In the same way that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to physical training, mental race strategy should reflect what we each need to be successful. Below, the three NYX Endurance coaches lay out their individual mental game plans. Their strategies reflect how they approach racing as athletes, not as coaches.
One tool in my mental toolbox for race days are my mantras. I don’t have tried-and-true mantras that I use all the time in training and are already teed up for me before every race. I let the mantras come to me during race week, so that I can bring a calm, composed perspective about the race into the swirling chaos of my race-course brain. Once for a 3-lap bike course I had mantras for each lap: “Be smart. Be steady. Be brave.” Another time my mantras were “Choice; Opportunity; Sheer Force of Will.”
Also, anyone who’s been on one of my group trainer rides knows I am a big, big fan of segmenting. I like to break down big tasks into smaller tasks, and I really like it when those smaller tasks get smaller as the big task gets closer to finishing. So it’s really important for me to know the course, even if that’s just reviewing the map, and to define those interim milestones – turns or aid stations or mile markers – that I can focus on instead of thinking about how f&cking long I’m going to be on that race course.
Beyond that, I have a way that I count down miles (and tenths of miles, when the finish line gets close) on every run, basically always. It’s my go-to, this-is-what-I-can-get-my-head-around, way of getting through runs. The “pacing” of the countdown changes based on how good or shitty I’m feeling, but there’s always, ALWAYS, a count-down. So there’s a point on the run where my brain just goes to that counting-down place, and I kind of lose myself in that pattern, but it’s also kind of glorious because I know once I get to a certain point, the countdown will take me home.
When it comes to racing, I am all in. Once I clip on a number, it is game on, 100%. I struggle with a B or C race concept. I want them all to be A Races. I feel like a B, or a C Race is a license to back off. Rationally and as a Coach, that is BS; I like A/B/C races. Herein lies the complexity of my head: I have Coach brain, and I have Athlete’s brain. Thankfully, they are very separate!
These are my thoughts as an athlete:
I prepare to suffer, and I think about that a lot. For me, that comes on the run. It’s just a matter of when. During training when I am hurting, I zero in on that feeling and think about how long I can endure this, how long I can hold the effort and pain that translates to racing for me. The longer I can be uncomfortable training, the harder I can push in a race. If I can suffer more than others, that is my edge. Puking and passing out at the finish line is not uncommon for me. I know my way around the med tent.
I read every race guide from start to finish and learn everything I can about the course and the conditions, I read race reports, I drive the course, ride the course, and run the course. I do as much recon as possible so there are minimal surprises. I walk transitions and check the sun angle for sighting. I obsess about the details. I recon the start list; I want to know who is racing, their strengths and weaknesses, and how they are racing this year. I can only control what I do on race day, but I sure as shit want to know who I am up against.
I show up early. Mentally, I need to be there early. I am generally relaxed race morning (that is, once I hit the porta-potty, but that is a whole other stress). The work is done and the show is about to begin. I thrive talking to friends, my athletes, and soaking up that pre-race magic. Bring it ON!!!
Over the past few years, my race plans have morphed from multi-paged detailed instructions about strategy, course details, power/pace/HR zones, and nutrition instructions to a simplified collection of mantras and intentions.
The shift to how I currently do things started before Ironman Canada. It was going to be the first Ironman that I was coaching myself for and I had completely switched up my training structure to less overall volume. I wanted to be able to build speed throughout Ironman training and I didn’t feel like it was necessary to bury myself in volume to get the results I knew I was capable of. But then when taper started, I was buried in doubts and fear. I felt like if I failed at this race, I would be failing as both a coach and an athlete. I was questioning my lesser volume approach, with old fears coming up about needing to destroy myself to feel successful.
So I took out my journal and I wrote a letter to my doubts. I listed them off one by one, making sure I knew the entirety of what I was up against. Then I addressed each one, understanding where it came from and accepting why it was real.
And then I kindly told each of them to fuck off.
Now, my mantras come directly from my doubts. They’re more than just a nice phrase that sounds empowering and fun to say. They give me what I need when I’m in the middle of the darkness and most vulnerable to my own insecurities.
“Choose growth” (the mantra on my coach bio page) reminds me that I can’t grow and improve unless I go willingly into the darkness. Suffering isn’t a negative for me. It’s what I look forward to most on race day. I wouldn’t show up if I thought racing was supposed to be easy and comfortable. The more it hurts, the more I can feel my power to experience it without letting it stop me or slow me down.