By: Brian Reynolds
Every triathlete should know that a Triathlon is not only physically demanding on the body but is also mentally demanding. Our body will only go as hard as our mind will allow. If our mind doesn’t want to push the pace then our body will not push the pace. Our mind and body are one which means it’s imperative to work on your mental game in training since it can have a big performance impact on race day.
Let me share a quick story with you about one of my 5 hour rides I did this summer. The long ride was supposed to be a steady zone 2 aerobic effort on a warm Saturday morning. I felt ok for the first 2 hours considering it was warm and humid. I was holding around my usual power for the first half of the ride. By the 3rd hour I was starting to feel more fatigue in the legs and my power began to gradually decline. This is unusual for me to start slowing down by the 3rd hour into a 5 hour ride. Normally I’m able to increase the effort and push the pace harder. When this was happening I was starting to doubt if I would be able to maintain the same power throughout the ride. It felt like a war was going on in my head. My doubt and fear was my enemy and I was in a retreat during the 3rd hour of the ride.
By the 4th hour of the ride my doubt and fear had taken over my mind and I didn’t have any motivation or willpower to keep pushing through the discomfort. I just gave up and rode between 140 to 180 watts. Normally I would be pushing 230+ watts by this time into the ride. In my head it felt like I had retreated from my enemy and I was hiding out in the bunker until the ride was over. I was making excuses for myself by saying that it was ok to take it easy and just soft pedal back home. Besides all of the races have been cancelled anyways due to COVID so what am I killing myself for? I got to a point into the ride where I couldn’t accept this excuse. I had to find a way to get myself out of this rut and the only person who was going to do it was going to be me. I had no support crew to cheer me on and encourage me along.
When I got to the 4:10 hour mark it was like a light switch got flicked. I went from soft pedaling at 140 watts to 200 watts just like that. I was able to average 200+ watts for the remainder of the 5 hour ride and the effort felt the same or slightly easier than when I was pedaling 140 watts. What was the difference? How did I go from being weak to being strong in a very short timespan? I changed my headspace. Instead of thinking of the discomfort and feeling sorry for myself I flipped the script. I envisioned that I was strong and couldn’t feel pain. I concentrated all of my focus on being strong and having total control of my mind and body. I wondered to myself how can changing your headspace make you go faster? Apparently through this process I was getting neural energy from a release of dopamine which put me in a “feel good” state. In addition dopamine will buffer adrenaline which is important because every bit of physical effort requires adrenaline and when your adrenaline level reaches a certain threshold in the body our brain stops voluntary muscular control. Basically your body is saying “I quit”. Dopamine pushes back the level of adrenaline and it gives you more energy.
As I rode with higher power and a lower effort level it got me excited and I began to zone in even further. It’s likely my body was releasing more dopamine because I was able to raise my power even more by the end of the ride. What I learned on this ride is no matter how bad I was feeling or how bad the situation I was able to turn it around. You always have the power and that power is your mind. Your mind can give you the infinite energy so long as you have control of your mind to keep fear and doubt at bay.