The alarm goes off. It’s race morning. You’ve been training consistently for months your hydration and nutrition are dialed in, and you’re ready to go. Except for one slight hurdle, a cold front has moved in overnight, and it’s 42 degrees and pouring rain. Your sympathetic nervous system kicks in your heart rate and respiration increases, blood vessels began constricting, and your digestive system shuts down. None of which you want to experience before the start of your race. However, incorporating adverse weather conditions into your training and applying a toolkit of coping strategies, will enable you to see adversity as an advantage over your competition.
Research shows that mentally tough athletes perform better under undesirable conditions. So, what defines mental toughness. One researcher characterizes mental toughness as, “the athlete’s ability to maintain performance levels during adversity, perceive pressure as a challenge while maintaining emotional, cognitive, and behavioral control despite situational stressors” (Cowden, 2017). So, in other words, the mentally tough athlete is unaffected by the weather conditions. In fact, embracing the weather is an opportunity to excel and use the adverse weather to their advantage.
Some of us are mentally tough by genetic disposition. However, the research shows that mental toughness can be an acquired skill set. The first step is to train for adversity; if you don’t ride your bike in the rain, you’re not going to race well in the rain. If you don’t run in the rain, you’re not going to race well in the rain. There are no miracles in a triathlon. We have all heard the story of coach Bowman altering Michael Phelps swim goggles before the competition or Desi Linden’s win at Boston. Both are perfect examples of training for adversity. However, how do you make the turn from avoiding adverse training conditions to embracing adversity?
One example is to develop the coping strategy known as self-talk. One definition of self-talk provided by Hardy (2006) provides an overview of self- talk as, “verbalizations or statements addressed to self, are multidimensional in nature are associated with the content of statements employed and are serving at least two functions; instructional and motivational for the athlete.” Van Dyke and Brewer (2016) also categorize self-talk as “recognizable communication expressed either internally or out loud in which the sender of the message is also the receiver.” So, on race morning when looking out the window and seeing pouring rain, we have two options. First, it’s my day I can use this to my advantage I’ve trained for this, and I’m ready, or I hate the rain I’m going to a crash, my shoes are going to be wet, it’s cold. One can see the positive effect self-talk may have and why self-talk could influence performance.
How we react to difficulty on race day will have a direct effect on performance outcomes. We are all aware of the physiological adaptations that are required when changing environmental conditions, such as heat or altitude but also, be aware of the mental component as well, so, when confronted with a weather system smile and say out loud, “I love the rain”.
For more information on self-talk see the March 2018 issue of The Sport Psychologist. The entire issue is dedicated to research on the coping skill of self-talk.
George Epley has more certifications than most doctors. They range from USA Triathlon and USA Cycling to American College of Sports Medicine and TrainingPeaks WKO4. He applies his tremendous knowledge to athletes of all levels and abilities and helps everyday athletes with managing their time to get the most from their training.