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  • Kate Mihevc Edwards PT, DPT

Leveraging “Mental Skills Training”: to Improve Performance and Enjoyment in Endurance Sports

By: Leda McDaniel

What if there was one factor that you could devote time to that could both improve your performance and enjoyment of your sport as an endurance athlete? What if that one factor could give you techniques to reduce pre-race anxiety, climb out of a performance “rut,” or give you tangible ways to mitigate adverse events on race day?

You would be doing this already, right?!

The factor that I am talking about is mental preparedness and skills training. Not only is mental preparation just as important as your physical training, but it is one area that seems to get left behind in endurance athletes’ training plans. When training for an endurance event like a triathlon or ½ marathon race, creating a plan for physical workouts leading up to the event may seem like an obvious preparation strategy. However, many endurance athletes fail to adequately prepare mentally for competition. If you are not sold on this idea yet, keep reading for a discussion of the benefits that can be gained from prioritizing your mental “game.”

Three top benefits you can gain from mental skills training are:

1. Improve performance

2. Reduce negative competition experiences (before, during, and after events)

3. Enhance your enjoyment of training and competition

Before discussing these three benefits of mental skills training, it is important to acknowledge that, just like for physical training, the best way to approach mental training is by having guidance from a coach who can create a program designed for your unique needs as an athlete (and human being!). In More Than Miles Podcast Episode #17 (Abby Keenan: Mental Skills Training), physical therapists Dr. Kate Mihevc Edwards and Dr. Kacy Seynders interview mental performance coach, Abby Keenan of Intrepid Performance to gain insight into some of these tried-and-true strategies.

Abby has over a decade of experience coaching athletes as well as a long history of competing as an endurance athlete; first as a competitive swimmer for 12 years and later as a distance runner. Abby and her husband, John Keenan, own Intrepid Performance Consulting, where they specialize in providing mental health and performance services to running, swimming, and triathletes. In the interview with Dr. Kate and Dr. Kacy, Abby discusses how she became passionate about the mental side of sports because of what she perceived as her own “missing ingredient,” as an athlete herself. Abby starts the conversation by discussing how she used self-talk and relaxation strategies to reduce pre-competition nerves and anxiety but then goes on to discuss many more tactics and situations in which these skills can be beneficial. Let’s dive into some of the other ways that mental training can help.

1. Improve performance

The first area that can improve with some targeted mental training is race performance. Athletes performing at a high level already or those who do not notice a major issue with mental or emotional struggles like heightened anxiety or reduced motivation to train, may not recognize the power that mental training holds. As Abby states, “You don’t have to be bad to get better!” She argues that utilizing some of these mental preparation strategies has not only helped her overcome pre-race anxiety, but also recover from injury and most recently progress back into more structured training after having children. Some of the strategies that she teaches her clients (and routinely uses herself), include positive self-talk, mental imagery, and reflection and planning for adverse events on race day.

2. Reduce negative competition experiences (before, during, and after events).

Intuitively, many of us as endurance athletes know that mental preparation is important, but we may not always have the best idea of how to go about that. As mentioned above, Abby found herself experiencing a lot of pre-competition anxiety and “over-activation,” prior to swim meets despite her solid preparation and execution of her physical training program. It was not until she learned more about the psychology of training and performance that she began utilizing relaxation techniques prior to races, which ultimately helped her. Not only can mental preparation help pre-race nerves, but it can help with reduce effects from unanticipated adverse events during a race. How do you prevent bad things from happening in a race? Abby describes two key approaches that she calls, “preparation” skills and “execution,” skills. Utilizing mental imagery to visualize oneself experiencing, and then overcoming within race obstacles like getting elbowed during an open water swim, can improve one’s ability to deal with these challenges should they arise for real on race day.

Finally, working on the mental side of endurance sports can be hugely beneficial to pull you out of a “rut,” or sequence of bad race performances or training “slump.” One of the tactics that an athlete can use is to have a coach provide some “data” after the race about what they perceived to have gone wrong or what could be improved. Another tactic that can be very beneficial is to break down the race (or training leading up to the race) into identifiable sections to begin to get an idea about areas of weakness as well as strengths. For example, maybe an athlete has performed poorly in their last few races because of a factor they didn’t even realize had changed, like inconsistency in sleep due to a change in work schedule or going out at a faster pace since changing training partners. Analyzing these sorts of variables can lead to meaningful improvements in race outcomes, but also as we’ll discuss next, can put some of the enjoyment back into training and competing!

3. Enhance your enjoyment of training and competition

The last area in which mental skills training can really reap great rewards is that of bringing back the fun to your participation in your sport! If training or competition has started to become monotonous or you are struggling with some tough mental or emotional components of sport such as anxiety, stress about poor performance outcomes, or reduced motivation to train, it may be difficult to remember why you are pouring so much of yourself into running or swimming at all. Working with a coach to work on your mental and emotional relationship with your sport, how your training fits into (and hopefully enhances) the other areas of your life, and engaging in focused goal setting can all be ways to get back to loving your sport! This benefit, beyond the others that have been discussed, hopefully will convince you that mental training is worth the work!

The techniques mentioned above are just a few of the mental training tips that Abby discusses within her interview with Dr. Kate and Dr. Kacy.

To learn more about the benefits of mental skills training, check out the podcast interview with Abby Keenan:

Also, head over to Abby’s business website, Intrepid Performance Consulting, where you can learn more about what she and her husband offer in terms of mental skills training for running, swimming, and endurance athletes.

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