How to improve your mental toughness

Spending hours training your body? Great... But to be the best, you need to train your brain just as hard. We’ve rounded up some of the toughest athletes in triathlon, including Chrissie Wellington and Dave Scott, to share their secrets.


Mind over matter… At times, it’s easier said than done. But so much of triathlon success relies upon being in the right frame of mind before you even start. Having mental strength will help you set ambitious goals, grit your teeth and push through when training gets tough and also adapt and carry on when things don’t go to plan. Often the negative voices are the loudest voices though, which is why we’ve asked four of the toughest triathletes in the business to tell you how they do it. From mid-race mechanical failure to a bike crash days before a world championship race, these guys have faced it all – and still won. Here’s their advice!


Think big, challenge yourself

Want to push yourself? Nobody thinks bigger than endurance triathlete Luke Tyburski. Here’s how he trains his brain to take on epic challenges

Find your motivation

Do you know why you race? It may sound like a simple question, but have you ever really taken the time to truly think about what your real motivation is to push yourself?
It could be to raise money for charity, become a role model for others, reach your true potential, or simply to get as fit and healthy as you can be – it doesn’t matter, as long as you have a concrete reason and know what it is!

Ego won’t continually drag you out of bed at 5am to train when all you want to do is sleep, so having a passionate reason behind why you’re attempting your challenge will help to keep you motivated and accountable to stick to your goal. When things begin to go wrong, as they sometimes do, you will have something to focus your attention on which has meaning and can help to pull you out of the unfavorable position you may have found yourself in.

Know your enemy

When you know why you want to push yourself outside of your comfort zone, the next step is to do research, as preparation breeds confidence! Knowing as much as you can about what’s needed to achieve your goal will expose you to what’s required, giving you the knowledge you need to understand and conquer your challenge.

Speak to others who have accomplished what you are setting out to achieve and find out what worked for them and – just as importantly – what didn’t. Once you have pooled together all this information, begin to experiment with what you think may work.

 Don’t fear failure

Don’t be afraid to fail, as it’s through failure that we learn our most valuable lessons. If you fail, reflect on what went wrong to understand why you did, then use this knowledge to help you dust yourself off, and go after your goals again. Just because something worked for someone else doesn’t mean it will work for you, so test things during training to help create your own formula, increase confidence, and help you on your way to achieving your goals.

Beat a training dip

When the going gets tough in training, the tough turn to six-time Ironman champ and coach Dave Scott for advice

Set objectives and goals

Don’t just set lofty objectives – break it down so when things get tough it doesn’t feel impossible!
As well as your key objectives for the year (such as qualification for Kona), you should also set some long-term goals (‘A’ and ‘B’ races for the year) and also some short-term goals.

Short-term goals should be set every 10-14 days and are key to beating your demons and maintaining focus when the big goals become a mental mountain! Stick them somewhere you can see them too, so you keep focussed.

Know how to beat a dip  

A mental dip in training can feel like overtraining: your body is tired and heavy, sleep is restless, you feel anxious and overall motivation is low. To get out of that mental spiral use this eight-day training block:

Days 1-3: Exercise for 20mins per day and forget the schedule. Drop the gadgets and don’t worry that it’s a waste of time – it’s not. Even within a 20min session endorphins will kick in and breathing rate and body temperature will rise. Plan your exercise times, stick to one discipline and write planned
session times down so you’re
not tempted to miss one.

 Days 4-5: Do two disciplines and aim for 45mins to 2hrs per session, depending on what you are training for and your usual load.

Days 6-7: Go back to your training plan and do what’s there, but without being obsessed with times, power, speed or heart rate.

Day 8: You should be mentally ready to dive back into your routine!

How to get you back in the zone.

Mix things up

I’d always try different routes for your bike and run or reverse the direction from your normal routes too, mix things up. Also, don’t wear earphones or have music – wake up to your senses and be present with your surroundings. Take some risks with your training and do something different for once!

Share your fears

Look at your fears and decide what you can control and what you want and take the opportunity to ask other athletes how they’re doing with their training. Don’t be so myopic with your internal doldrums. You’d be surprised, when you share a bit of vulnerability, you’ll feel better.

Don’t binge

Don’t overeat. Don’t drink too much alcohol and don’t weigh yourself in this recovery period.

Learn to laugh

Finally… Don’t be so bloody serious about it all! Laugh at yourself and add some levity to your low point in training.

Prepare your mind for race-day

You’ve arrived early, you’re sat near the start line – and you’re freaking out. Here’s how to get things back
under control, from four-time Ironman champ Chrissie Wellington

Nerves are normal

First, remember that everyone gets nervous. This is part of your preparation. It is a sign of your passion and commitment and of how much you have invested. I bit my nails down to the bare bone before my races! If athletes were not apprehensive I’d be more concerned. Nerves stimulate adrenalin production, which is vital to propel your body into action once the gun fires. The key is to control those nerves so that they don’t become debilitating.

Anticipate the feeling of nerves, then embrace them  – but have confidence that they won’t last for long. Also recall times where you have been uncomfortable or thought you couldn’t finish, but pushed on and managed to succeed. Bank those memories and hold them close. By race day there’s nothing more you can do. Forget any missed sessions, forget injuries, forget the weather, forget about what other athletes are doing/wearing/using. Focus on what you can control, such as your breathing, being at the event on time, your equipment and most importantly, your thoughts.

Get motivated 

I always used various tools to motivate myself. These included a playlist of songs that were guaranteed to get me jumping, moving and grooving. Pre-race, I always ran part of the run course with these tunes in my ear, so that when I raced I heard the same songs in my head. In addition to Rudyard Kipling’s poem, ‘If’, I also carried a collection of greeting cards that people have given me over the years and put them up around my race accommodation. I used to watch uplifting movies or YouTube clips of others overcoming huge hurdles to achieve their dreams; they gave me confidence that I could succeed.Recognise any negative self-talk and consciously replace those thoughts with positive affirmations.

Spend some time on visualisation and deep breathing. Lie down, close your eyes, and use breathing exercises to calm yourself, focusing on deep breaths and the rise and fall of your chest and stomach. Imagine yourself as being strong, confident, and successful. Imagine how it will feel to cross the line, hear the roar of the crowds, or fall into the arms of your loved ones.

Conquer adversity

Mid-race disaster? Turn things around with the right mindset, says pro Cat Morrison

Control what you can

The number one rule is to control the controllables. Do the training, know the course and be as prepared as possible. Go through some mental planning before the race. ‘What would I do if… I have a puncture, drop my water bottle, fall off my bike or get a stitch?’ With this preparation and rehearsal, when things go wrong you will be able to go into autopilot. This helps you to avoid panicking, getting upset – or worse – getting angry.

Elite advice: Craig Alexander on why you should only try to control the controllables


 Adjust if disaster strikes

In 2010 when I was in the lead at Ironman Lanzarote my chain broke. At first I thought ‘why me?’ but I quickly realised a negative mindset was not going to be productive. So, I topped up on my nutrition and kept my body moving and chatted to the crowds to distract myself. When the mechanic (finally) arrived and I jumped back on the bike again I made it my goal just to get cycling and make it back to transition.

When I got there I found out that the leaders were 45mins ahead. At that point I had to reassess what I wanted out of the race. Instead of going for the podium it became making it into a solid training day. After the first lap (a half marathon) I was only 15mins behind the winner. At that point, the mission changed to ‘game on’ – and I won!

14 race-day strategies and techniques for different scenarios

Beat your inner demons

Sniping away at you, telling you you ‘can’t’… your inner voice can be your own worst enemy. Have the mental retorts on hand to shut it down, says Luke Tyburski

I want to quit

This has to be the loudest negative voice. But if you truly know your reason why, this will give you the confidence and energy to continue.

It’s too difficult

Stay present and in the current moment by focusing on your breathing, each stroke, pedal, or step and force yourself to smile. You are truly living!

It’s not going to plan

Trust your preparation, the research you’ve done, training, and your reasons why. Instead of feeling anxious, be inspired by this opportunity to learn and grow through new experiences.

I can’t

These two words pop into most people’s heads, and as soon as they do, they need to be followed up immediately with, ‘what if I just try?’!

I’ve reached my limits


But have you really? In a week’s time, will you be able to look at yourself in the mirror when no one is around and tell yourself you’ve truly reached your limits? Or are you giving in too soon?