8/19/14

Mental training - just keep climbing, just keep climbing


When it comes to training for athletic events, there are many different approaches that athletes and coaches use to reach peak performance. When it comes to fueling the human body before, during and after training, there are many different approaches that sport dietitians use to support a body in motion.

But when it comes to the mindsets of top athletes, there is not much that differs among those who know how to use their minds to reach top fitness and perform well on race day. 

Top athletes are mentally strong. They know how to focus on the task at hand, they know how to overcome obstacles quickly and they know that it will be worth it. 

Mental toughness is not reserved for the elite or pro athletes as it has very little to do with speed, pace, watts or finishing times in order to achieve it. Any athlete, of any fitness levels, has the opportunity to be mentally strong in training and racing. 

Although I love showing off our beautiful cycling playground in our new home of Greenville, SC, our new normal includes a lot of climbing. We have found that a typical ride for us includes around 1,000 feet of climbing (at least) per hour of riding. The roads go up and down and with dozens and dozens of training routes for us to enjoy on two wheels, we really have to be mentally prepared for every workout for there is no such thing as an easy ride for us here in Greenville. 

I would like to believe that all triathletes enjoy training. If not, you are in the wrong sport to choose three sports to train for. Maybe not every workout is termed as "fun" but I hope that you are passionate about your sport of choice and enjoy putting in the work so that you can feel and see your body become stronger and faster as you train for improved endurance and fitness. 

When it comes to top athletes who find success in racing, they are 100% engaged in what they are doing, they know where they are going, they trust the plan and they believe in the process. 

Consider how your mind may limit or enhance your performance.
What thoughts go through your head as you train? 
For most age group athletes, we have many thoughts in our mind when we train because frankly, we can not shut off life just because we are training for a race. Perhaps some thoughts are positive, such as thinking of family, your kids, the reason why you are training (ex. raising money for a charity, world or national event), improving your health, etc. but many times, negative thoughts create beliefs. Beliefs that possibly you are too overweight, you are not training enough, you need to push harder and go longer, you are not fit, you are not ready, you are not skilled, you are not cut out for this, you are not good enough......

As an athlete, it is important that you have confidence in yourself but most importantly that you control your thoughts and feelings and keep your mind in the present moment. I have often talked about how my mental coach Gloria has helped me in endurance racing, specifically in the Ironman. She has taught me how to not jump ahead with my thoughts. Why think about how I may feel on the run when I am only on mile 1 of the swim in an Ironman?

Our mind has a powerful influence over our body and many times, we experience this when training for a race. You are starting your main set of your workout and you think there is no way that your body will be able to perform 5 rounds of your main set. By set #3, you can't believe that you only have two more rounds to go! 
Many times, you have thoughts in your mind that have nothing to do with training. 
Random, negative or useless thoughts should be replaced with thoughts that you can use to power your training/racing. 
Why think about the laundry you need to fold when you are performing mile repeaters on the track?
Thinking about that extra cookie or bowl of ice cream you ate last night is going to do no good when you are in the pool, working on your form. 
Although you may not be able to remove some thoughts from your mind like an upcoming work project, school presentation, to-do's with your kids or a family health issue, mental training is a very important part of reaching your full potential as an athlete. 

The past two weekends have been filled with lots of miles on the bike for Karel and me. We absolutely love riding here but it certainly is not easy. 
We are very fortunate that we have no GI issues when we train. There are no nutritional limiters to keep us from feeling "good" (always relative to the day/workout) and thus, we are able to keep our minds focused on the workout as planned.
Additionally, we both are not injured. This is a huge advantage for any athlete for an injury does not allow for mental toughness. You can try as hard as you want to ignore or fight through an injury but nothing feels as good as training with a healthy body and letting the mind control the body. 

Now, having said all of this, even a healthy and well fueled body can suffer. And boy oh boy, did Karel and I suffer two weekends ago. Never had we had to stay so mentally strong as we rode part of the Gran Fondo Hincapie route that took us from our home in Greenville to North Carolina. 


This was our "long" Ironman ride for our season and it turned into one very long ride. 6.5 hours, 105 miles, ~8600 feet of climbing and two very, very, very difficult climbs. 

Our first big climb started around 2:45 into our ride. We had already covered 2100 elevation gain of before the "fun" began. 
There is only 1 climb (Paris Mountain - 2.5 miles) that I can ride on Karel's wheel (if he is not hammering it) so Karel and I do not climb together. 
For 45 minutes and 5.5 miles, I climbed with no one in sight. No cars, no Karel. Just me and my thoughts (and some pretty views and sounds). 
As the temperature dropped from 77 degrees to 70 degrees throughout the climb, I was dripping sweat as I tried to find a comfortable cadence in my smallest gear. 
My average speed was 8.14 mph, the climb started at 920 feet and finished around 2850 feet. That's almost 1700 feet of elevation gained in 45 minutes. 
With every switchback, I kept focused on the road and to be extra careful that when I got out of the saddle (which is a lot since I prefer to climb anything over 4% grade out of the saddle) that my hands didn't slip on my tri base bars. The grade would bounce between 4% and 20%, often around 7-10%
I took advantage of any section that would allow me to sip my bottle and I couldn't help but think to myself "where is the top of this never ending mountain!" 



When I finally got to the top of the mountain, Karel was there waiting for me. I unclipped my right leg and bent over with relief that the climbing was over and happiness that the climb was over. 


We tried to enjoy our view but sadly, we were in the clouds. 


After one of the most difficult climbs I have ever done, it was time to descend down on one of the most difficult descends I have ever done. 


Talk about feeling accomplished when I got to the bottom of the mountain!


Part of the fun with riding in a new area is the discovery of new routes. In races, it is always good to review your course (by biking or driving your course) so you can be mentally prepared. But in training, if you know how hard a climb is, it can be rather hard to want to repeat it. So when we climb a mountain for the first time, both Karel and me have no choice but to stay mentally strong because we have no idea how long we are climbing, where we are going, what's at the top or how difficult the climb will be. 

And so this brings me to climb #2. The most difficult climb I have ever done...after just doing the most difficult climb I have ever done!!

We had 15 minutes (4 miles) to "recover" from Skyuka mountain before we encountered the climb that made me experience my first mental breakdown in Greenville, SC. 



Unlike climbing a mountain, this climb was extremely deceiving. It was simply a two lane open road that just went up and up and up. No switchbacks, no flat parts and absolutely no letting up. 

2.45 miles, average grade 8% (although my Garmin kept showing me 12-13% the entire climb), 19 minutes of climbing and an elevation gain of 1000 feet. 
That's right, we climbed half the distance of our last climb but we went from 976 feet to 1900 feet in less than 20 minutes!
When I could see Karel ahead of me, swerving back and forth on the road, I knew this was one tough climb. 
I was not bonking and I was not in pain but mentally, I was broken. I somehow managed to make myself get to the top of this climb where Karel was waiting for but when I saw the road curve to the left behind some trees with a mountain top in my view, I convinced myself that I was not able to continue. I was done. 
I stopped and had a breakdown. 
Karel told me how exhausted he was and that these two climbs were extremely tough even for him. That gave me even more reason to tell Karel that I was not strong enough for these climbs. 
After spending a few minutes gathering some mental strength, I continued on with Karel and to my surprise, the next climb was not that bad. Perhaps the breakdown helped me out for my body needed to rest and refocus. 
When we stopped to refill our bottles for the last part of our ride, we spent the last 1 hour and 45 minutes of our ride covering only 20 miles and 3400 elevation gain.
Yes, my new normal is averaging 11 mph for 20 miles and staying mentally strong to conquer the climbs in SC (and NC). 


Karel and I both felt amazingly good after our quick stop. Thankfully, we both were not bonking on the climbs but instead, just mentally struggling because of the difficulty of the climb. 
The last two hours and 8 minutes of our ride was quick - 18.5 mph, 40 miles and only around 1400 feet of climbing. 

After spending our Saturday morning (8/9/14) on the bike for 6.5 hours and finishing with a run (10 min with Campy for me and 2 mile run on the track for Karel), I can honestly say that this ride was the hardest training rides of my life. 
However, the physical component of climbing was no more difficult than the mental component. 
Thankfully, we survived to ride another day and mentally we became just a bit more strong. 

(two baby turtles were saved during our ride)