Mental Training

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Fitness '97, February 1997

Mental Training

Ommmmmm, Ommmmmm? Hardly.

Some of his former rivals, perhaps practicing a bit of diplomacy, like to call his approach "colorful." Others, perhaps betraying a bit of jealousy, prefer the term "bizarre." On one thing, however, they all agree: Mark Allen's routine to prepare himself mentally for competition--which over the years encompassed everything from such superstitions as not cutting his hair or nails in the weeks before a race, to such spiritual tacks as taking counsel from Huichol Indian healers, to more common techniques such as visualization--always seemed to work.

Well, maybe "always" is a slight overstatement. When pressed, Allen will spill an anecdote that sums up the mental aspect of fitness quite tidily. In 1991, with the first race of a new season a week away, he realized he'd been woefully laggard in his training. Rather than panic or feign injury, Allen decided to fall back on his legendary mental toughness. "Every night that week," he explains, "I saw myself strong, calm, and powerful. I saw myself having the most incredible race. And when I got to the starting line on race day, I felt pretty good. Then Mike Pigg went out and kicked my ass. So much for visualization."

Indeed, even the master of the mental edge admits he comes up short at times. But the point, he explains, is that only after your body is primed can you turn the race over to the gray matter. "If you're not in shape, it doesn't matter how mentally tough you are," he says. "But if you've done the work, your attitude can make all the difference." This Allen knows from experience--good and bad. "I swam competitively in high school and college, and without fail, if the guy next to me seemed bigger, stronger, or more focused, well, I'd just choke."

So how did he then become the type of athlete who, 13 minutes down and ready to bail in the 1995 Ironman, could concentrate his way to a decisive win? And more important, how can you do the same? It's a no-brainer: Simply break it down, says Allen, into three easy-to-grasp techniques.

Find Your Focus
Allen stresses that a consistent and successful program offers both a challenging goal and a way to make yourself accountable to it. He finds his focus both in knowing that he's capable of completing a certain workout and in imagining one of his rivals doing it better. "A lot of people think of focus as a straight and narrow tunnel," he explains. "But it's really a more organic concept. All you want is something to motivate you, to get your butt out the door on a relatively consistent basis, not something that looms over you 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Set Concrete Goals
One of the potholes in mental training is that the benefits--unlike miles logged or pounds lost--aren't easy to quantify. Thus, says Allen, you first need to gain faith in the intangibles by targeting a clearly defined goal, such as trying to rid yourself of a bad habit, which will help you accept the mind-over-matter concept. "Maybe you decide not to eat sugar for 40 days," he says. "Sugar is definable: You're either eating it or you're not. If you reach the goal, not only will you eliminate something that held you back, but you'll also have reprogrammed yourself to believe that you can change things for the better."

Control Your Thoughts
Obviously, this is easier said than done--but, Allen warns, if you let crankiness sap you mentally, it'll eventually attack your workouts, too. "All the negatives will start creeping in," he says. "You'll get tired more easily. You won't find the time to work out. You'll get slower. Then you'll start to get sick and injured. And at rock bottom, you simply can't train."

To inoculate himself against such viruses, Allen, like so many top athletes, relies on visualization techniques. Each night before he goes to sleep, he puts himself mentally into a race or an important workout. He'll picture the weather, the chop of the water, those first chaotic moments when he has trouble finding a pace. Then he'll settle in. If he pictures himself getting passed by another racer or feeling tight, he'll add words of reinforcement--words that match up with precise feelings he's had in workouts. Then he'll use those same words on race day.

If this all sounds a bit Zen, well, it is. At such an advanced level of alertness, Allen goes so far as to say that training can actually be considered a form of meditation. "It's very easy to sit there and go, 'Ommmmm, I feel so good about everything,'" he says, assuming the lotus position and a mock-serene countenance. "But when you're in the middle of a hard workout and things aren't going right, and yet you're able to stay calm and focused, well, that's when you discover that you can make things happen."

A B O V E   A L L   E L S E . . .
Insights gleaned from your workouts are the key to helping you visualize successful efforts. You want to identify and then be able to recall how you feel when you're performing at your peak.

Embarrassed? Get over it. "Sure, attaching words like 'strong and smooth' to your mental cues might seem a little hokey," says Allen. "But hey, you've gotta call them something."

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