Question. Have you ever been in the middle of a hard workout or even a big race and your strength and energy begins to fail? I know I have. Many times in fact. What you decide to do when the workout or race seems impossible to continue/finish can either create an “I can’t” mindset where you will shut down and never reach your full athletic potential. However, if you push your limit of mental strength, you will find out just how strong and unstoppable you really are. Here is how to create an unbreakable mind.
A few weeks ago I was leading a class of athletes through a workout. This group has been training for over a year, but their training has primarily been focused on strength and power movements. Bench press, dead lifts, Pull-ups, short sprints, etc. On this particular day I was taking them out of their comfort zone.
The focus of the class was high repetition and strong man/obstacle movements, one exercise in particular was a simulated rope climb. For this move each person had to pull himself or herself from a seated position on the ground to a standing position with the rope, then “slowly” lower themselves back down to the ground. Going up was not a problem, but trying to lower “slowly” back down to the ground seemed almost impossible for most of them. Each person seemed panicked and quickly dropped to the ground as if they were sliding down the rope. They simply didn’t have the grip strength to control the descent; or at least they didn’t think they did.
“BELIEVE that you are strong ”
After observing each group struggle with this I paused the class and put the rope climb into perspective. As they sat in disappointment not being able to hold on I told them, “You all don’t think that you have the hand strength to hold the rope, but I have seen you hold a static pull up for 40-60 seconds, deadlift heavy weight, and do farmer walks with heavy kettle bells. You HAVE the strength, you just don’t believe you do simply because you are now gripping a rope instead of a barbell/bar.” Continuing I said, “Believe and know that you have the strength to control your body on the descent of the rope. BELIEVE that you are strong.”
Lo and behold it worked. The following sets, almost every one of them suddenly had the strength to slowly lower themselves back to the ground. So what made the difference for these folks? Metal preparedness is just as important as being physically prepared.
“You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only option. ”
Forging mental toughness is a key component to any endurance race, but it is especially important in obstacle racing, or “OR”. In an OR, you have to be prepared for nearly any obstacle to pop up at any time. Think your race is 4 miles long? Well, it may be 5 or more. Are you expecting a dry race? What will you do if there is a downpour of rain the days prior, and now your 90 minute sprint turns into a 3-4hr sludge fest?
You are physically capable of conquering each obstacle regardless of how hard or how long it takes, but if you are not mentally strong, your day can quickly become a disaster. This is where having mental toughness comes in. I will break mental toughness into 4 categories: Visualization, Belief, Understanding/Acceptance, and Gratitude.
I use visualization before every race and coach my athletes to do the same. Visualizing every aspect of the race before it happens both good and bad. I spend time mentally preparing for everything by creating a checklist with questions & answers.
How does the air feel on my skin? Warm or cold?
– It will be 40 degrees race morning so go outside with minimal clothing before the race, feel the air, then embrace that feeling.
How cold will water plunges and creek crossings be?
-Visualize a deep relaxing exhale when entering the water
How I will approach each obstacle?
– I will walk for 20 seconds before each obstacle breathing deeply and getting my heart rate to drop
What will I do if I cramp?
– I will walk, breathe deep, relax, and stretch the muscle
I visualize myself successfully completing EVERY obstacle but mentally prepare if I happen to fail one. I could continue with my long list but you get the point. Whatever you need to do to visualize success for your race is the key.
While visualizing you must also believe that you are strong. I teach my athletes to be strong as if it is your only option. As if your life depends on it. There is a great quote that I use regularly, “You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only option”.
Think about the stories you may have heard about a woman lifting a car off of her child, or of people displaying almost superhuman strength during a crisis or life-threatening emergency. Well guess what, you don’t just have that ability in those particular situations. You are MUCH stronger than you may think you are. You just have to get your mind in the right place first. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying it will be easy, in fact some of the times I have needed to be strongest in an OR and it hurt like hell. But I did it, I conquered the obstacle because I believed in myself, in my training and in my strength. It is a really cool feeling.
Understanding & Accepting:
You must understand & accept that your race is going to be hard. It is going to challenge you in ways you may have not thought possible. There may be more obstacles than you expected, or some of the hardest obstacles may be stacked all together to completely wreck and challenge your grip strength. That is part of the point of an obstacle race. Accept that you may be on the course hours longer than expected and that every single obstacle you approach could be covered in mud. Again, it is supposed to be hard, but that is what makes the finish so glorious!
Finally, when you are knee deep in freezing mud with scratches all over your body don’t forget to smile and be grateful. Literally be grateful that you have the financial means to pay for and travel to the race. Be grateful that you have a fully functioning body, or legs to pull out of the mud. Be grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow as an athlete and person from your race. The harder the race gets the more you smile and say thank you. I have used this in almost every race I do and I can’t tell you how powerful it is for your mind.
These are my tips for creating an unbreakable mind for all of your obstacle races. I know there are more techniques and strategies, but these are the ones that I have found to help my clients and me the most. If you would like to share your own tips or techniques please leave them in the comments below. You never know, your technique just may be the one to get another athlete through a tough race. Happy racing my friends.