Get Your Mind Right – Building Mental Toughness for Cycling & Triathlon

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Triathlon run leg heading out of transition
A strong mental game will get you through even the toughest of training days and races!
Triathlon run leg heading out of transition
A strong mental game will get you through even the toughest of training days and races!

It happened. Just over 1 mile into the run leg, I knew I was either going to puke or pass out. I was so green, I practically matched the club colors on my tri suit. Anger at the idea of failure was the only thing that kept me from just hunching over by the side of the road and calling it quits. I had trained for months to reach the finish line of this particular race. I blasted through the water, hammered on the bike, kept running through a calf cramp, and now my stomach threatened to staunch the speed of my race pace. I yelled at my stomach. Practically cursed the restaurant where I had eaten the night before (meal choice=fail). But mostly, I kept going.

Yes, it hampered me. But there’s something about being a cyclist and triathlete that forces you to accept pain in one form or another. That quality is a mental game. Tough brains that fight past your body’s polite begging for you to stop–or the insistence that you won’t really care or remember if you totally just quit. Preparing your mind for the exertion of racing should be an important part of your training–if it isn’t, prepare to be a quitter at some point.

Here, I’ll go through a few tips to get your mind in the right place. Of course, you should always experiment with what keeps you motivated best. Try these ideas to get started:

1. Build a Solid Base First: As a preface to the rest of this, it’s important to grow your mental fitness with base training. Because base is more about just building stamina, and less about pushing your outer boundaries, you’ll more easily be able to experiment with the types of things that motivate you to keep going. Push yourself, but you should be careful not to push yourself too far too fast. Try out your mental game, but don’t go beyond that magic 10% more per week–otherwise your body will fight the fatigue, and you’ll find it much more difficult to reach your goals.

2. Find Your Drive: Positivity is usually what keeps people going through fitness challenges, and it’s important to stay upbeat and excited about your training (make notes of how much progress you have made if you’re having trouble with negativity). Positivity can fuel your fire to keep breaking personal bests, but sometimes other emotions can compound your strength and push you well beyond walls you thought would stop you. I, for instance, find that my competitive drive lends itself to anger. While anger isn’t exactly a Christian attitude, it can give me super mental toughness (this sounds like something the Emperor said to Annakin at some point, and I guess a Sith would know his stuff). There’s just something about a cyclist passing me with a smirk on her/his face that forces me to hammer the pedals with already burning legs. Or that little remark of, “Hey, good job you’re almost there” from a runner who has caught up and doesn’t seem to be struggling in the slightest that just makes me want to turn up the gas and sprint until the finish line. For me, lingering on things that upset me or irritate me not only takes my mind off the rising lactic acid in my legs, but the emotion pushes me well past the point where I would normally have wanted to stop. This habit is either cathartic or horribly damaging–one or the other. But it really works.

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Focusing on releasing anger and frustration also helps to allay my panic response while swimming, and helps to keep me right on pace. I can more easily fall into my rhythm and swim longer distances when I’m not just worried about gulping for more air. So what’s your key emotion? For some it’s just looking around at the beautiful scenery and feeling happy to be outside and free. For others, it’s focusing on goals they’ve reached and accomplishments they’re proud of. Sometimes, I wish mine was less about negative emotion, but we all gotta figure out what works, right?

3. Repeat After Me: Mantras can keep you going. It may seem silly that a tiny phrase can push you to achieve greatness, but it can. I have a few that go through my head at times ranging from the simple, “I can totally do this” to stupid sayings like “Keep Calm and Cycle On” or my coach’s favorite, “I can do anything for 30 seconds.” Repeating a motivational phrase to yourself will stop you, most importantly, from telling yourself things like “Oh man, my shins are killing me” or “I’m such a total loser.” As silly as it sounds, your mental game is 95% telling your mind how you feel. Ignore what your brain wants to tell you (unless it’s telling you your leg is broken in three places or something) and tell your brain what you want to hear. Do a search for inspirational sayings, or come up with something unique to you and your experience. Remind yourself what you couldn’t do in that past, and note how far you’ve come. Just remember, any race is only a series of small movements forward. 

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4. Sweat the Small Stuff: Sometimes, the enormity of a training task can overwhelm our resolve to conquer it. Thinking about running 6 miles stops me cold and wishing to just slump on the couch with a couple of chilled Cherry Cokes. But once I can get myself started, I know that I need to focus on small goals. Getting past the first mile is usually a big jump for me, and beyond that I can hit my pace for a long while. But before I reach that mile marker, I focus on intermediate points in between. On the beach, I look for strolling tourists or washed up seaweed and tell myself I can get to each point in turn. When I run past, I pat myself on the back a little–because running is quite possibly the most awful form of exercise on the planet. So, I have to reward myself along the way to get through it. Reaching small goals and pushing your limits just a bit further every time you train will help build your confidence, and that in turn will build your mental fitness.


Although those are just a few of the most basic tips, you will find that your mental game is what pushes you to accomplish things beyond your goals. If that piece is missing, you probably won’t expand the limits of your potential. Ideas for what works for you? Comment below!

About Bek 301 Articles
SLO Cyclist's former chief editor and recovering road snob, Bek made sure everything ran smoothly around here. She was also the one who reminded us not to take ourselves too seriously--unless it involves black socks. Black socks are always serious.

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