Mental Strategies

(R)Evolutionary Endurance

Much of what we do in life, in particular in challenging environments such as extreme sport, is impacted, and controlled by our mental state. Below, is a list of important mental strategies that may benefit the endurance athlete, whether preparing for, or participating in, an event. There is no ‘silver bullet’, what works for one, may not for another. Take a look, try them out, and modify as appropriate. If it works use it, if not drop it.

Please note that this page is currently under review and will grow/evolve over the coming months.

Managing responses to stress, fear, anxiety

Our reponses to stress, fear and anxiety, are a combination of responses, including: physiological (clammy hands,  heart palpitation), or cognitive (including decreased rational thinking and memory) and behavioural (avoiding the situation, nervous pacing etc).

However, this may work in both directions. There is likely to be interaction between our behaviour, our cognition, and our physiology, and changing one could impact the others.  For example, preparation, and the confidence and sense of control it brings, relaxation, such as deep breathing deep breathing and meditation, our improving our physiology, and subsequent physiological resilience,  etc can have a positive effect on our response to fear for anxiety. One particular area of research that has gained considerable interest is how alterations to our behaviour an impact, all our responses.

The following Ted talk by Amy Cuddy, though not related to endurance performance, revisits the old adage ‘fake it, to make it’. With some real research examples she  discusses how our knowledge, and beliefs, can impact our physiology. Amy ends the talks with suggesting that changing our body language can impact both our cognitive and our physiological responses. Perhaps engaging with other endurance athletes, and adopting the persona, can impact confidence in abilities.

Amy Cuddy – body Language

Control the controllables

As with life, there are things in endurance racing that can be controlled, and things that cannot. Even aspects of our lives we perceive are within our control are merely wishful thinking. However, as with the well known placebo effect in clinical trials, this may be enough to provide an advantage. Furthermore, as we see in the ‘research’ section, increased perceptions of control positively impact both our mental toughness and our motivation, and subsequently may improve both our enjoyment and our performance.

For example:

(1) We cannot control the weather during a race, but we can control:
– Training in weather and climates, that are challenging, or worse than, those likely to be encountered
– Wearing, or carrying, articles of clothing that maintain our comfort, and provide protection from over exposure

(2) We cannot control the abilites of our fellow competitors, but we can control:
– State of readiness, and physical fitness, as a result of training, eating, and appropriate kit
– Our own race pace, based on our levels of fitness, where conditions allow

(3) We cannot control all the life events that impact our training and our state of readiness, but we can control:
– Planning, and ‘mostly’ the timing or our training sessions – but with an element of flexibility.

For example we may not have the time to do long, 6 hour runs, but perhaps we can complete: (1) back-to-back days of 3 hour runs, (2) one day of two 2/3 hour runs, or (3) a high intensity run immediately followed by a relatively long run.

Inevitably there will be issues and events, often unforeseen, that cannot be controlled, but a level of confidence and perception of control is gained from controlling all that we can. Furthermore, if the uncontrollables can be accepted as not being catastrophic, control can be maintained.

Wheel of success

The ‘wheel of success’ also known more simply as ‘the dartboard’ is one method by which we can identify a list of attributes that are useful, or perhaps necessary, to reach a goal or complete a task. Two charts can be used to represent both where you are, and where you want to me.

For example an endurance athlete preparing for, and aiming to place well in a technical, 100 mile race, may be well trained in terms of long, slow distance running, but require improvements with regards speed. Additionally the event may be unmarked and the individual hopeless at map reading. By giving each attribute a representative current and target score out of 10  we can identify the areas that require improvement, provide appropriate time, focus and training, and revisit the measures over the coming months to track improvements, e.g.

Long, slow running, current score = 9 and target = 9
Speed training, current score = 3 and target = 8 
Map reading, current score = 1 and target = 6

As an example below, the first chart shows current position of attributes, whilst the second shows the target.

Development time and resources can be assigned accordingly.

Books to check out

Kremer, J., & Moran, A. (2013). Pure sport: Practical sport psychology. Hove, East Sussex: Routledge.

Whyte, G. P. (2015). Achieve the impossible: How to overcome challenges and gain success in life, work and sport. London: Bantam Press.

Fail to prepare… prepare to fail

Preparation is key in any sport event, from the training, the equipment, nutrition, hydration to knowledge of the event its. 

One of the best ways to be ready for any eventuality is to make a list, ideally write it down, of all the things that could go wrong, or situations that could be faced e.g. tiredness, thirst, getting lost, broken shoelace, weather changes.

Once done, create a set of actions that can get the situation back in control, and the advance actions that are needed. This process is dual-purpose, firstly unforeseen happenings are less likely to resut in a DNF (did not finish), and secondly a potential increase in the percetion of control, and improved confidence.

Examples are as follows, but need to be tailored to the situation and the athlete: