Guest Blog: Dara Wittenberg

Yes, You Can Survive That Workout or Race

At the USAT Level I Coaching Certification clinics I open my Mental Skills Training PowerPoint with a quote from Scott Jurek (5 times winner of Western States 100 miler  and twice champ at Badwater Ultra, to name just a few of his accomplishments):

“Endurance training and racing is 90% mental. That other 10%? Well, that’s mental too. ”

Anyone who is training for endurance sports (actually, sports in general) will discover eventually that their strong mental skills and ability to handle tough conditions and circumstances will dictate their success. You can’t be a champion with strong mental skills alone – as of course you need the fitness for your race – but without strong, positive mental skills you will not be able to reach your true potential. Endurance training and racing is not about “if” there will be tough days, but “when” those days will happen, and then it is ALL about the mental preparation and training you have done to both survive the workout and the race when that crack in the road occurs.

Mental Training

At the end of Ironman Utah in 2012, where crazy winds whipped the water into a frenzy (and caused close to 200 athletes to DNF the swim) I overheard two finishers talking about race day conditions, “we were just waiting to be set on fire and for the plague of locusts to arrive.” On a day like this, athletes will need every bit of mental fortitude to finish strong.
In training for an Ironman, or any other long distance race, there will be training days that suck, and while these days are hell to get through, they are the best training days for successful racing. Days when you simply need to survive the workout. Whether it is miasmic sea of bowl sized and stinging jellyfish, 5-foot swells and seasickness, headwinds that seem to come directly from the devil’s mouth, torrential rains, heat and humidity in the high 90s, an upset stomach that has you running from port-a-potty to port-a-potty, bee stings or moon surface like potholed roads that make you feel like your teeth will bounce out of your head, these adversities teach you that you can make it through anything come race day.

Physical + Mental Training

Our physical training prepares us for the physiological needs of our chosen race; we have practiced it all from pacing to transitions, gear choices, hydration and nutrition needs and logistics, how to change a flat, and how to pee (or more) in the woods on a long run; but without training our minds too we are simply unprepared to have our best day. Positive self talk, confidence and a strong belief in ourselves is key – we can build these skills with powerful race day visualization, positive mantras and imagery that makes us feel indefatigable and invincible. While we hope that our race day will go perfectly, we also need to be prepared for less than perfect options. We must have a plan for how to stay calm if we flat, if we get an upset stomach, if the winds are howling, the rains are pouring or if today “just ain’t my day”.

Why Bad Days Can Be Good

Our worst training and racing days can be used to our advantage – to show us just exactly what we can endure and those experiences will spur us on in our most important races.In training for Ironman Arizona, I had the worst ride ever – it was 105 miles, but it took me close to 8 hours from door-to-door.  I headed south on A1A into 20-mph headwinds and 90-degree heat and humidity and thought to myself “Man! It’s gonna be a great ride home with that tailwind- almost like cheating!” However, I was not having a good day and my pace was pitiful. While my effort was high my mind was taking a nose dive into self-deprecating negative-self talk.  I stopped in Miami’s South Beach to refill foods and fluids and took a little break. Even the beauty of the beach and all those vibrant people on the sand could not revive my positive outlook.
I headed home and just about cried when I realized the wind had switched direction and I was going to have a headwind home also. I was miserable company for myself that day and even though I had a hard time staying positive, I crawled home. My friend asked me “why, if it was such a miserable ride, had I not simply called a cab?” Because if I had, I would have undermined my confidence so much that it would eat away at me till race day. But knowing I had gutted it through and that I had not given up spurred me on from that day forth. I KNEW I could finish an Ironman and I could handle anything.What that training day also taught me, however, was that I needed some more tools to help me stay positive in the face of a bad day; while I had indeed finished the ride, I felt terrible doing it and would not have had a good Ironman marathon off it. From that point on I practiced more mental skills exercises/techniques so that I eventually had an arsenal of tools to choose from that I could “scroll through” on rough days to find which ones would suit my mood and the conditions.

Practice Practice Practice

Improve your race day preparation with mental skills training that you work on daily, along with your physical training, so that you can excel and reach your potential and survive the workout that doesn’t go exactly to plan. Without consistent attention, awareness of your thoughts and self talk, and the practicing of these skills you will not be able to apply a positive mindset to the worst conditions and self doubt can undermine your performance.  Check out these two excellent resources and incorporate mental skills training into your daily regimen and improve your chances of reaching your goals!


USOC Sport psychology mental training manual (Bauman, Haberl, McCann, & Peterson, 2002)
Magical Running : A Unique Path to Running Fulfillment; Bobby McGee

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