This is a tough sport. It encourages tough people. People who want to push themselves to the peaks of their physical capabilities, and beyond.
We are a unique group of people that come from a variety of different athletic and life backgrounds – yet we all possess two things: we all have a body and we all have a mind.
It is fair to observe that all triathletes want to do better. Everyone – on some level – wants to exceed their expectations, prove something to themselves and feel good when doing it. That’s what makes triathlon special because the people who want this, choose to put their body and mind through prolonged bouts of discomfort to achieve that kind of reward. Hence why long course racing isn’t a mainstream sport – there are easier ways to feel good about yourself!
This just happens to be a very rewarding way of doing so.
How we use our brain and body separates us from the general population. Otherwise everyone would race triathlon and not just some. Soccer isn’t an easier sport, but it does not place the same demands on the body as triathlon does.
So within the sport – with everyone sharing those two qualities, the differences emerge in the sense of how athletes utilise their Body and Brain. Not separately, but in a synchronised and cognisant manner.
The people who succeed (success here can be explained as simply achieving your goals within the sport) are those who either naturally, or through specific adaptations have developed an extremely strong mind and body.
Not just a strong body. And not just a strong mind either.
You need to be strong in both to succeed in this arena.
Without simplifying things too much, the body is the easiest of the two to make stronger; you find a method that focuses on strength adaptations, you follow it, you recover, you eat, you sleep, you rinse and repeat. You get physically stronger over time.
But the mind is a little more difficult than that. The mind is influenced by so many external and internal factors that you can create an environment that is absolutely perfect for physical development, yet be completely derailed by weakness of the mind.
This is why a lot of athletes who were successful (pro or amateur) in other sports can cross over so easily into triathlon. It’s also why so many AG athletes in this sport come from similar career backgrounds (high achieving, motivated people). In both examples, the experience and situations (mental challenges) created outside of triathlon can be developed as powerful tools within the sport. Mental strength is not isolated by circumstance or relevant only to current environment. Mental strength in one area of your life, can be encouraged for all areas.
The best athletes in the sport aren’t the best simply because they possess herculean strength and endurance qualities – most are of of ‘similar’ physical ability. They are the best because they have a strong mind and they use that strong mind to push the body into deeper levels of suffering to achieve their success. They use mental conditioning to build a stronger body, because they know that when you peel away all the gear, all the noise and all the physical strength – there really is only one thing that separates them from the rest:
And that is what makes them great athletes.
It also why seemingly average people can turn up to an endurance event like Ironman and surprise themselves and others, despite their perceived physical abilities. In comparison they might be lacking physically, but they are certainly strong mentally. That is the reason why they are able to compete in such events.
We have said this time and time again: it is the ones that are willing to suffer that will do best.
Whilst that sounds resplendent in it’s masochistic overtones, what it really means is that this sport is more about the head than it is the body. Yes, you need a degree of fitness (strength, then later endurance) to get around for 3.8/ 180/ 42.2.and everyone has to do the same distances. The speeds vary – the pain and effort to do so, does not.
It hurts to race for 8 hours. And it hurts to race for 16.
The difference lies within that 8 hour difference (first across the line to last across) is the people who have a stronger mental fortitude. They are not impervious to pain, but they have developed an inherent skill. They can deal with that pain effectively. The can deal with it enough to get them to the line faster.
They get comfortable being uncomfortable.
It comes pretty natural for some, and it is something that other struggle to develop. But is 100% trainable. Coaches have known this for years. And thankfully, sport science has proven that mental training is a key aspect of competition. I am glad the coaches didn’t just wait around for science to catch up on that one.
So if what separates you, from the person that raced faster, isn’t so much their physical prowess but their mental strength – my question to you is:
What are you going to do about it?
Answer: Get strong mentally.
To do this you have to determine the areas that you are mentally weak in. Do you struggle under race-day pressure? Do you easily lose focus? Do you lose the plot when things don’t go your way (Stadler style)?
Where are your weak points? Find them, then focus on making them strong points.
After all, the body follows the head.