June 24, 2022
Want “More Mental Toughness?” Start With Mindfulness
Practice mindfulness to reduce stress and increase your performance potential in triathlon.
Do you finish races and look back with confused disappointment, thinking – I could have done better? Or are you aware of the exact moment that you back off and then inevitably regret it later – but you can’t figure out what you need, when to adjust, or how to push through? Practicing mindfulness just may be the answer.
Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through an accepting lens. Being mindful allows you to pay attention to your thoughts and feelings without judging them, or labeling them as “right” or “wrong.” There has been a lot of research done on the benefits of practicing mindfulness for athletes, both for overall stress reduction, and for training and racing situations. Studies have proven that being more mindful can improve athletic performance. It can also help reduce competition anxiety and lead to having a higher belief in yourself and overall confidence.
Mindfulness has been proven to help reduce stress, which both directly and indirectly negatively impacts athletic performance. Research shows stress levels can specifically impede performance on tasks that require divided attention, working memory, retrieval of information from memory, and decision making (ahem – triathlon). Stress can also cause narrowing of attention, general distraction, and increased self-consciousness, which can interfere with athletic performance. It has also been shown to cause increased muscle tension and coordination difficulties which increase the athlete’s risk of injury. Women react differently to stress, reporting more physical symptoms including headaches, weight gain, sleeping problems, gut issues, fatigue, pain, irritability, and depression.
In addition to improving resilience to the impacts of overall life stress, mindfulness can also help individuals to be open to and accepting of their inner experiences without judgment in the face of difficulty and unexpected stressors in performance-related situations, like racing. More simply said – when the going gets tough, you are better equipped to connect to your body and then adapt, pivot, or when needed – get tougher.
Most past research has not focused specifically on women. But, the studies that have been done on only women are focused on athletes competing at professional or elite levels across many sports. These reports have reiterated that mindfulness does, in fact, help improve athletic performance for women. So I urge all women in triathlon to find ways to reap the benefits.
*Click here to learn specifically about the Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment (MAC) approach to mindfulness for athletes. Or here for some practical ideas on how to practice mindfulness through movement for triathletes.*
How to use mindfulness to level up your triathlon performance.
Mindfully manage your thoughts. We have more than 6,000 thoughts per day. Being mindful of your current thoughts is practicing awareness of your thoughts and also accepting the idea that “just because you think it, doesn’t mean it is true.” When you are able to capture and inspect the thoughts that impact your progress toward your goal, or your performance in the moment, you will stay connected honestly to your experience. You will learn that many thoughts are not necessarily true, and likely do not require further action. You will be able to recall your “why” for reaching your goal and focus on thoughts that honor that truth.
For example, let’s say you are racing and you have the thought, “I am tired.” You can first ask yourself if this thought is true. If you find it to be true then you can decide if it matters and if/how to react. You can also repeat (either to yourself or out loud), “I am tired. And being tired is okay.” You can use your mindfulness tools to connect with your thoughts, rather than allow them to spin or spiral out of control, to stay grounded in the moment.
Connect to your body. In addition to being aware of your thoughts, when you can recognize feelings and sensations in your body you will have a better sense of how to honor your needs in the moment – whether they are physical (like taking in more nutrition, or to back off the pace), or mental (recalling your why and pushing through discomfort to honor your goal). Recognizing the feeling, without judging it as right or wrong, can allow you to practice being okay with it.
Let’s return to the race example. You are experiencing the feeling in your body that you know to be exhaustion or fatigue. Being more mindful of this feeling, or sensation, in your body allows you to recognize it without labeling it as “bad.” So, instead of automatically letting the feeling dictate your performance (like slowing down or walking), you can ask yourself, “what do I need at this moment?” You can make changes if needed, or you can choose to continue to push through the discomfort associated with fatigue to reach your ultimate goal. Practicing this in training will lead to reaping greater adaptations in each session, will teach you that you can be tired and still work hard, and you’ll be more able to tap into it while racing.
Stay aware of your surroundings. Being mindful does not mean to fully focus inward, but also requires a deep connection to the world around you. In triathlon, athletes highly benefit from this kind of awareness in regards to safety, and also when making calculated performance decisions (i.e. drafting in the swim or which line to take when cornering on the bike). Tune in to the course. Pay attention to the wind direction. Know where aid stations are and smile at the spectators on race day. “Run the mile you are in.”
You may feel that your perception of time slows during difficulties (like hard training sessions and races). When you have a great mind/body connection you can keep returning to your effort, knowing that even if it feels like the struggle will never end – it will. This applies especially in long distance races, as the terrain can often dictate the ebbs and flows. Keep returning to the moment, assessing your immediate needs, rather than only thinking of the finish line. Ask yourself often, “what do I need right now?”.
If your effort unravels during a race, let your awareness help you recall the moments when you’ve wrestled with your thoughts or feelings, or lost track of your surroundings. Then you can assess with honesty in order to truly learn from the experience and continue to improve.
Miranda Bush is the Head Coach and Educator at Feisty Triathlon. She is USA Triathlon and Training Peaks certified, as well as a certified Health Coach. She is also a graduate of Dr. Stacy Sim’s Women Are Not Small Men and Menopause for Athletes courses. As a longtime coach specializing in training women, her passion lies in using lessons from training and racing to teach athletes to evolve physically, mentally, and emotionally through sport. Miranda is also a longtime athlete and multiple Ironman and 70.3 distance podium finisher, maintaining a consistent racing career while working and raising her kids. She resides in Wisconsin with her three teenagers and husband who all love to race triathlon.