Mental Game Hurdles

By: Cody Elder
USAT L1 Certified Coach

We all have friends and training partners you know you can beat up the long hills every time you train together. But on race day they have edged you out every time. What’s the difference? What are you doing wrong? What is he/she doing right?

The answer may be the 6 inches between your ears.

Below are my 3 things to evaluate to improve your mental game and get you over the edge.

1. Buy into your training
Find or create a training plan that revolves around a heart rate and/or power strategy and stick with it. Take the time to think about the plan, what it is trying to accomplish and make sure you buy-in. The workouts should be progressive (build upon themselves in intensity, duration or a combination of the two) towards a specific race. Then you need to follow it to the letter.

Use the final result to evaluate the success of the plan. Sticking to the plan can be the hardest things for athletes especially when there are lots of ebbs and flows in motivation and perceived performance. Trust yourself and trust the plan.

2. Trust your race strategy
Based on your plan, you should have a well-outlined strategy for pacing either by heart rate or power for your event. What does well outlined mean? What do you do on hills? Do you have a cap for heart rate or power? Do you have an ideal cadence? What do you do if you feel amazing with 10% left in the race?

For your big race and really any race, decide on this well before you wake up that morning. Audibles in strategy can make or break your race and you want all of your focus on pulling your peak effort out. Again, stick to your plan and evaluate IMMEDIATELY afterwards. Just like with big moments in life, the further away get away from the event, the less intense it is. Evaluate your work and ask if you could have given more and write it down immediately.

3. Overcome the little voices
So you know what to do before the race, during the race and after the race but what about hiccups and possible self-doubt? These are what some call little demons. They start out as quiet voices in your head that progressively get louder; questioning your pacing, wondering if your nutrition was the right choice and my personal favorite “why the hell do I put myself through this.”

Across all distances, you usually see a spike in this negative talk between 65% and 85% of the race distance. I’ve watched hundreds of 20 minute power tests and repeatedly, the toughest time for people is between 13 and 17 minutes. At this point, you’ve got lots of demon noise and the best thing you can do is be your own positive coach.

As cheesy as it sounds, affirm your abilities, plan and desire with “You” statements. For example: “You have perfectly executed the first half of the race and you are going to crush the rest.” This is a technique shown to work again and again in sports psychology. However, this doesn’t start on race day. Begin developing your own “you” coaching so that mentally, you are ready for mental road bumps.

With the countless hours you put into pushing yourself physically, make sure you are building a mental game that prepares you for your optimal race day. Practice your mental game as many times as you can. Race day is not when it magically appears. A successful mental game is accomplished after much planning and practice. So find your ‘You’ statement and get ready to have the best race possible.