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Mental Fitness and the 4 F’s (Not the 4-Letter F-Word)

[Note: The content of this post was part of a presentation I gave during the DT&N training camp in Lake Placid, on June 5, 2015. I’ve reworked the presentation notes to share here.]

“What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.” ~Zig Ziglar

This sentiment reflects my experience over the past several years – as I’ve moved through various goals, from my first sprint to my first double ironman. Working toward each of my goals (and all of the ones in between) has been a journey worth taking.

What I have become (I hope) is a person who is braver, stronger, smarter and happier.

This picture was taken about 30 seconds after I crossed the finish line. I have been chasing this feeling ever since.

Hello, Teeth! This picture was taken about 30 seconds after I crossed the finish line of my first Ironman in 2010. Every time I see this picture, I weep happily for the woman I was becoming.

The journey to cross that first Ironman finish line is one that I will never forget. I learned how to be an athlete (again). I learned how extraordinary the body is, but even more so, I learned the mind is the MOST powerful and important tool we can have as endurance athletes.

Achieving our goals is as much (or more so) dependent on mental fitness, as it is physical fitness.

I define mental fitness as a strong belief in your ability, which allows you to push beyond your perceived limits, to counter negative thoughts, to be stubborn and steadfast in your quest to achieve your goals, and to possess a healthy confidence that, with hard work and grit, you can achieve those goals.

Mental fitness means you DON’T STOP BELIEVING even at – especially at – your lowest points.

But, belief doesn’t just come to you – you have to train the brain to believe. I taught myself to believe that with hard work, I could go from the back of the pack to a Kona slot. As you might imagine, that was not an easy sell at the start.

To further support the point I’m trying to make about mental fitness, it’s worth noting that I am not a naturally gifted athlete. In fact, I’m really average physically. I lack coordination. I’m clumsy. My body type is not exactly what you see among the most elite athletes in the world. I’m not some super fast freak of nature – but, sure, I am some type of a freak.

My secret? I define and articulate realistic but challenging goals. I work like a dog to achieve them. And, I’ve taught myself to BELIEVE, working my mental fitness just as much as my physical.

With respect to mental fitness and goal setting, I’ve learned a few things that might be of use to you. I call them the four “F’s”: Fear, Focus, Facts, Fun. 

Fear

Fear is a powerful emotion that can motivate or paralyze. I’ve had moments of both in racing and training.

When I first went to Lake Placid to train during the Fireman Ironman camp in June 2010, just 6 weeks before my first Ironman ever – I was scared of E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G. I was scared of the descent. I was scared of getting mauled by 3,000 bodies in Mirror Lake (mass swim start era). I was scared of hyponaetremia AND dehydration. I was worried about not getting my nutrition right. I was anxious about how exactly one runs a marathon after 112 miles on the bike.

Mostly, I was scared because I was scared.

At the time, I was ashamed of my fear. I thought it meant I was weak and incapable. But, now I know that it’s normal – and pretty rational – to experience some fear or anxiety in the fact of a big hairy audacious goal (BHAG). If you don’t feel even just a little bit scared or anxious about your goal, then you aren’t being ambitious enough.

As the cowboy laureate John Wayne said, “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyhow.”

View of the top part of the Ironman Lake Placid Descent. (Photo labeled for reuse. Original available at http://cdn.triathlon.competitor.com/files/2011/11/lakeplacid.jpg.)

View of the top part of the Ironman Lake Placid Descent on race day in 2011. (Photo labeled for reuse. Original available at http://cdn.triathlon.competitor.com/files/2011/11/lakeplacid.jpg.)

And, so I did. I saddled up and rode that descent. Over. and Over. and Over. In so doing, I killed that fear. I learned I was in control of my bike – and more importantly, I learned that I can’t control the terrain or the weather, but I can control my mental responses to them.

I learned to fear less. 

So, every time I face my fear and I saddle up anyhow, I turn fear and anxiety into motivating emotions. However, fear can also paralyze you. You cannot let the fear become so intense that you fail to saddle up anyhow, or you stop shy of reaching your BHAG. I learned this lesson in Mont Tremblant when my irrational fear almost derailed my day. (You can read that story by clicking here.)

So, what can you do to manage fear and anxiety to ensure that it motivates you? Here are my best tricks:

  • Never underestimate the power of positive mantras. Find what works for you – and repeat it in the face of adversity. I use a series of various mantras that speak to me, and you should find the ones that work best for you. My favorite? Of course: DON’T STOP BELIEVING.
  • Refute negative self talk with positive re-statements. When you catch yourself thinking or saying something negative (usually because of fear or anxiety), IMMEDIATELY refute that statement with something positive about yourself. I ask my clients to do this from time to time when they are in a low spot. It really works. Writing down these positive re-statements is even better than saying them. Then, you can print out those statements, keep them visible, and teach yourself to BELIEVE.

IMG_3516

  • Think RATIONALLY in the face of uncertainty or things that you can’t control. Don’t let your emotions take over. Don’t let that fear turn to paralysis.
  •  Redirect your thoughts. While climbing to Hawi during Kona, I watched several people get blown over, crashed to the ground, by the strong gusts. Needless to say, that was a scary sight. But, instead of giving in to the panic, I recognized it, and then I redirected my thinking by singing: “Just what makes that little old ant, think she can climb up to Hawi without a face plant? She’s got HIGH HOPES! She’s got HIGH HOPES! She’s got high apple pie cross the finish line hopes!” You may also recall my James Brown, “I Feel Good” singing fest during the Double. Apparently, singing works for me. But, it’s not the only way to redirect your thinking. For example, you can try counting, which can be valuable when strings of positive words become too hard to think about.
  • Break the “scary thing” into manageable chunks. For example, I break the Lake Placid descent into 3 distinct parts, which makes it easier to manage both mentally and physically. Or, the marathon isn’t 26.2 miles; it’s 4 x 10k plus a finishing kick. Okay, yes, still 26.2 miles – but how you think of those 26.2 miles makes all of the difference in how you execute them.
  • Saddle up anyhow. Ultimately, you need to FORCE yourself to do the thing you fear – which will quiet that fear. You’ve taken the unknown, and made it known. You own that experience now.

IMG_4213Focus

You’ve set your big hairy scary audacious goal. Now, you need focus for the journey required to achieve that sucker. This focus comes in two varieties:

  1. focus for the long term journey from point A to point Z, and
  2. focus in the short term for specific training sessions.

The long term journey will require a great deal of motivation to stay focused, as well as a willingness to sacrifice instant gratification in the short-term for long-term achievement.

During the 3 years I was pursuing the KQ, every decision I made was based on the metric: Will [X thing] help me qualify for Kona or not? I made a lot of small sacrifices which added up to MANY extraordinary experiences. Kona was only one of those amazing moments I’ve been blessed to have thanks to discipline and focus.

Focus for specific training sessions is equally important. “Monkey mind” can take over and lead you astray from achieving the necessary purpose of each workout.

If you aren’t sure what the purpose of a particular session is, you need to figure that out. If you have a coach, ask your coach. If you are using a book or online plan, do some research so you understand what it is you need to accomplish in a single session – and FOCUS on that purpose.

Some tips to help you keep your focus in the short and long term:

  • Find your “why”. Remind yourself why you are working so hard, why the goal matters to you, what it will mean to put in the work to accomplish the seemingly impossible.
  • Write down your goals and keep them visible. Have copies in several locations: home, work, car. My husband John even carries a copy of his goals in his wallet.
  • Hold yourself accountable to your goals by sharing them. You don’t have to share your goals publicly, but perhaps with a trusted friend, your coach, your partner (in training or in life). By sharing your goals, you can hold yourself accountable, but you also create an ally with whom you can talk about the good and the bad moments in training.
  • Consider a coach. Coaches are good allies, and they can help keep you on the right path with some tough love, talk you off a ledge with kind support, and make sure you stay focused with well-timed feedback and analysis.
  • Keep a journal about your desires and reflect on where you’ve been and where you want to go. Writing down your thoughts – either in a private journal or a public blog – gives you a record of where you’ve been, where you are and where you want to go. It allows you to reflect upon what is working, what isn’t, and what you need to do today in order to be where you want to be tomorrow. 

Facts

Goal setting and mental fitness needs to be grounded in the facts about your abilities. You don’t want to either overestimate or underestimate your ability to achieve a specific goal. Goals should be challenging – but they must also be realistic.

My best tips for using facts to help you stay on target:

  • Use your training metrics to understand how realistic your goals are. In 2011, I decided I was going to qualify for Kona. But, based on my training metrics at the time, I knew I would need to give myself several years to make that realistic. As I moved through each season, my coach at the time Vince and I assessed where I was, where I needed to be, and how I could get there.
  • A follow up to the previous tip: TRUST YOUR NUMBERS. At Coeur d’Alene in 2014, Vince gave me my targets for the bike, sound numbers based on my training. Yet, I let fear convince me I couldn’t hit them (back to the first F!). Needless to say, I was wrong. I undershot the bike (by a lot), I was able to run like the dickens, but lost the slot by 90 seconds. Just a touch harder on the bike, chances are I still would have been able to run like the dickens, and I wouldn’t have had to do IM Louisville. Again. If I didn’t have to do IM Louisville, I wouldn’t have shown up at Kona like a wet dishrag. TRUST YOUR NUMBERS. They don’t come out of your (or your coach’s) ass. They come from your training metrics.
  • After my epic emotional blow up at Ironman Mont Tremblant in 2012, Vince sent me an email that said: Less emotion, more objectivity. I made this concept my primary goal for 2013. It was one of the best mental shifts I’ve ever made. You can’t get caught up in emotional pitfalls that lead to overly negative (or overly inflated) thinking about your ability. Be objective. Be rational.
    • When things feel hard: be objective. Are you dying? No? Carry on.
    • When things don’t go right: be objective. Don’t wallow. Assess what happened, and move on. I wanted to wallow in my loss at Coeur d’Alene – and I did for about a week. But, after that, I knew what had to be done. So, I did it.

Fun

At some point, all of this singular focus can wear on you. Trust me. I pretty much hated Kona by the time I got there. Okay, maybe I didn’t hate it, but I certainly wasn’t as completely wowed by it as I thought I would be.

So, you need to mix in some fun stuff too. You don’t have to swim, bike, run 24/7. You can mix in other stuff too. Sure, in the thick of a race build it’s really hard to mix anything – even your post-workout recovery smoothie. But, you aren’t always in the thick of a race build. Off-season is a good time to remember that you might have other hobbies.

I got the moves like jagger. Having fun just a few short weeks before IMLP 2013. It wasn't on the training plan - but the break was needed!

I got the moves like jagger. Having fun just a few short weeks before IMLP 2013. It wasn’t on the training plan – but the break was needed!

And, even in the middle of hard training, give yourself downtime when it feels necessary. Go out for a fun night. Before Lake Placid in 2013, John and I went out for what we thought was going to be a quiet anniversary dinner, which wound up into a fun night dancing with friends. Sure, I didn’t plan to stay out until 1 a.m., but I was glad I did. It was a moment of fun – not swimming, not biking, not running. It relaxed me. Once I recovered from staying out past my bedtime, I was able to return to training mentally rejuvenated.

Mental fitness is not unlimited. Think of it like a bank account. You can’t keep withdrawing funds and expect there to always be money in the bank. You need to deposit from time to time.

I spent A LOT of mental capital between 2011 and 2014, so I knew I had to do thinks differently to refill my bank account. 2015 had to be different. It was a blast! (Key highlight: BIG DITCHES!!)

For you, know when it’s time to withdraw mental capital – and know when it’s time to make deposits.

As you prepare for your big goals this season and beyond:

  • embrace the twinkle of fear that comes from dreaming really freaking huge dreams.
  • acquire the focus you need to stay on track.
  • understand the facts of your training and be objective in facing those facts.
  • find fun in what you do to keep your mental bank account in the black.

What you become as you go along your journey is the main reward. The goal is just a mechanism to encourage you to saddle up.

2 comments

2 pings

  1. Jason @ Cook Train Eat Race

    Absolutely loved this. Fear is a big motivating factor for me. I love proving people (ok myself) wrong but it typically starts with the idea that I cannot do this/that. From there I begin to think about how I can do this/that and then set out to do it.

    And for me the distraction is counting. I love just counting to a certain number over and over and over again. I set my breaths to it, or steps and before I know it the task is over.

    Great post.

    1. Maria Simone

      Hi, Jason!! Thanks for the comment. Yup – that feeling of not being really sure what you can do, pushing that limit – it’s a rush! Counting has gotten me through MANY a dark moment. It’s amazing how well it works to reset the brain. Thanks again!

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