Finding the Right Mindset

(this post is a modification of an email I recently sent to a friend of mine who is a successful pro triathlete and super awesome person, when our email chain got onto the topic of “fun” vs “discipline”)

The end goal of all that we do, of course, is maximizing race day performance.  By and large, you improve your race performance by making positive adaptations in training.  At the core of these adaptations are two things:  1) workout quality, and 2) how you recover from those workouts.  Everything that happens in your life, both mentally and physically, affects those two things.

I’m going to focus on workout quality, because we can use workout quality as a proxy for recovery quality (i.e. if you recover poorly, then it will be reflected in your workout quality).  There are two main elements to workout quality:  1) your physical capabilities, and 2) your mental willingness to properly execute the workout.

     A great set of physical tools, but without a willing mind, is useless.  On the other side of the coin:  an incredibly willing mind, but without adequate physical tools, will not achieve it’s goals.
     The importance of a “willing vs. unwilling” mind is encapsulated perfectly in one short video clip, of one basketball play, from the 2000 Olympics.  Vince Carter is 6’6″.  Frederic Weis is 7’2″.  There is no way, physically, that that play should have happened. But Vince Carter was a huge hog beast, and made a 7’2″ man look as tiny as a field mouse, because of each of their respective mindsets.


(I’ll now give you a few minutes to search YouTube for more clips of Vince Carter)

Ok, back to triathlon training…   So, the trick is to find that ideal balance where your physical systems are strong, but your mind is also strong & eager enough to attack each workout/race properly.  And that, is extremely individual.  Some athletes thrive in a very “straight-edge” environment.  Other athletes cannot handle a straight-edge environment.  Making the sacrifices necessary for a straight-edge environment may cause discontentment/boredom, which can lead to resentment of the sport, and can snowball into full-on depression.  A depressed athlete, or an athlete who resents their sport, will not have the mental strength to accomplish high quality training sessions, and will not approach races with a properly confident/aggressive attitude.  So no matter how strong they are physically, their mental systems are so timid/sad/upset/etc… that they can’t take full advantage of their physical capabilities.

I can speak to this, as it’s what I was experiencing from late 2011 through late 2013.  When I started racing pro in late 2011, I completely changed my lifestyle.  I stopped being social, I stopped partying.  I made every sacrifice that you’re “supposed” to make.  But, my workouts, and race performance, made virtually zero gains during that two year period, even though I was doing everything “right”.  Here’s the rub – I did everything right, except for the most important thing, which is executing your workouts to the best of your ability.  Doing everything outside of training “right” made me so miserable that I trained like a jabroni, because I was just so depressed/stressed/resentful heading into every workout.  I lost sight of the forest, for the trees.

     I hated every workout, and I hated racing.  In 2012, Heather (my girlfriend at the time) had to talk me into doing every single race.  I would start every single race week saying, “I don’t care about this.  I’m dropping out of the race. This is stupid.” Eventually, she’d talk me into going to the starting line.  But then, during every race, my main thought was, “I can’t believe I’ve given everything up for this shit”

     I reached a breaking point early in 2014, and decided to start being myself again, and to start having fun again.  I’m out with friends in the evening now about 3-4 times per week, even during big training blocks.  And you know what?  I just submitted the best 4-week training block of my career.  My swimming and biking made huge leaps forward.  I made more progress in the pool and on the bike over the last 4 weeks than I made in the previous year.  Why?  Because I like my life again.  I’m eager to train, and I’m attacking the hell out of every workout.  So even though I may be compromising my “physical systems” by 2-3%, by not doing everything “right”, I’ve boosted my mental systems from 20%, all the way back up to 100%.  And that mental boost has more than made up for any minor physical compromises.
     I was good at this sport in the first place because I was completely nuts, and didn’t back down from any amount of pain or suffering.  I thrived on suffering.  But not suffering in some depressing or weird “emo” sense.  It was more like an adventure, just to catch a glimpse of what was out there, beyond the limits.  I just always enjoyed seeing how far I could go without killing myself.  Well… now that I’m happy again, I finally have the mental strength to thrive on suffering, and it’s fun to venture into the unknown again.

Ok… enough about myself…  It’s time to make a very important point – I’m not suggesting that everyone should go out, stay up late every night, etc..  Because it’s very easy to cross a line where such behavior becomes self-destructive.  And yes, in an ideal world, it’s best if you can thrive in a straight-edge environment.  But very few people actually can.  And attempting to live that strict, ascetic, lifestyle, has destroyed more than a few careers.  A lifestyle that compromises your motivation, over a long-term period, will ultimately backfire, because it will erode your mental strength.  Success in sport comes from a strong, happy, confident, motivated, mindset.  Your physical attributes are merely the residue of what’s going on in your head.

Now, are there successful straight-edge athletes?  Of course.  There’s a very long list of them.  But there’s also a very long list of highly successful athletes who weren’t quite as disciplined.  You might be surprised at how many of the top people in sport go out at night regularly, eat “junk” food, etc… Not because it’s physically “good” for them, but because it helps them cope with, and temporarily escape, the pressure of professional sport. I see it all the time in Boulder.  Ironman, Challenge, and Ironman 70.3, winners staying out late, dancing like lunatics, etc… They don’t do it all the time, of course, because that would become counter-productive.  The ones who party in excess fall to the wayside.  But the ones who find the right balance, find their way to the top of the podium.

How do you know if you’ve found your balance?  Ask yourself two questions:
     1) Do I like my life?
     2) Am I improving my workout/race performances?
 If you can answer “yes” to both of those questions, then you’re doing it right, and you should just keep on doin’ yo thang.  But if you can’t answer “yes” to both, then I recommend adjusting your life choices, as necessary.

So… find your balance, find what makes you happy.  Find what keeps you both mentally eager, and physically capable of attacking every training session.  Will you go overboard one way or the other at times, in terms of being too straight-edge or too undisciplined?  Sure.  But that’s all part of finding the balance that works best for you.  I’ve managed to make my way back on to the path, and it’s great.  I hope you can find your way onto your path.  I’d be happy to talk to any of you about finding what works best for you.

Until next time…  Keep training hard, and resting harder,
Doug MacLean


One thought on “Finding the Right Mindset

  1. Glad you found the right balance dude! That is something that we all struggle with at some time. I’m still searching, but right now being as straight edge as possible is getting me from one workout to the next. I know that the more loose, relaxed, flowing time is coming in a few more months.

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