Photo Credit: Liv cycling
Three-time triathlon World Champion and coach, Lesley Paterson, isn’t just a force to be reckoned on the race course, she’s also a badass when it comes to mental strength strategies that work. Not just for elite athletes, but for us endurance amateurs too. And if standard sport psychology makes you zone out or fall asleep on your turbo, you’re in luck – this is the women who, together with her leading sport psychologist husband, recently penned the tome The Brave Athlete – How to calm the f*ck down and rise to the occasion. So you get the gist.
I gave the talented ‘little Scottish lassie who packs a mean punch’ a call in her adopted hometown of California, and asked her whether she saw a difference in her athletic performance after she adjusted her mindset. “Yeah, totally,” she told me. “I see the brain as just as important, if not more important than, the physical stuff,” she explains. In fact, Lesley went on take three world titles in XTERRA triathlon after adopting the mental strength strategies she and her husband developed.
Here’s how you can train your brain to quit limiting your performance and release the badass within.
Ever wondered why your brain tries to sabotage your performance when the going gets tough? Without getting too scientific, you have three key systems within your brain, each in charge of your thoughts and actions at different points, explains Lesley. “You have your limbic system that we call The Chimp, you have the cortex which is your Professor brain, and then you have a Computer brain which covers the stuff you do on a daily basis without thinking about,” explains Lesley. It’s your Chimp brain, AKA your limbic system, that’s trying to derail you during racing and training. “The limbic system can cause you problems. It acts like a chimp and it’s kind of immature. It’s out there to protect you because it was developed millions of years ago for our flight or fight system.”
This ‘protection’ you might recognise in the form of negative chatter – ‘You’re too tired’, ‘You need to stop’, ‘It hurts’. The key to silencing this chimp talk? Get into your Professor brain or Computer brain, says Lesley.
Here are six ways to do just that.
#1. Use distraction techniques
“Distraction techniques are things like counting and rhythm, and that’s why listening to music is so good – because it takes you away from that nasty chimp talk,” explains Lesley who uses music in most of her training. “I love music and there is so much science to support how it improves performance. Obviously you’re not allowed to use it during a race, but what it does is help you develop the distraction strategies that we talked about [while training]. You can get more into your computer brain and away from your limbic system.”
And just because you can’t use your iPod during your race, it doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from music or rhythm. “Before a race, I find a specific new song that’s come out that really gets me going, and I’ll get that piece of music and I’ll memorise the chorus,” says Lesley. “And I use that chorus before the race and during tough times in the race.”
#2. Know that mental toughness is built on the bad days, not the good days
When the going gets tough, it can be tempting to cut short a training session or ease up on the pace. But that tough session in the pain cave turns out to be a big part of successfully pushing through the next time things get challenging. “Going through hardship and adversity is a good thing,” says Lesley. “This is because there’s a part of your brain called the anterior singular cortex – a kind of sausage-shaped thing that sits behind your eyes – and this is what essentially measures pain, or perception of pain. And what happens when you experience adversity, even social adversity, is that it actually grows and expands and gets better equipped to deal with greater adversity the next time.”
#3. Break races and training into segments
Segmenting your training and racing, where you break up your session into manageable parts, rather than approaching it as a total time/distance, is a fairly common technique in endurance sport – Chrissie Wellington, for example, always broke her Ironman marathon leg into 10km increments. But it’s also scientifically proven. “Say you’re going out on a 10km run and you split it up into 1km segments, your brain prefers it because it likes a reward system,” explains Lesley. “So once you’ve completed that first segment, you get a release of dopamine in your brain, and that quiets down the Chimp brain and gives you a sense of reward which is actually a huge part of what motivates you to continue.”
Photo Credit: Liv cycling
Segmenting is a technique that Lesley, who coaches triathletes on top of competing herself in XTERRA, uses on her athletes. “In any given session, we’ll tell an athlete: ‘Well, even if you don’t feel like it, just start it and do the first 10%.’ They do the first 10% and then what happens? They find they can do the next 20, and then [before they know it] they’re like ‘shit, I’m almost half-way through’ – and that’s the dopamine rush to your brain.”
#4. Create an alter-ego
Okay, some of you might feel a bit daft doing this, but creating an alter-ego is a tactic that works for a lot of athletes – Lesley included. “It’s about creating a character for you to race under,” explains Lesley, whose own alter-ego is a world away from her natural personality. “You meet me and I’m nice, I’m friendly, but I have a lot of fears and insecurities as Lesley Patterson the person, so okay then, become someone else when you’re racing.”
Bit by bit, as Lesley’s alter-ego, Paddy McGinty (an Irish MMA fighter who never backs down – “Think Conor McGregor”), played a bigger role in her training and racing, Lesley developed more of his character. “I watched videos of MMA fights, I’d think about what am I wearing, how I’m standing, what poses I’m using. There’s a real psychological, scientific background to to do with that – it used to always be a top-down philosophy of: ‘Thoughts influence feelings influence actions.’ Now we know that we can actually do the reverse: ‘Actions influence feelings influence thoughts.’”
Alter-egos work so well for Lesley’s athletes that The Brave Athlete includes an alter-ego development kit, with a step-by-step process. “I actually go in and out of my alter-ego all the time in training, because ultimately you have to train your balls off if you’re going to be an athlete.”
Photo Credit: XTERRA
#5. Deflect negative thoughts
It’s not just amateur endurance enthusiasts who suffer with a crisis of confidence in the run up to a big event – it happens to world champions too. “When it comes to my own Chimp talk coming up to a big race, I have about 10 different negative thoughts that pop into my brain,” reveals Lesley. “It could be that I’m not worthy of the expectation, or that I’m not going to rise to the occasion. What I do is write down each of the negative statements and then I’ll counter them with a ‘So WHAT? So what if that happens?’ And I’ll come up with a countering statement that I can generally write a word from on my forearm for a race. So it could be something like ‘freedom’ or ‘fight’ – anything that triggers the countering statement.’
This countering helps you get into your Professor brain and away from your sabotaging Chimp brain. “It’s almost like a comfort reminder because you know those thoughts are going to come into your brain, you know you’re going to get pissed off with them, but you can actually greet them instead of trying to move them out of your way.”
Photo Credit: Jess Peters/XTERRA Planet
#6. Create your own race day bubble
If you’re prone to getting flustered, nervous or racked with negative thoughts as soon as you arrive to register on race day, an isolation technique might be an easy win for you – and could be as simple as wearing a hoody and headphones and zoning out everyone else around you.
“What we know about your Chimp brain and limbic system is that it receives information five times quicker than your Professor brain, so that’s why we want to control our eyes and our ears when we’re coming into a situation like a race,” explains Lesley. “And that’s why you see a lot of athletes, like Michael Phelps, wearing a hoody, wearing earphones. It’s all about controlling the limbic system.”
The bottom line? If you’re not maximising your mental strength when it comes to training, you’re missing a trick when it comes to your performance. And as most of us know all too well, when things get hard in training or on race day, it’s usually the mind that quits before the body.
Photo Credit: Liv Cycling
You can follow Lesley on www.instagram.com/lesleydoestri, www.twitter.com/lesleydoestri and via her website www.lesleypaterson.com . For more advice (and the occasional expletive) check out The Brave Athlete – How to calm the f*ck down and rise to the occasion and Lesley’s coaching site, www.thebraveathlete.com.