedule. This means making it a priority and becoming a master planner. Being deliberate and consistent in your training is one of the biggest indicators of success. It takes time, effort and perseverance to prepare to perform your best.


Tailor your training 
In order to be ready for your “A” race you need to train on similar terrain and mimic the physiological demands that you will encounter in the race. This includes building towards workouts that are similar to the intensities that will be required on race day. Enduring a threshold or VO2 max workout is not only preparing the body but also preparing your mind.  It is interesting that in many “time to exhaustion” studies physiological parameters change very little or not at all, yet subjects are able to stay focused and push harder for longer after a block of proper training.


Know your race
If a race is your “A” race there is no excuse not to know that race inside and out. Research the course, the start, the finish, altitude, weather, and read race blogs. There should be no surprises on the course. Practice the aspects that will be most challenging for you. If you can get to the venue and do workouts on the actual course that is ideal, but this is not always realistic. Knowing the course takes away the anxiety of the unknown allowing you to focus on the variables you can control.


Set realistic goals
In order to reach your goals they need to be realistic and attainable so that you can execute on race day. If you expect to swim 23 min for a 1500-meter swim, but you’re not swimming anywhere near that pace in practice you should not be disappointed when it doesn’t happen in a race. Don’t be the athlete that is disappointed with every race because your goals are not realistic. Remember Satisfaction = Reality – Expectations. That doesn’t mean you should always lower your expectations, but it is interesting that people with a high growth mindset are much better at assessing their own ability and predicting outcomes.  For more on goal setting:


It’s supposed to be hard
One of my favorite sayings is, “It doesn’t get any easier, you just go faster.”  Sometimes athletes believe that if they put in the work the race will be easy. That is never the case. You need to expect it to hurt and have a plan for when it does. Mental toughness is forged through adversity.  You will push through in a race in the way you have (or have not) prepared to do in your training.  Stay present and focus on the things you can control.  Having a song or mantra that you repeat really helps even it is a very simple one.  If you don’t have a plan that you’ve practiced during tough workouts you tend to dwell on how bad it hurts and negative thoughts. Reminding yourself that the pain will come and embracing it when it does is a mental strategy called “association.”  With this strategy you monitor bodily sensations such as your breathing, muscle tension, and assess pain/discomfort levels. To cope you may focus on technique cues (high elbow catch, pedal cadence, lifting your knees), relaxing parts of the body (drop your shoulders, release tension), or quantify discomfort (am I going hard enough, is the pace sustainable).  This strategy has been proven better for performance than disassociation, thinking distracting thoughts to take your mind off the pain.


Write a race plan and revisit it
You should have a race plan for each race you do. For XTERRA is it more about how you plan to attack each section and how you will deal with its unique challenges. Where can you pass or make moves on your competitors? Where can you drink and take in calories? These are questions you should be able to answer before starting a race. After each race you should take the time to revisit your plan and add notes on how it worked. That will make your next race plan better, especially if you repeat that course next year.


If you know the course well it makes visualizing the race much easier. You should rehearse the race and possible pitfalls you may encounter and how you plan to deal with them.  See yourself being successful, but also go through adverse scenarios. This leads to fewer surprises on race day.


Growth vs. fixed mindset
As a teacher for 16 years, I’ve often heard parents say, “I was never good at x either,” in response to their child’s struggles in a given subject. A fixed mindset believes that your intelligence, talents and basic abilities are fixed traits. People with a fixed mindset avoid failure, view effort as a weakness, yet have a desire to appear smart.  Those with a growth mindset believe that time, effort, and experience have a big impact on intelligence and basic abilities. They embrace challenges and view failure as learning.  You almost always see the growth mindset in successful, tough minded people. Instead of deciding that you just don’t climb well on the bike or you are always going to be at a disadvantage in hot races, have the mindset that your weaknesses are trainable with the right deliberate practice.


Being a mentally tough endurance athlete isn’t complicated, but it does take serious commitment and perseverance. Along with other traits, mental toughness is not fixed and can be nurtured and improved.  Mentally tough endurance athletes are not born, they are made.


Here is an old video of some past and present XTERRA pros talking about their mental preparation for the 2007 XTERRA National Championship race in Lake Tahoe.

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