Quest For IM-Part 3: Building Mental Toughness

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When it comes down to it, it’s me who has to believe I can run a full marathon after swimming and biking, and no amount of others’ belief in me is going to help.

The Time is Fast Approaching
I just did a double take. I looked at my Ironman training calendar and realized I was starting week 11 of the 20 week program I’m following. I’m now at the half-way point of what will be the most challenging competitive event of my life to date. There have been swims and bike rides I thought would never end, but the time is fast approaching when I will stand at the water’s edge of Coeur d’Alene Lake in my bid to become an Ironman.


I’ve learned a few things in the last ten weeks that have really helped me in working toward my goal of finishing the big race. I had intended for this article to focus mainly on nutrition and how someone like me can fuel IM workouts while eating heart healthy. But my story is all about overcoming obstacles, and recently I did it again, and it happened in the pool at my first tri of the year just two weeks ago. In sharing that experience with you, I realized mental attitude would, in reality, be the topic of part three.

Mental Changes
All of last year found me training well in the pool only to panic and flounder in competition. I made up my mind to really work at overcoming this embarrassing leg of my triathlons, and so I hit the pool with a vengeance each and every workout. Soon I was averaging per lap what last year was an all out sprint for me. But training in a lane all alone is not the same as competing in a lake full of strangers come race day. During hard training I kept saying, “Jeff,” (because that’s my name) “Way to go, I knew you could do it. Nice swimming, I’m proud of you.” Things like that helped me to believe in me regardless of what others thought or said.


When it comes down to it, it’s me who has to believe I can run a full marathon after swimming and biking, and no amount of others’ belief in me is going to help m. I also analyzed my competition swims to see what might be occurring to make me freak out. What I discovered was that I would simply start out too fast, and by the time I’d finished my first lap, I’d be panting. This, plus the fact that the splashing in my face by others threw off my breathing rhythm and caused me to panic and almost lock up, seemed to be the culprit. But my mental state played a role as well. It’s helped me that my local pool changed their schedule and now teaches swim lessons at the same time I’m trying to lap swim. It’s helped because often I have to share a lane now, or there are kids splashing all around me, and both have served to simulate race day conditions.

On this particular race morning a few weeks ago, I was pleased to learn I would be number four of four in my lane. The fact that no one would be breathing down my neck from the start helped me to relax, and I was determined to swim as if in practice, no matter what. Also, this was mainly a training day for me and I wasn’t trying for my best time, I only wanted to get back in to the swing of things and work on some transition techniques I’d read about. As I tread water waiting for my heat to start, I listened to the other three talk amongst themselves. One female was a former member of her high school swim team, and even though she admitted to not training very much she wouldn’t “Have any trouble leading everyone.” The heat started and as I pushed off of the wall I kept repeating to myself, “It’s just like swimming laps.” I noticed immediately that I was swimming as I should and could, and I wasn’t in a panic. Imagine my surprise when I caught and passed number three.


Soon I was on the heels of number two, and he was passed as well. All this took place within the first five laps, and served to boost my confidence tremendously. To say I was totally satisfied at that point would be an understatement, but the best is yet to come. By lap six I was on the heels of “Ms. Swim Team,” and holding my position right behind her. Halfway into the return portion of lap six I got up the nerve to tap her heel, not once but twice. Reluctantly, she waited at the wall as I hit and pushed off for all I was worth. I didn’t know who this person was that was swimming in my suit and goggles, but I liked him. With four laps to go I imagined that at any moment I would feel a tap on my foot and I meant to make her earn first position again, so I kept swimming with all I had.

Credit Where Credit is Due
As I swam, I thought of the workouts I’d done as part of the 20 week Ironman training course found here on the BT website, and how these ten laps weren’t anything more then a warm-up for some of those workouts. Again, it was the positive mental statements and affirmations that, although I wasn’t an official Ironman yet, I had to start acting like one now. I pictured how I would carry myself if I had in fact finished a full IM. This caused me to dig deep within myself and overcome my anxieties toward swimming. I was the first one to the wall and out of the pool. Success!

Make or Break Training
In my opinion, it’s not just the volume of training, but the mental overload during the IM build-up that makes you or breaks you. Swimming laps until your arms are dead tired, but knowing you’re only half finished with your workout and gutting out the last few sprints serves to boost your IM attitude. Or running 800’s and holding a faster pace than you’re used to for longer then you’re used to steels you for the next workout or race. It does for me, anyway, and I proved it during the same recent tri when I ran three sub-eight minute miles and finished with my fastest sprint tri time to date.

Thinking Ahead
It’s my opinion that if I wait until I’m at the starting line to conjure positive thoughts about my chances of finishing the race, I’ve waited too long. Right now, with ten weeks to go, I’m utilizing psycho-cybernetics. That is, I imagine the way I want a situation or event to turn out in order to program my mind to be positive and expect good results. An example would be Larry Mahan. Larry was a rodeo all-star back in the day, the sixties and seventies. I once read that in the days before a competition he would find out what bull he would be riding, decide what clothes he would wear, and then spend quiet moments imagining himself on that bull, in those clothes, and staying on for the full count. When his turn to ride actually came, he’d already mentally succeeded dozens, if not hundreds of times. He then rode the bull with confidence, never doubting he could succeed because he never imagined himself doing anything else but winning. It’s a form of self-brainwashing, if that’s how you want to look at it, but if you’re going to think thoughts anyway—why not make them positive, successful ones?

Mental TiVo
Psycho-cybernetics can work for any given situation and I’ve been using it to imagine my IM swim and my ability to run after the 112 mile ride. When the time comes to hop off my Trek and slip into my running shoes, I believe I will be mentally strong and run effortlessly because I’m programming my mind to think that way right now. Try this next time you go to bed: Whatever it is you have to do or want to succeed at, imagine the situation and surroundings in as much detail as possible, even what you’ll be wearing, and picture yourself succeeding. Just keep playing it over and over until it becomes natural to think of any situation as having a positive outcome. I believe the majority of the time you will succeed.

A Nutritional Teaser
Here’s a little bit of what I’ll be sharing next time. We’ve all heard that antioxidants help fight the free radicals that form in our bodies caused by stress, exercise, and just plain living, right? But what are these antioxidants and how can you remember them? It’s easy if you remember this simple word: DECK. Each letter is a vitamin in the anti-oxidant group. There’s more to it then just these four, like Beta-Carotene for example, but think of your DECK as the foundation of your fight against free radicals and you’ll be off to a great start in building a solid nutritional base to partner with your mental and physical training. Until next time, happy training.


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date: May 11, 2007


I love my family, football, tri training and racing, seeing heart patients smile when I share my story with them . . .


I love my family, football, tri training and racing, seeing heart patients smile when I share my story with them . . .

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