5 Tips to Train the Brain: Mental Training for Endurance Athletes

louisville start
Time trial swim start at Ironman Louisville. Photo from http://www.everymantri.com.

John and I were just moments from jumping into the river at Ironman Louisville. The line was moving at a fast pace, and I was quiet.

John asked, “Are you okay?”

“Yep,” I replied. “I’m just getting ready to go to work.”

I was calm and prepared.

Flashback to Ironman Mont Tremblant in 2012. John and I are on the beach, in the moments before the start. He asked me how I was doing.

I burst into tears. I was nervous and scared.

What was the difference between these two moments?

Simple: My brain.

Most of us spend 7 days a week training our bodies, but we don’t always give the same attention and care to training the mind. Yet, mental strength is the key to achieving a breakthrough physical performance.

After my complete freakout before the start of Ironman Mont Tremblant, I knew I had to work on the mental aim of the game for 2013. Just as we might do with physical training, I assessed my mental limiters and went to work on them.

I learned much from this training, and here I share my top 5 tips for mental training for endurance athletes. While I’ve written about each of these separately in different posts throughout this year, I believe there is value in offering them in a single summative post. I hope you agree. 

1. Drop the emotion and get objective about your training and racing. 

Many of us get emotional about our training and racing. We might not recognize the sensations as emotion, thinking that the “pain” is what stops us. Wrong. It’s our response to pain (or any other negative circumstance) that stops us. Emotional responses get in the way of rational decision making, and can prevent us from the best performance possible.

Let’s take a standard speed workout – swimming, biking or running. If you are doing the session correctly, at some point (and at many points) during the workout the physiological sensations will hurt. That’s not the emotional part. Our response to that pain is the emotional part.

Doubt will creep in. Perhaps you have thought a variation of one of the following:

I don’t think I can do another rep at those watts. 

I can’t hold this pace. 

How can I ever do this in a race? I’m dying.

Oh-emmmm-geeee. This is so hard.  

Each of these responses is rooted in doubt, which is tied to fear. Fear of what? Well, that’s what you have to figure out for yourself. Maybe it’s fear of pain itself, maybe it’s fear of failure, maybe it’s fear of expectations. Maybe it’s all of the above or something else entirely.

When you are feeling this way: respond with an objective account of how you are feeling, as I’ve written about before. Use this tip we learned from well known running and triathlon coach Bobby McGee: When it hurts or when you want to quit, ask yourself: What am I really feeling? Be objective in your description. 

If you are truly honest with yourself, you will realize that you are not dying, and you CAN continue. Your body is strong – make sure your mind believes that.

IMG_17612. Focus on what you are doing in any given moment – not on the anticipated outcome. 

When faced with a long or daunting race or training session, it’s tempting to focus on the finish line, the end of the workout, or the next set within the workout. But, we need to resist that temptation because it takes our focus off of what we are doing in the present moment.

In training, a failure to focus on the present moment robs us of the full benefit and intent of the workout. In racing, a failure to focus on the present moment can result in making poor race day decisions, or an inability to execute the ideal race strategy.

Furthermore a telic perspective, when we focus on the outcome or end-goals, rather than the process, can cause performance anxiety. This performance anxiety can wreak all sorts of havoc, and keep you from your best performance. Conversely, a paratelic perspective, when we focus on the process and the present moment, has been linked to improved performance, and tends to be found among the most elite athletes. (You can read more about these perspectives and their relationship to performance anxiety by clicking here.)

3. Actively visualize the race day scenarios. 

Notice I wrote scenarios, not scenario. There are so many different things that can happen during a race. Make sure you are mentally prepared for what the day might throw at you.

When you visualize, think about your ideal race day execution. Imagine yourself strong, confident, successful. Think about each aspect of the race strategy, and visualize what you will have to do to execute it perfectly.

Then, throw in some curveballs with the next set of visualizations. Maybe you get your goggles kicked off your face. Maybe you get a flat tire. Maybe you start to cramp on the run. Maybe you aren’t hitting the targets you set for yourself. Maybe you are getting beat by the competition. Maybe it’s windy, raining, hot/cold, etc.

What will you do?

If you visualize your approach – objectively, not emotionally – you can improve your response to these potential raceday mishaps. Imagine yourself calmly responding to these potential issues. Should the problem arise on race day, you will be mentally prepared to handle it — without the emotional freak out.

These visualization scenarios will work best when done consistently, starting about 4 weeks out.

4. You are what you think, so make those thoughts good ones. 

It’s simple: Think negative, get negative results. Think positive, get positive results. Perhaps you’ve thought some variation of one of the following:

I don’t race well in heat/cold. 

I am not a good cyclist. 

I can’t swim well. 

There is no way I can beat this time or place in that position.

Any of these sound familiar? If you tell yourself something enough, you will start to believe it. When you start to believe it, you will act in ways that are consistent with that belief, or you will lack the mental fitness to stay strong because you don’t believe that you can.

When John and I first started doing triathlons, we bought Don Fink’s book Be Iron Fit. In the book, he recommends that every time you catch yourself saying something negative about your ability, you should immediately re-frame it and say 5 positive things about yourself.

If you are consistent with this, you begin to focus more on what is possible rather than what is not possible. That’s a much better prophecy to fulfill.

Furthermore, many times the “thing” we think we “can’t” do can be fixed with proper training. Don’t race well in a certain climate? Immerse yourself in it.

Not a good cyclist? Do a bike-focused training block.

Need help with swimming? Get a video analysis. Hire a swim coach.

5. Mantras

A mantra might seem like pyschological gobbledy-gook, but I promise you that a well-framed mantra (or 10) is the difference between finishing and making a breakthrough performance.

For me, the absolute proof of the value of mantras came during Ironman Louisville, where my mantras earned me the fastest marathon in my age group and a 5th place AG finish. In the training leading up to the Rosaryville 50k, I learned that a mantra can help you battle the voices, and achieve a breakthrough performance.


I’m not going to sugarcoat this: When done correctly, mental training is hard work. It forces us to acknowledge aspects about ourselves that we might not want to acknowledge. An honest assessment of our abilities can be a threat to the identity we’ve created for ourselves, and we might want to protect that image as much as possible.

Resist that temptation. Make the breakthrough by going for the weakness’s jugular.

For example, I thought I was tough. I never challenged that assumption, and just took it for granted that the fact that I run ultramarathons and complete Ironmans made me a tough person.

Yeah, not really.

When I dug in and really assessed my thoughts–especially in those dark moments–I realized I had a softness that needed reinforcement. I realized that softness came from doubt, and there can be no room for doubt in the final miles of an Ironman.

It’s easy to give mental training short shrift because there are not obvious or tangible data markers to assess your progress. But, I assure you – the more effort you put into the mind, the more rewards you receive with the body.

The final miles of an endurance event – running or triathlon – are hard. Your body is well past the breaking point. The only thing holding it together is your mind. Make yours as strong as it can be.


Got some tips for building mental fitness? Please share them here! Have a blog post that talks about mental fitness – share that too 🙂 


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  2. Thanks for your article. One thing I would add. Those thoughts, feelings “come and go.” They don’t last forever. One response is to let them “wash over you”, knowing that “this too will pass.” Our races are long, they go through different stages, and I think it’s important to know that where we/I am now, is not where we/I will be in 30 minutes.

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  6. Hahaha! I was looking at reading material on brain training for runners, stumble upon this started laughing out loud at this part: I don’t
    I can’t hold this pace. How can I ever do this in a race? I’m dying. Had the same thought this morning. 🙂 Thanks for writing this!

  7. Hi Maria!

    I have so enjoyed reading your posts. Such insight and truth you project. Thanks for all of the information we runners have read over and over…..but often times…..don’t practice or execute. Looking forward to your future posts!

    1. Thanks, Ruth! I think you are right: we all know what we are supposed to do – but the consistency and the execution is the real challenge. I think it’s important to think about each day, each workout, each moment in each workout – and tackle the “little” goals on the way to the “big” ones. I have always found it effective to concentrate on the smaller milestones that need to be accomplished, then one day: voila! You’ve achieved the “big” one. thanks for visiting!! Hope to hear from you again 🙂

  8. Spot on, Maria! Training your brain is just as important as training your body – and, sometimes, I think it’s even harder to do! Mantras are huge for me and helped power me through training and my first IM this year (one of my favorites: Be present) 🙂

  9. Love this. I think when people get into these sports, whether it be running or triathlon or anything in between, they tend to only focus on that part of it. Unfortunately there is a lot more to it and that includes mental training, recovery, nutrition, etc.

    The thing about this is that they all go together. These are not stand alone scenarios. You have to be mentally tough to run those last few miles, etc but you can only get mentally tough if you are capable of going out and training and you can only train if you eat and sleep to aid in your recovery. Slip in one area and the other dominoes are sure to fall.

    Here is a post that I wrote after IMTX ’13 about mental toughness and training/strategy

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