How to deal with the mental challenges of racing, from fitful sleep to burnout.
by Carrie Cheadle
Even with the months of physical preparation leading into an IRONMAN, success often comes down to what is happening in your head. A strong mind can lead a strong body to amazing results. If you’re willing to put in the physical time and suffering, take the time to sharpen your mental arsenal as well. Here are some key mental skills to hone along with your physical training.
Getting a decent night’s sleep the night before a race is rare. One of the most effective tools for insomnia is using progressive relaxation. However, this is a skill that is developed over time—so you can’t just try and use it for the first time the night before a race and expect it to work. You can’t call on a skill to help you relax in the moment if you haven’t done the work—just like you can’t call on your fitness to help you in a race if you haven’t done your training.
If you struggle with sleeping before your races, know that it’s OK if you don’t get a phenomenal night’s sleep the night before your race. Do your best to sleep well the two nights before and know that you can get no sleep the night before your race and still perform well.
If you’re going to watch television before bed, research has shown that watching something funny can decrease your stress hormones. Additionally, you can use the essential oil of lavender, which has also been shown to decrease stress hormones and increase quality of sleep if you smell it before bed.
Excitement is a positive type of stress that can still affect your body and mind in ways that aren’t optimal. How much activation you need depends on the individual and on the sport. If you’re so excited that you’re finding it hard to concentrate, then you may have passed your peak performance point. In order to assess how much excitement, or how much mental and physical activation are optimal for you, you would need to go back and reflect on all of your past competitions. When you think about your past races, you can try to assess how you were feeling before your race and determine how that factored into your performance. Thinking specifically about your best and worst races, you can see if there was a difference between how excited you were feeling before the race and determine how much is optimal for you. Once you know where you need to be, you can work on the tools to either calm yourself down or pump yourself up to get into your optimal state.
It can be so disappointing to get sick before a race. First off, I feel like I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the importance of making sure you’re not overtrained/under-recovered. For endurance athletes there are illnesses that can be staved off by taking a day off when you experience that first inkling of feeling “off.” Consider that you might choose to push through that feeling in order to get your training in and end up having to take a week off instead.
Getting sick does happen. One approach I use when it comes to getting sick is knowing that if you are privileged enough to be an athlete for long enough, at some point you will get sick at an inopportune time. When it’s really close to your event you have to trust that it’s better to take the time off now and be healthy on race day. Trust that everything you did up to that point was enough. You might be in a position of having to adjust your goals for the race, but being flexible to changing conditions outside of our control is part of being an athlete.
Pressure and under-performing
There are so many different factors at play when an athlete has the physical potential but seems to always underperform. Typically, the issue is more than likely a mental one. Once all of the physical factors (fitness, hydration, nutrition, etc.) are ruled out and you feel like it’s the mental aspect you are struggling with, then you can try and assess what’s happening.
Sometime athletes end up unconsciously sabotaging their performances almost as a protective mechanism. You can feel very anxious and vulnerable putting everything you have on the line and finding out it’s still not enough—so you hold back or make mental mistakes so you have a reason for why you underperformed. Other times the self-induced pressure will trigger a stress-response, which will affect your ability to make smart decisions during the race. Every athlete should set process goals versus outcome goals, which can help take the pressure off and keep your focus in the moment.
Some athletes experience so much anxiety around performance that it can actually drive them away from the sport. This decision can be heart-wrenching. I have had so many athletes come to work with me because they were experiencing such intense anxiety that they were starting to contemplate whether or not it was worth it to compete—even when they loved their sport. I decided to write a book to help give athletes the tools that they need for managing feelings of stress so they can get back to having fun. If you’re miserable and no longer having fun, it could be a sign that it’s all just become too much. You may either need to take a break or get ready to start transitioning out of your sport. That transition could also mean that you redefine your relationship to your sport and maybe step back.
However, if you’re miserable but keep going back for more because you desperately want it to be fun again, you need to work on your mental game so you have the tools to be able to manage your anxiety and enjoy competing again. Once you have the tools and know that you can enjoy it, that’s when you can make the decision about whether or not to leave your sport knowing that it’s YOU making the decision, and not your anxiety making the decision for you.
If you’re feeling unmotivated, irritable, angry, sad, or bored, or you hit a relatively small roadblock and fantasize about quitting your sport, these are possible signs of mental burnout. The most effective approach is to prevent this from happening. You need to be able to recognize your early signs of mental burnout and address it at that moment—be proactive instead of reactive. Take time off, find a new workout buddy, cross-train, reconnect with your goals, and remember what you love about your sport—these are all ways to help you get back on the path of feeling motivated and re-energized. It can also be good to reflect on the past several seasons to determine if there are any patterns to your mental burnout. See if your motivation tends to dip around the same time during each season so you can prepare for that in your training plan.
Watch Carrie’s full presentation on TrainingPeaks to learn more about secret goals, visualization practices, progressive relaxation and more in the Q&A.