This thing called mental toughness? You can train yourself to become better at it

By Fabi Carino | Photo by Oktay Yildiz/Unsplash

Sometime in 2010, as I was stuck in C-5 traffic one night, I saw an Ironman 70.3 billboard advertisement. The first thing that caught my attention was the athlete’s lean and muscular body, posing in his triathlon suit. As I read through the details of the ads, I gasped when I found out that the “70.3” on the billboard refers to the total distance in miles. I was astounded by the amount of willpower and strength that the kind of people joining such events must have.

Two years after, I decided to give triathlon a try, thinking how awesome it would be to do three sports. Although I was excited in the beginning, I had a few concerns back then. I could neither swim well nor could I keep my balance on the bike.

Nonetheless, I made a firm decision to embark on my journey.  Every day, I would visualize how I would approach each workout. Since I was determined to sign up for a race as soon as possible, I did my research and found myself a triathlon coach, enrolled immediately, and made a commitment to stick to my daily training regimen. Almost every single day for a year, I devoted two to three hours a day for training.

I soon realized that the difficulty was not in the early wake-up calls and passing up on late-night parties.  The challenge was figuring out how to stay motivated, especially when the going gets tough. Based on my experience, I have proven this old adage to be true. “Triathlon is 30 percent physical and 70 percent mental.” You’ll surely need to find the mental strength to overcome the stress of daily training and to get through the race when everything hurts.

Have a purpose

Write down your vision and goals or create a dream board where you can post a picture of your desired outcome. Always use them to remind yourself why you started in the first place.

Use powerful words and mantras to motivate yourself

Repeat them in your mind before and during the race. Here are some examples:

“I am strong and tough and will enjoy this race.”
“Pain is temporary, quitting is forever.”
“I am confident, positive, and determined.”
“I am focused and am fully engaged in my activity.”

Keep a lucky charm

Have a simple object you can use every race to remind you of your motivations. Whether it’s your favorite visor that you got as a gift from your daughter, a watch or a sports band, having them with you can help fuel your energy as you go on.

Develop focus and mindfulness

Direct your attention to the task at hand, whether it’s perfecting your swim technique, cadence on the bike, or running stride. The more focused you are, the less room your mind will have for negative thoughts and other distractions.


Allot a minimum of 10 minutes a day to mentally rehearse your activity during the race. See yourself swimming, biking, running, and reaching the finish line in a relaxed state following a consistent and slow breathing pattern. Recall all positive training experiences and podium wins. Replay this like you’re watching a movie and store them in your memory to feel energized when fatigue starts to creep in.

Surround yourself with positive people

Find a group or a team of supportive individuals who can encourage you to be better during training sessions and races. Hire a coach who can give you a science-based program and provide regular feedback so you can grow and improve.


One way to condition an athlete’s mind is through guided imaginary activity. Being a licensed hypnotherapist, I know that one can be led to a subconscious state of mind to remove all fears (water anxiety, experience of losing) and doubts, which will then to lead him to a successful result.

Remember, triathlon is not a walk in the park. If it was, everyone would be doing it. The good news is that mental toughness is an acquired trait. It is something that can be learned and developed with constant practice. Keep your eye on the prize and watch yourself achieve what you once thought was impossible. When you program your mind, the body will easily follow.

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