Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Practice Success

Someone recently asked me some questions about how I got through the Ironman mentally. I typed up a relatively long answer for her, and decided it's probably worth sharing here. These techniques can be used for any kind of sport or life situation (I used the same techniques in childbirth and with clients I assisted as a childbirth doula that I did in training for the Ironman).

Here's my answer to her:

I'm curious if you've seen Kay Porter's book The Mental Athlete. Kay is a friend from my writer's group and I think her book is an excellent resource on this subject. By the time I read it, I was already using many of her techniques myself, but I would recommend it to anyone looking to improve their mental game.

Personally, I think it's really important to "train your brain" and not just your body. In the last two hours of the Ironman, it's pretty easy to tell who has a mental plan and who does not. There is a big difference between pain and suffering. Almost everyone in the Ironman feels some pain, but it doesn't have to be suffering. There are people in those last two hours whose sole focus though is suffering, and man does that look like a hard way to go! Instead of suffering, there's a lot of mental techniques that you can use that help you work through the pain and feel positive and strong.

I have always used visualization and other mental tools in an almost unconscious way, but about twelve years ago I became much more conscious about using them in training and in my races.
Here's an overview of my mental plan for the Ironman.

Positive Visualization: Before I go to sleep at night, particularly as race day approaches, I visualize the entire course of the Ironman, seeing myself moving confidently and smoothly with power and grace through all three sports and the transitions. At the end, I see myself crossing the finish line, feel myself smiling, exhausted and happy.

In any moments during the day when I feel myself becoming anxious or nervous about the Ironman, I replace those thoughts immediately with a mini-visualization. Perhaps I just focus on whatever I'm nervous about, or perhaps I just see myself crossing the finish line. Basically, I practice success. Incidentally, I used this technique during pregnancy with each of my kids, and my first birth went *exactly*, and I mean minute-by-minute exactly the way I visualized it.

Visualization In Action: When I'm training, I use any difficult times to visualize myself overcoming obstacles in the race. As an example, in one of my long bike rides this summer, it was unexpectedly very hot. By coincidence, the road I had chosen to finish my ninety mile ride on was hillier than I remembered it (or at least, I had never ridden it at the end of a ninety mile ride before!), and the hills were all facing the late afternoon sun. I was exhausted, overheated, and definitely hurting. So at that moment, I chose to visualize myself in a difficult moment in the Ironman. I saw myself in the heat, with a large hill in front of me. I focused my mind on believing that making it up that hill meant I would finish the Ironman. So I powered up that hill. I did the same with the next hill and the next hill, and then I was up and over the last hill. In the actual Ironman, I could call on that ability to work through a difficult patch by recalling that I had faced down difficult obstacles in my training and overcome them.

Specific Distraction: I had decided ahead of time on a race day plan for the marathon. I divided it into four quarters of 6 miles each (I left out the first and last miles, because I figured the excitement and crowds at the finish line would carry me through those). I decided that I would take a mental journey across my home state of Oregon. The first quarter of the marathon would be the Eastern Oregon high desert. The second quarter would be the Cascades down the center of Oregon, the third would be the Willamette River valley, where I live, and the fourth would be the Oregon coast. At any point, if I felt my concentration or physical abilities faltering, I would focus on memories from my life that occured in that section of Oregon. This was extremely helpful to me in the last half of the marathon when my foot injury was more or less excruciating. I called up camping trips I'd taken as a child, college road trips, watching my own kids at the beach, running with my dog on trails, anything and everything to fill my body with happy memories and positive feelings. It really worked!

Energy Visualization: I have some visualizations surrounding energy that I find helpful. I can visualize a golden light above my head, and my breath drawing in the light and when I exhale I send it to all parts of my body. This light carries with it a sensation of healing and peace. I can't really use that one during the race, but I use it when I'm relaxing after hard workouts to help my muscles heal and relax. I know it sounds really woo woo, but it works so who cares :-)

During the race I focused on the energy that all of my friends and family were sending me. I knew a lot of them were tracking me on and were following my progress on the course. I would concentrate on feeling their good wishes and their prayers and energy and let that feeling buoy me up and give me strength. I also visualized my husband and kids waiting for me at the finish line, and how great it would be to see them as I came in. They supported me so much through the whole training process, so I dres on that during the race.

In the tough parts of the race, I also called up memories of other extremely difficult times in my life. Times when I faced large obstacles and worked through them. I remembered how strong I'd been in childbirth, how I summited Mt. Kilimanjaro when I was so affected by the altitude that I felt sick. I remembered the time I almost drowned while surfing, and just kept coming up for air between the waves. All of those things are part of my strength, and I can call on them (incidentally, during childbirth I called upon memories of triathlons I had done to get me through!). This is another form of drawing energy for me - drawing energy from past accomplishments and challenges.

Affirmations: I have several phrases that I use as affirmations that help me keep my mind and energy focused in the right place. They are almost like mantras in a way, and I will sometimes use them repetitively if I am in a tight spot, or I can use them as something to muse on or think about. One of my affirmations is "It is a privilege and a gift to be on this road today." There's also things like "I feel strong. I am committed. I will finish this race." Things like that

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