Ultra Sports

Is Your Head Getting in Your Way?

You have to be willing to bust your butt. And then do it again. And again.

What does it take for you to reach your potential as an athlete? The true challenge in triathlon, marathon, cycling, open water swimming and other ultra events is the competition between you and the course, you and the clock – but primarily between you and your mind. Success in these endurance sports is all about your mental ability to handle the pain and fatigue of oxygen debt, about your ability to master the limits that you think you have. The endurance sport athlete’s most formidable opponent can be found in the mirror. You are both the problem and the solution!

Are you mentally tough as an athlete? Do you know how to consistently harness the power of your mind to lift the level of your performance? Or are you your own worst enemy out there? Are you the kind of athlete who beats him/herself well before the race’s finish?

Perhaps one of the first mental demands that you must address in your sport has to do with motivation. Do you have the inner drive to do what’s necessary to achieve success? Do you have a meaningful goal that helps keep you focused and moving forward through the brutal and sometimes monotonous grind of daily training? Without a “big enough why” or a personally-compelling goal, your motivation will stall out. You have to be able to ask yourself on a daily basis, “How is what I’m doing right now going to help me get to where I want to go and is it important enough for me to sacrifice and hurt right now?” Far too many athletes trade what they want the most for what they want right now.

Becoming a champion also demands that you consistently practice “pushing the envelope.” You have to be willing to regularly bust your butt. That is, you must live the winner’s creed; get comfortable being uncomfortable! Your success demands that you continually move towards your physical and emotional limits. When you’re tired and your body is screaming for mercy, you have to stay with the discomfort just a little more. When you don’t like the training conditions, weather, or course, you have to embrace them. Finding adverse conditions to train in is simply being smart! Sooner or later you’ll have to compete in them. If it intimidates you to train with or compete against much better competition, seek them out! They are your ticket to the next level! Get comfortable being uncomfortable and you’ll become successful. The only way to really excel in your sport and in life is to get in the everyday habit of pushing your envelope.

Concentration and mastering pain and fatigue of oxygen debt.

Becoming a winner in any ultra event also demands that you develop the ability to handle competitive pressure. Does pre-race nervousness sabotage all your hard work and good coaching? If you can’t learn to control your nerves, then you’ll never race to your potential. Staying cool in the clutch is a mental skill that you can easily master with a little practice. If pre-race jitters have gotten the better of you before, then with several reliable relaxation strategies, even you can learn to consistently keep yourself at “good nervous.”

  1. You get tired and quit mentally long before your body gives out physically.
  2. When you start to hurt, keep your focus off of the pain and your thoughts and on what you are doing.
  3. Distract your focus from the pain by concentrating on your pace, rhythm, turn-over rate, etc.
  4. Handle pain and fatigue by staying in the NOW and away from the future.
  5. Allow negative thoughts and doubts to pass through your mind without engaging them.
  6. When your focus leaves the now or drifts to your thoughts, quickly reset, bringing your focus back to what you are doing in the race.

Keep in mind that your concentration both before and during your events are absolutely critical to your success as an ultra athlete. You must train yourself to focus on what’s important and let everything else go! Your mental skills in this area directly affect your confidence level and ability to handle pressure effectively. In fact, the wrong focus before and during your races is the #1 cause of choking and psych-outs. The great thing about concentration is that with a little practice, you can learn to excel in this mental area, too.

Ever hear the story of Jim Dreyer? He’s a mental toughness and ultra giant! When he was three years old, Jim had a near-drowning and stayed away from the water until he was 12, when someone taught him to “doggy paddle.” He did not progress beyond this level until he started taking beginner’s swim lessons in his 30’s. Then he got this strange idea in his head that he wanted to swim across Lake Michigan! Why? To prove he could do it and to raise money for the Big Brother & Big Sister programs.

How do you plan on swimming for 43.2 miles and 25 hours in sometimes-dangerously-cold water when you’re quite recently terrified of that water? Jim got comfortable being uncomfortable! He moved towards his fears. He researched Lake Michigan’s currents, weather, water temperatures, and wave conditions to figure out exactly what he’d have to go up against. Then he began his “perfect practices.” Knowing the exact conditions he would have to face, he began to simulate these in his training sessions. He swam 2-mile segments in 51-degree water. He did 28-mile loops in 6-foot waves. He stayed up for 30 consecutive hours and then went out in the middle of the night to swim several miles. It’s not practice that makes perfect but “perfect” practice.

Because Dreyer encountered some tough currents 10 miles from shore, his planned 25 hour swim took 41 hours and 65 miles! Seven miles from shore, the water temperature plummeted to 56 degrees. His eyes were swollen shut and he was mildly hallucinating, yet he still kept going by reminding himself of why he was doing it and what was at stake for him. Dreyer clearly faced his demons and won. He met the physical and mental challenges and mastered them.

How about you? Are you up to it? Are your mind and body in sync?

As a Sports Performance Consultant, Dr. Alan Goldberg works with ultra sport athletes of all kinds helping them develop mental toughness perform to their potential. As a regular columnist for Fitness Swimming and Swimming World, Dr. G writes on the subjects of peak performance and mental toughness. He is the author of This Is Your Brain on Sports, Sports Slump Busting, The Racer’s Edge, and his audio program, 14 Steps to Mental Toughness. And check out his popular Mental Toughness Training Packages.

  • I'm a professional triathlete and I used to always get psyched out by other competitors right before the start of my races. I finally figured out what I had been doing wrong and now I am able to focus on the right things on the beach before the start and this keeps me calm and confident! What a change!

    Shiela Florida
  • My great practice times never translated into fast races.  Your program has really opened my eyes and helped me see that I needed to focus more on what I was doing and not thinking! And now I am competing the way I train! My confidence is way up and my nerves are finally under control!

    Kenny Louisiana
  • Your audio program has helped me better handle the physical and emotional pain of hard racing! I'm no longer wasting valuable energy worrying about the difficult parts of my event or the course conditions! Good stuff, Dr. G

    Thomas Virginia
  • I have read your books and listened to your CDs my entire life. I was a competitive swimmer when I was younger. I have just completed my first Ironman and am now training for my pro license. I just wanted to thank you for all of your help. I've gotten so much from your books and CDs!

    Ashley North Carolina


Are you struggling with a seemingly mysterious performance problem? Have you or your athlete suddenly lost BASIC abilities? FINALLY understand where this FRUSTRATING problem comes from and what you can do about it!

THE MENTAL SIDE OF ATHLETIC INJURIES The mental pain caused by your injury and the temporary or permanent loss of your sport can be far more devastating than the strained or torn ligaments, pulled muscles, ripped cartilage or broken bones. Unless this type of pain is directly addressed and “treated”, your overall recovery will be slow and incomplete.


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