How to Train for Mental Toughness

How to Train for Mental Toughness

During training or in competition, every athlete ultimately encounters a crucial moment when their mind has a greater impact on performance than their body. These moments can make or break a key workout, an important race, or even have ripple effects on an overall training plan.

Acquiring mental toughness does not happen overnight. It is developed and honed through experience, just like any other important skill or technique. Most athletes want their bodies to perform in a specific way on race day, so they train their bodies to be able to handle a certain level of stress. Wouldn’t it also make sense to train your mind in a similar fashion? Yes! If you want to perform mentally on race day, you must also practice and train your mind on a regular basis.

Here are four key factors that will help you improve your competitive mindset in order to achieve mental toughness:

Short-Term Goal Setting

This may sound simple, but it can be more complex than you think. I am not referring to your overall training plan or race goals for the year, which would be long-term goals. Instead, I am focusing on specific days, workouts, or even intervals within a training session. For example, you might set a short-term goal for Sunday’s run workout, like: “I want to run 8 x 3-minute intervals between 7:00-7:10 pace.” You can certainly get more specific, which requires even more mental focus. An example would be, “I want to run slightly faster during each of my 8 x 3-minute intervals, starting at 7:10 pace and working down to 7:00 pace.”

When you have finished the workout, upload the data from your training device and analyze the results. Were you able to hit your marks? If not, what was the limiting factor? Was it a physical or mental one? Make notes in your training log so you can refer back to them later. Compare your results to previous days when you have completed the same or similar workouts. Over time, you will develop mental toughness during these specific intervals which will translate to enhanced focus at those critical moments. Setting specific short-term goals on a regular basis will take your training to the next level of performance!

Visualization

We all want to have a good performance on race day. But how many athletes actually visualize what they will need to do during competition in order to achieve their goals? Whether you do it in the few seconds before the gun goes off, or the minutes before your head hits the pillow every night, making visualization part of your training routine will bring you one step closer to mental toughness.

Visualization can be as simple as closing your eyes and playing a brief “movie” in your head about a specific portion of your race, such as the swim start or your first transition. However, like physical training, the key is repetition and specificity. If you only visualize one time before the race for a few seconds, chances are you will not even remember it and there will be no positive impact on your performance. Similarly, if you simply visualize a general swim start without any specific details about your strategy, the impact will be negligible.

A more effective example would be if an athlete visualized him/herself having a smooth swim start and taking a tight line to the buoys, while also controlling their heartrate and breathing pattern. Repeating this vision before every open water swim training session will increase the likelihood of a favorable outcome on race day. Repetition and specificity will make your visualization more efficient, which is a valuable tool to have in your mental toughness arsenal.

Positive Self-Talk

When things get tough, what do you say to yourself? Your mind is most vulnerable to negative thoughts when your body is placed under intense physical stress, and it can be easy for pessimistic words and phrases to overtake your mental space, such as “I Can’t Finish” or “I Give Up” or even just “QUIT!” These words, although not spoken, can impact your performance at critical moments in races or key training sessions.

Much like visualization, positive self-talk is a strategy that should be repeated during your regular training routine in order to be most effective. During a brutal bike or run session, an athlete might say things to him/herself such as “High Cadence” or “Control Breathing” or “You Got This!” During the swim portion of a race, phrases like “Long & Strong” or “Stay Smooth” can be effective cues to help keep an athlete mentally focused on the task at hand.

Find a few mantras that work best for you, and are related to each sport or discipline. Remember—you are saying them in your head or to yourself, so nobody has to know!

Stress Management 

Every athlete with competitive experience will tell you that unexpected things happen during races. However, part of being mentally tough is the ability to handle stress and overcome it in a competitive atmosphere. Putting yourself under stress during training, both physically and mentally, will prepare you to deal with adversity on race day.

Weather conditions are beyond your control, but you can prepare for them. If an athlete never runs in the rain or when it’s extremely hot and humid, then he/she will likely not perform well in a race under these conditions. I am not recommending that you always train outdoors during unfavorable weather‚ but occasionally doing so will certainly build your confidence and help you manage this stress in a competitive situation.

Aside from weather, sometimes things just do not unfold as planned during a race. Inadequate sleep, muscle fatigue, or dehydration can all be pernicious to an athlete’s ultimate goal. Effective stress management in these situations requires all three of the previous tactics: short- term goal setting, visualization, and positive self-talk.

For example, if you have a goal time in mind for a specific race, but you do not sleep well and the conditions prove unfavorable, you can manage your expectations by adjusting short-term goals. Maintain positive imagery and repeat mental cues or mantras to yourself in order to stay focused. For a long-distance endurance event, be aware of your nutrition and hydration to avoid any additional stress. Channel your muscle (and mental) memory to remind yourself of difficult training sessions that you completed under adverse conditions. Knowing that you have experienced something similar before, or even a more challenging event, and eventually overcame it, can be a great motivator at a critical moment.

Now that you have a blueprint for building your fortress of mental toughness, it is up to you to take the next step. Get organized with your training plan, set both long-term and short-term goals, perform each workout with purpose, and strive to improve on the athlete you were yesterday. If you are not sure where to begin or need help with any aspect of your training program, seek assistance! The guidance of a certified coach can be a valuable resource on your journey to achieving the next level of performance.

Adam D’Agostino

Adam D’Agostino is a National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) Certified Personal Trainer (CPT). He is a USA Triathlon (USAT) Certified Coach and US Masters Swimming (USMS) Level 3 Coach. Adam has additional certifications from NASM as a Corrective Exercise Specialist (CES), Mixed Martial Arts Conditioning Specialist (MMACS), & Nutrition/Weight Loss Specialist (WLS). In addition, he holds the TRX Functional Training Certification (FTC) and is a TrainingPeaks Certified Coach. Adam competes in Triathlons of all distances and has qualified for the USAT National Championships in 7 consecutive years (2012-2018). He is a two-time qualified athlete on Team USA at the ITU Multisport World Championships for Long-Distance Triathlon (2017 & 2019). Adam is the owner and head coach at Next Level Training & Performance in NJ, where he specializes in Personal Training, Triathlon Coaching, Nutrition, & Athlete Performance.