As a mental endurance coach Vanessa Foerster equips her IRONMAN triathletes with the game-changing mental skills to help them race their way to the ultimate IRONMAN event: the World Championship in Kona, so I am super excited to have her here to share her knowledge on how to improve your performance by training your mind.
Vanessa, who lives in Montana, USA is an IRONMAN age group athlete herself (with a Kona qualification, no less!) and revolutionised her performance and race success using the same coaching techniques she teaches her clients. In addition, she recently set up The Diversify Triathlon Movement in a bid to help change the landscape of what is a predominantly white sport and introduce more black, indigenous, and people of colour to triathlon. Read on for more on this, plus insider mindset tactics Vanessa uses to train her brain to endure mental discomfort and perform at her best.
How did you get into endurance sport – were you athletic growing up?
I most definitely did not identify as an athlete growing up! I played sports, but only for a season or two… never long enough to get any good. I also moved every two years as a child and teenager so it was hard to commit to a sport and team. My first true exposure to sport was in college. In my preparation to attend the University of Georgia, I was serious about pairing a competitive club sport with my rigorous academic schedule. After my mom shot down the idea of flag football, I decided on rowing. That was the best decision I made for my college years, hands down. I learned the power of hard work, patience, perseverance and developed a competitive side.
When I retired from rowing, I took up running as a sustainable way to stay active. When I was training for my first half-marathon, I decided to hop into a sprint triathlon. I was hooked on multisport from that first finish line! After graduating and moving to the big city of Atlanta, I found the Atlanta Tri Club, my first community of endurance athletes, which was pivotal to me staying in the sport. Thirteen years later, I’m still in love with the multisport lifestyle! I continue to progress and now I get to help others excel in the sport.
You’ve said that you underperformed in triathlon until you learned to utilise your mind. What did this involve and how did your results change as a result?
I underperformed and always felt less than my peers until I started using my most important performance tool, my mind. What did this involve? The short answer: consistent training day after day. The mind can be thought of like a muscle – you can train it, build it, make it stronger like any other muscle in your body.
I would say the two main practices that made the biggest difference when I first started training my mind were the following: #1. Working on building my belief that change was possible – that I actually could be a stronger athlete. #2. Getting curious when I was unconsciously choosing comfort or easy – and then working to break that habit.
I went from a triathlete who had never been on a full Ironman podium, to having the audacity to set a goal to win my age group. Setting that goal held me accountable for doing the work every single day to become the athlete I chose to be. One year later, I got second in my age group and qualified for Kona!
You’re now a mental endurance coach. Can you explain why it’s so important for athletes to dedicate time to improving their mental resilience?
Yes, I work with athletes to help them learn the skills to build mental resilience and mental endurance. Most athletes understand the need to train their bodies consistently, but the mental side of training is very often overlooked. We usually just ‘hope’ things will come together on race day!
It’s important to dedicate time to train your brain like you train your body because it takes away a certain level of the unknowns on race day. Building mental endurance means learning how to quiet that little voice in your head that says, ‘you’re not strong enough’, ‘you’re not experienced enough’, ‘you’re not like them.’
When you learn to handle those doubts in training, race day becomes the ultimate reflection of inner and outer self-work.
You’ve talked about how it’s possible to train the brain to withstand mental discomfort. How do you do this personally?
I’m a firm believer that discomfort is the currency to our dreams. Literally. Because the reason we quit early on a training session, yell at our partners after a bad training session or even overeat on empty calories, is because we’re avoiding a certain negative emotion.
Mental discomfort comes from emotional discomfort. In my personal practice, I start by telling myself two things: ‘I can handle any emotion.’ ‘No emotion is meant to stay if I’m willing to feel it.’
Let me also share this in story form. For so long, I didn’t set a massive goal in triathlon because I was worried about what others would think/say and I feared failing at it. So I kept my goals small. But I didn’t only keep my goals small on the race course, I did so in my professional and personal life too. Not only were my goals small, but I was a smaller version of myself – 100 per cent not in integrity with who I wanted to be. On top of all that, any time anyone questioned why I didn’t ‘just go for it’ I was short, dismissive and downright angry with them.
All of this was a result of not wanting to feel a failure if I didn’t hit my race goal. For so long I sacrificed my professional development and personal relationships. By the way, this is also yet another reason why it’s important for athletes to dedicate time to this – because it doesn’t just improve us as athletes, but as humans too!
So what I do is tell myself: ‘I can handle any emotion.’ ‘No emotion is meant to stay if I’m willing to feel it.’ And then I let the feeling of failure (or whatever emotion I notice I’m avoiding) wash over me. I let it take over. I go to that place I’ve been avoiding to teach my brain that I’m capable of handling it. Changing my relationship with failure and many other negative emotions has changed so much in my life!
You’ve also talked about giving our brains direction – can you elaborate?
Our brains need direction. Our brains thrive on direction. The first way to give your brain direction is by setting a goal. This can be in a training session or a race. Any standard metrics-based goal is useful because it brings a target to shoot for.
The second and, in my opinion, more important direction your brain needs in training and on race day is what you are choosing to think about yourself. We think on average something like 60,000 thoughts a day. Woah. Without direction, your brain will always go to the most practised and efficient thoughts. For the first 8 years of my triathlon career, my most practised thought was: ‘I didn’t grow up a swimmer so I can never be fast like them.’ Seems innocent, but it wreaked havoc on how I performed in the pool and at the start of all races.
If you want to perform at a higher level, set a goal and pay attention to what your most practised thoughts are. Do they support the goal? If not, it’s time to practice new ones!
Can you explain how the brain is hardwired for comfort and whether it’s possible to override this – the motivational triad?
The motivational triad is a fascinating source of information on the evolution of our brain. In the beginning, the human brain had one primary purpose: to keep us alive. And to make that happen, our primitive brain focused on three essential functions: seeking pleasure, avoiding pain and conserving as much energy as possible. These three components make up the motivational triad and were the guiding principles for all behaviours.
The primitive brain is also more impulsive and into instant gratification. All of this was well and good when our species lived in caves. Each aspect of the motivational triad kept us safe and evolving. We wouldn’t be here today, sitting in our homes, driving cars and going to grocery stores without it.
The problem comes along when, as an evolved species with present-day amenities, we allow our default decision-making to come from the motivational triad. Our brain places the fear of a hard training session at the same level as the fear of being chased by a bear. That is the motivational triad at work: fear is bad; fear is unsafe; shut it down. This keeps us in perpetual comfort and stunts our growth. It is 100 per cent possible to override this if we’re willing to ride the wave of discomfort. To make choices and decisions that give us that little queasy feeling in our stomachs (I know everyone reading knows exactly what I mean!) and do it anyway!
More and more of this over time rewires the brain to look for challenge, rather than comfort.
You literally put everything into your calendar. Can you explain from a brain point of view how this helps?
There are certain areas of my life where I have consciously chosen to practice planning ahead of time, my schedule is one of those. What this does is rely on the prefrontal cortex part of my brain, instead of being at the effect of my primitive brain. When thinking about these two parts of the brain, I also like to think of it as my lizard brain and my wizard brain. The lizard brain runs around like crazy (primitive brain), while the wizard brain is evolved and wise (prefrontal cortex).
By utilizing a schedule planning system, I decide ahead of time how to use my time. That way, when I arrive at a particular day and time, I don’t have to waste valuable time making decisions of when and what to do. Planning ahead of time makes the time more enjoyable and I’m more productive. This is highly useful when planning training sessions, but also work and personal responsibilities as well!
Do you ever use practices like visualisation/imagery in your own training, racing and goal-setting?
I do use a version of visualisation. I call it my Future Self. There’s a certain level of confidence that comes with declaring her my Future Self from the present moment. I talk about and write about her in detail. She is me, except she’s where I want to be.
Doing this type of work has been very impactful in my performance. When I think about who I am in the future, I think on a higher level, I make decisions on a higher level.
What other strategies do you dig out of your mental toolbox when racing or training?
My toolbox includes both action and mindset-based strategies to elevate performance. There are six main strategies I work with on myself and the athletes I coach:
#1. Getting clear and intentional on the training plan (putting that wizard brain to work!): we only do what we’re intentional about
#2. Developing a Kona qualifying mindset (because I primarily work with triathletes): who you are is the sum total of your self-concept
#3. Owning your controllables: control what you can, let go of the rest
#4. Learning the art of problem-solving: who can solve a problem the fastest is often who has the best race
#5. Developing joyful integrity: doing what you said you would do when you said you would do it
#6. Evaluating it all!
What does a typical week of training look like for you at the moment?
Right now, I’m taking what the year gives me! I’ve been in a base-building phase for a bit, with some intensity thrown in every now and then. I train anywhere from 17-21 hours per week. I actually just got the change to toe my first start line of 2020 at a very small local sprint triathlon here in Montana. I even spent 7 hours in the car just to race – I’ll never take a start line for granted again!
I anticipate the rest of this summer includes continued consistency, with a few new adventures and challenges thrown in. We have some trails here in Montana that I don’t often see while prepping for a fall Ironman. I’m looking forward to exploring trails, nailing a 5K personal record by the end of the year, riding my longest ride ever and doing a few long-distance open water swims.
Have you managed to adjust to Kona being postponed again until October 2021?
I did adjust quite easily to the idea of Kona in February and now I’m getting used to the idea of Kona in October of 2021. While it feels very far away, I know the more time I have before then, the sweeter the experience will be. Kona is Kona no matter what year is attached to it. I earned that spot and I will joyfully swim, bike, and run it when it’s time.
Race cancellations and postponements are unfortunate, but they’re also our reality. The quicker we can accept that, the quicker we can get back to work doing the thing that we can control: training.
Tell us about the Diversify Triathlon Movement you’ve recently set up?
The Diversify Triathlon Movement is my way of helping change the landscape of triathlon. It was born out of an idea… out of a question really… what can I do? And the response was absolutely incredible!
The premise is simple. There are a lot of barriers to bringing more BIPOC athletes into the sport of triathlon and trying to break down all of them at once is not sustainable. I chose to focus on one barrier: knowledge and support. I found triathlon coaches willing to donate three months of their time, support and coaching and then I found BIPOC athletes interested in triathlon. I paired them up, they got to work! In this first round, we have 50 athletes and 25 coaches taking part in the movement.
Additionally, several companies have stepped up to support the athletes with gear and product! We are hosting a race registration fundraiser in collaboration with Fund Her Tri from now until September 15 to sponsor the athletes’ first race registration.
What are your favourite items of kit for training/racing?
My absolute favourite item for racing is my bike. I just got a new bike last year and I’m obsessed! She’s a Liv Avow Advanced Pro 1 and her name is Missy Elliot.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
I race for Smashfest Queen because I love that they stand for supporting womxn with big goals!
I am sponsored by Swiftwick socks (hands down, THE BEST!) and a Bozeman local plant-based restaurant call Farmacy.