Understanding and mastering mental fitness can be the key to unlocking your hard-earned physical fitness. Leaving mental fitness by the wayside can limit your ability to access all of the physicality that has been developed. At QT2 Systems, when our first four cornerstones—training, nutrition, pacing and fueling—have been covered and we’re still not seeing peak race-day performances, then it’s time to take a good hard look at mental fitness. Strong mental fitness yields full physical performance potential, while poor mental fitness will leave you settling for some lesser fraction thereof. You devote so many hours and so much effort to maximizing physicality—don’t neglect the mental side of things.

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More likely than not, this day stands out in your mind not because of where you placed, but because of how you felt.

Race-day performance is little more than the fitness that has been built over the course of your career, minus the mental roadblocks that prevent you from accessing it. Strong mental fitness does not make the impossible possible; it does not add to a performance on race day. But lack of mental fitness will prevent a solid performance come race day. If we envision fitness as a pie, the goal is to use the entire pie come race day. Unfortunately, when mental fitness is a weakness, it’s like taking slices out of the pie. The number and size of the slices depend on how deep the mental fitness limiters are and how effectively we can ward them off.

Visualization and imagery are important methods of removing mental fitness roadblocks. These are not the only tools we can use, but they are very effective and user friendly. An athlete can practice them day in and day out, both during and outside of training sessions. This ease of practice makes the task something that the athlete can very easily rely on before race day. Let’s take a look at three kinds of imagery and visualization, as well as when and how to use them most effectively. Each of these can play a big role in removing mental roadblocks and allowing fitness to shine through.

BEST PERFORMANCE IMAGERY.
This type of imagery references past performances where you excelled. What did it feel like on that day? How smooth did you feel before the race and on the course? Did you experience flow? What else can you remember about the day? What did you see? What did you hear? What made that day so special and how great did that feel?

More likely than not, this day stands out in your mind not because of where you placed but because of how the effort felt. Reminding yourself that you can feel that way, because you have felt that way before, can go a long way in helping you find those feelings again. Does the mind follow the body, or the body follow the mind? Probably a whole lot of both. So prepare both to be the independent variable. Create situations where your body can experience involuntary feelings of smoothness and flow. This opens your mind to experience the same. On the flip side, preparing the mind to recognize, recall and recreate these involuntary feelings of smoothness and flow puts the body into an ideal position to make them tangible. Practice and rehearse what you are good at and have been good at instead of dwelling upon those things you are not good at or anxious about.

Best performance imagery is best used leading into an event or key training day. It is the first act in developing confidence in the task at hand because it gives the mind something real to grab onto. The old adage that after scoring a touchdown, football players should “act like they’ve been there before,” rings true here as well. You have to know what it feels like.

In the days and nights leading up to an event, you can replay those images in your mind to constantly remind yourself that they exist and that you can experience them again.

SUCCESS IMAGERY. This type of imagery is done before an event. It is used to create a mindset of what success would look and feel like at the race. How many times have you been out on a long run and envisioned yourself hunting down and passing a competitor up the road? How many times have you been on the bike and envisioned yourself breaking away from a group? This is success imagery when it’s applied to the upcoming race. Everything on the day is going perfectly, in your mind’s eye, and you can envision the sights and sounds and how it will feel. If you play this in your mind over and over, you will eventually begin to believe it.

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This type of imagery can help an athlete who struggles to keep a positive mind-set or who lacks the confidence to reach a new of level of positivity and self-belief. This new level of self can then lead to a more concrete optimism and conviction. Is there room for significant disappointment on race day if everything doesn’t go according to plan? Absolutely! But effectively using coping imagery (keep reading) can offset the negativity that creeps in when things don’t go according to plan.

COPING IMAGERY. Arguably the most important form of imagery, coping imagery trains athletes to run their mind through any number of scenarios where they are forced to overcome obstacles. Athletes always hope negative things won’t happen, but inevitably, something almost always goes wrong. There are no perfect races. The athlete who has run through coping imagery will have practiced running the worst-case scenarios through their mind, developed a tool to fix it, practiced using the tool and will be ready to move on and stay focused.

A classic example is stress and anxiety at the swim start. Most athletes will hope they won’t panic once the cannon sounds. But if panic is a possibility, then there is no more likely time for it to happen than at the beginning of a 140.6-mile endeavor. There’s a tremendous amount of adrenaline already coursing through the body at that moment. Rather than simply hoping that panic will not set in, why not assume that it is going to happen and then run through a series of already developed cue words or phrases to help to alleviate this stress? The athlete and coach can write down these cue words long before race day, as they foresee this possibility and work to mitigate it. Maybe these words are combined with a physical plan of deep breathing while lying on your back. The mental fitness issue of anxiety may still exist, but you are managing it so that its effect on your performance is minimized, if not completely eliminated.

One of the most important aspects of coping imagery is an exhaustive self-assessment to identify what can block access to your earned level of fitness. Think of everything and prepare for it. I like to prepare my athletes to have a toolbox on race day with a tool to deal with every situation they may encounter. This takes time and experience. None of us can predict all of the possible things that could go wrong. But we can reflect upon our past experiences, listen to the experiences of others, and remain more aware of our present and future experiences to compile a pretty comprehensive list. Once we know and understand what we’re dealing with, developing coping mechanisms is the easy part.

You know how much time and effort it takes to develop physical fitness; isn’t it very likely that develop outstanding mental fitness should demand a commensurate amount of work? But who among us really pays it that much mind? The answer is very few—so far. I expect that we will soon realize that our greatest untapped source of speed lies not in interval ladders, nor race-pace simulations, but in unlocking the potential of the mind to help us finish faster and go farther. Most triathletes are already doing a pretty good job maximizing their physical engines. The time they spend further honing these physical tools may be better spent on mental fitness.