When I was 17 years of age I joined a running group of seasoned marathon runner’s. Everyone was talking about the importance of being tough. A few years later when I climbed up the junior triathlon ranks and received a nomination to join the Germany National Junior Squad a training plan was handed to me by my coach and he told me to embrace the idea of mental toughness.
I observed that the willingness to train consistently and diligently is common ground amongst all successful athletes. Training volume and training frequency regulate opportunity accumulation through which self-control can be refined, decision making ability enforced, will power cultivated and physical conditioning extended.
For example, in long distance triathlons, one of the toughest endurance sports, we are used to hear that the Ironman doesn’t start until the 4th hour into the race. We spend many hours in training with the idea in mind to delay physical and mental fatigue. But, it doesn’t matter who you are there is always a moment in a race when things become really tough. Fatigue creeps up mercilessly. Fatigue slows you down. You feel drained, weak and emotionally vulnerable. What you need now is will power to keep on moving. Interestingly, this melt down coincides also with depleted glycogen stores.
Therefore, superior physical conditioning (=preparation), proper pacing (=race strategy) and nutrition (=fueling your body & brain the right amount of calories and fluids) are utterly important in endurance events such as the Ironman, ½ Ironman or Marathon. I like to quote to my athletes that “the harder the training the easier the race”. Harder in this context doesn’t mean necessarily high-intensity training but rather doing consistently the right mixture of training specifically needed to excel over a certain race distance. The ability to train consistently requires willpower, self control and automatic decision making.
Every now and then we must challenge ourselves with training workouts and go beyond what we think is possible in order to expose our body and mind to a new stimulus for growth. The best way to boost willpower is to start small. Practice becomes a habit and then turns into a routine. The toughest part in training is sometimes a rather small obstacle, namely to make that first step and walk through the front door and start moving. And that requires an enormous amount of energy, willpower! It’s like a test.
I learned that we have to work on automizing decision making to decelerate loss of self-control.
I find that as we overcome a temptation – regardless what it is, maybe skip a workout, eat a cookie, drink a beer or cola, fall back into old bad habit, smoke a cigarette etc- our ability to resist an impulse improves which is commonly described as self-control or willpower.
Willpower is like a muscle. It must be used or it will atrophy.
Several studies have shown that willpower is like a mental muscle. Physical and mental forces can weaken and strengthen our self-control. In other words, we can manipulate the state of mental preparedness with physical training (e.g. a big training day of up to 75% of expected finishing time for an Ironman triathlon) and glucose supplementation (brain and muscles).
And that means subsequently that athletes must be careful with their training planning & execution and recovery protocol (incl. carbo-loading) prior to competitions or we risk to feel mentally drained heading into a race which could mean that on race day we give in too quickly and don’t have enough mental energy to battle with. On the other hand a perfect preparation going into a race [we talking about the final 7 to 14 days before the event] could mean that we use less willpower earlier on in the race, thus slow down mental depletion, improve pain tolerance and potentially have enough will power left to push through those final tough miles. Therefore, my pre-race preparation [= taper] must be long enough to restore mental and muscular health (=recharging batteries).
In principle, in competition we want to “protect our mind” for as long as possible. A fully functioning mental muscle can help us to deal better with emotional and physical pain which can help us to finish off a race strongly. You are going to be in big trouble, though, if you have used up too much mental energy too soon. And when this happens everything feels subjectively so much harder and our personal battle with the race (IRONMAN, Marathon etc) begins. What follows is an emotional and physical roller coaster!!
Research also shows a close link between glycogen depletion and “overtraining syndrome”.
Therefore eating during and immediately after a workout (=window of opportunity) facilitates glycogen restoration by which physical (muscle system) and mental recovery is accelerated. The timing to eat mustn’t be overlooked. Studies have suggested supplementing with glycogen even during a short race of less than an hour to overcome temptation to slow down and to improve pain tolerance.
This finding makes totally sense because we have all experienced it before that a bite to eat helps to stay sharp and to boost our will power. People trying to quit smoking, students trying to stay focused studying or even athletes trying to push through higher training loads often turn to food to support themselves. Yes, there are still too many athletes who over train and rest too little and therefore must eat “sugar” and consume “caffeine” to overcome fatigue which can lead to chronic fatigue, performance decline or interestingly weight gain despite all the exercise.
“Train hard rest hard” is another popular quote which explains that sleep is as important as training. A lack of sleep decreases our willpower according to researchers. Athletes who sleep more than 6 hours increase willpower and improve brain activity in areas that are associated with willpower.
Training is really more than just physcial training, nutrition and recovery. Ahletes wanting to excel should embrace the idea of nourishing the mind and keeping it “healthy” before a race. Exercising the mental muscle should be considered equally important as physcial training. Body & mind are like brother & sister.