Head Over Heals - Mental Floss for Endurance Athletes

author : BobbyMcgee
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When we get ready to train or race, we have a pretty fixed set of thoughts. We are unaware of how they affect our racing.



Tim Noakes, famous sports physiologist, is fond of saying that 80 percent of endurance success is physical, while the other 60 percent is mental! However humorous that may sound, the truth is that once we’ve lost the weight and cleared the lungs, the physical advantages to be gained from training, in the domains of progressive overload and super-compensation, are rather small—about 12 percent in some cases. After this stage, physical training mostly provides us with opportunities to confront our mental barriers.

My own formula for overcoming these barriers is a structure I call The Essential Five Components of Mental Training. This is very useful advice you can draw on while you’re out there being a road warrior, and can help you determine a language and strategy that ensures that you access as much of your physical potential as possible.


Human beings are thinkers. We have a constant flow of chatter going on in our minds. This incessant internal dialogue determines wholly how we act. We are not our thoughts, but we think we are, and act accordingly. When we get ready to train or race, we have a pretty fixed set of thoughts around these occurrences; “I’m not really a very good hill runner.” For the most part, we are unaware of these thoughts and how they absolutely determine how our training and racing.

Manageable overload: Stress that leaves you stronger on recovery.
Super-compensation: When, through training and deprivation, the body’s stores are used up and the body is subsequently able to load more than would normally be the case, as in carbohydrate or water loading.


Based on the assumption that you will think something before you train and race, and that you will have very distinct thoughts while you train and race, you can pre-plan your thoughts and effectively program a successful race. Like race drinks and new shoes, mental strategies need to be rehearsed and refined before we take them into the cauldron of racing.

1. Strategy


Positive affirmations, based on realistic, but high standards, written down and repeated (often and out loud) are one of the more successful techniques used by winning sportsmen and women; rivaled only by visualization as the most effective tool to access potential.


Just as you plan training and racing according to the specific demands of distance, geography (read: hills!), surface, weather and your fitness level, so too you can prepare simple statements, or affirmations, to repeat to yourself when a certain situation arises. For example: A short, sharp incline in a 10km race, which might normally evoke a negative self-statement such as, “Oh no, this is really going to hurt and spoil my time!” can be re-programmed to elicit a key coping strategy, set in motion by a well-rehearsed instruction to yourself: “Shorten your arm action, hit back with the elbows so as to maintain rhythm...lean into it now”—same situation, different self-talk, better results.

When you “talk” to yourself, talk to yourself in the second person, e.g. “You smoothly and powerfully negotiate the hills on this course.”

The more detailed your planning, preparation and target setting, the less space you leave for negative thoughts to creep in. Write down your coping statements. This gives you easier access to them when the realities of race day are upon you. Break your race up into the smallest possible segments and aim to concentrate on one segment at a time.

2. Focus

Elite racers focus inwards. They do not attempt to take their minds off their running or the race.

A good way to evaluate your powers of concentration is to determine how much of the race you remember and how many times you lost focus or thought of something irrelevant to performance. “Did you see that mansion they’re building near the 5-mile marker?” means you were concentrating—but not on the race.

One way in which countless endurance athletes lose concentration is by trying to avoid how hard the effort feels to them by trying to think of something else (see point number 5). What actually happens is that by focusing on not doing something, you are in fact accessing the very thing you are trying to avoid. On top of this, the mind cannot read a non-instruction—it removes the negative. Tell the mind what to do, not what not to do! By focusing on something else you lose power and control over the ability you have, because your mind is occupied with something that is irrelevant to your performance.

Athletes respond well to advice that has them concentrate on a subjective feeling earlier in the race. Example: “I feel like a gazelle, light and fast” or like a racehorse, or a powerful motorbike. Any positive image of strength, endurance, efficiency and speed should do it. Then later, when the auto pilot feeling begins to fade, I have my athletes turn to objective technical thoughts such as, “Use your arms, relax your shoulders, lean into the hill.”

Remember the 75 to 90 percent factor: the physical and mental low point of almost every race. You’ve come too far to quit, and are too far from home to attack, and so you drift in no-man’s land. You become non-present to the situation, and full access to the true energy you have available is lost. Your thoughts and focus are on what has passed and how that affects you, and what is to come—like, “Do you still have enough energy for the finish?” By not being in the present you are dwelling on things you have no control over, i.e. the past and the future. By getting into the present, you can work on so many things. You can lean forward, repeat your affirmations, and so on. In other words, focus on the task at hand. Ensure that you always work hard on this area in training until it becomes second nature. Add a focusing statement to your strategy: “I will run strong from 7 to 9 km in this 10km race.”

From the analysis of many marathons it has been found that the first 5 miles are usually run at projected pace. Expect and plan to run a little faster from 5 to 10 miles. Pace then normally decreases till about 20 miles, and from then on, the slowest part of the run usually occurs. By knowing and accepting this, your concentration is aided and the race holds less anxiety for you.

3. Anxiety and Relaxation

Most elite sportsmen and women have a specific pre-event relaxation routine, which they repeat exactly before each competition.

There is an optimum level of anxiety and relaxation for each of us. Finding this state for yourself will ensure that you have your best runs. You should feel excited and a little nervous. Determine how you felt and remember what you said and did before your best races and duplicate that behavior. Talk to people who have a calming influence on you. Ponder on positive occurrences. Resort to your pre-planned thoughts and be objective and rational. Keep your mind in the present and stay task-oriented. Keep your mind on what you are doing rather than projecting into what might or might not happen. Concentrate on physically relaxing specific muscle groups.

If you are particularly nervous, get busy. Doing many run-throughs (strides) not only calms you mentally, but also physiologically, by balancing your blood sugar level so that you don’t feel that characteristic heavy, lame feeling prior to races that is brought on by anxiety.

Re-interpret your feelings of anxiety as feelings of excitement. Remind yourself that you WANT to be here, that you want to run this race.

4. Visualization/Mental Imagery

Create your own movie, with yourself as the hero. The more realistically you create the picture, the more accurate the outcome. Visualization is self-fulfilling.

This is the single most successful mental training drill you can do. All it involves is “going to the movies” in your mind’s eye, picturing how you can successfully compete in and complete an upcoming event, be it racing or training. These guidelines will help you achieve successful visualization.

  • Always imagine a positive, yet realistic outcome; in other words, aim high, but within reason. Never fail in this movie you have created. You should develop strategies for when you come unstuck or make a mistake, but not during visualization. Stop the film and develop a strategy for when this might happen to you. Then commit to executing this strategy should things go wrong and then return to experiencing the movie of visualizing the perfect race.

  • Utilize ALL your senses, not only vision—feel the sensations of rubber meeting road, the smells and tastes, hear all the race-associated sounds.

  • Visualize your race as often as possible, running sections of the race at a time if need be: a four or five-hour visualization session for a marathon might prove prohibitive!

  • Visualize at race pace and physically time some of your imagery exercises. Imagine you’re running the 4th mile in a 10km race in vivid detail and time the process. A perfect movie segment will bring you to the 5-mile marker in your target time.

  • Enjoy and trust the experience of performing visual imagery. This greatly increases the chances of success and is a maxim that applies to all facets of life. We all mastered visualization as kids, so get back there again.

5. Dealing with the sensations of endurance sport effort

Australian coach Percy Cerruty said: “Embrace pain like a lover.” He thought it should be interpreted as something to enjoy, something that will bring fulfillment.

I strongly suggest you not call the effort experienced in hard effort pain. In fact, by calling the sensation of hard endurance work by the name “pain,” we give it power and control over our performance that it really does not have! The secret of dealing with the discomfort of exertion brought on by successful distance racing is to re-interpret what it means.

To try to think of other things in the race in order to avoid the discomfort of working hard is a doomed exercise. This is called disassociative thinking. That which you are trying to avoid becomes exaggerated in your mind and ultimately derails your concentration. Place your full attention on the source and very nature of the discomfort. Learn about what the body does when it is working hard. When next you are experiencing the effects of exertion, know them for what they are—the physiology of hard effort, that’s all. A good interpretation is that the feelings you experience as you race hard are a clear indication that you are performing at a high level.

The experience of effort is an indication of performance. The more you can take on, the better you perform. The key to success lies in progressively taking on more and more sensation, by continually reassessing what you are prepared to tolerate, until the end of the race coincides with the peak of effort. By following this approach you are assured of feeling satisfied that you gave your very best on that day.

Give whatever daunts you parameters. Talk objectively to yourself about its nature. Know something of what it is—for example, exertion is simply lactate providing you with the ability to continue, or feeling exhausted challenges you to overcome its effects. Know fully that your willingness to endure is entirely voluntary and having clarity that this discomfort is of your own choosing gives you the power to transcend its effect on you. The mind is a cautious beast; long before the body begins to experience its true limits the mind begins to issue warnings. We only learn to deal with the challenging nature of truly hard effort from experience. Each hard session is an opportunity for this—use this to the fullest extent possible.

Develop a strategy, such as: “When sensation threatens to become intolerable, I will say this… and do that….” Glean statements from this article or create your own.

Check into the heart and source of the feelings of discomfort, and then turn it up a gear. Promise yourself to stay with it for a limited period, for example say to yourself, “Just to the next street light.” Then when you get there, renegotiate your willingness to turn it up a notch again and so on—this is the very core of what it takes to transcend your perceived limits and perform at the very highest level of your ability.

Finally, put it all 5 points together in training. Having the ability to create and utilize a powerful mental strategy will heighten your training and racing experience and turn you into a competitor of note amongst your peers, and isn’t that where the fun lies?

I have known and worked with many of the world’s greatest distance athletes, and what sets them apart from the rest of us is not so much their physical attributes, but their utter refusal to quit. This is clearly born of supreme mental toughness whether that is trained or natural.

Go out there and think like a winner.

Bobby McGee


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date: March 5, 2006


Bobby McGee is an internationally acclaimed endurance coach who has produced an Olympic Champion, world champions and numerous world record holders. Through his coaching, lecturing and writing, he has become a much sought after figure in the world of human potential fulfillment.


Bobby McGee is an internationally acclaimed endurance coach who has produced an Olympic Champion, world champions and numerous world record holders. Through his coaching, lecturing and writing, he has become a much sought after figure in the world of human potential fulfillment.

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