Fitness '97, February 1997
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
Set Concrete Goals
Control Your Thoughts
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."