XTERRA Couch to Trail – How To Develop Mental Toughness


By 5x XTERRA Age Group World Champ Mimi Stockton

We’ve all been there – it’s a week before the race, you’re feeling physically primed to crush anything that comes your way, and you feel confident about your training. You’ve done your threshold and VO2 Maxworkouts, you’ve built your body into a lean, mean racing machine, you’ve dialed in your nutrition, and you are ready to rock and roll.

Next thing you know, it’s the morning of the race, you’re 30 minutes from plunging into the water and suddenly the doubts begin to creep in. Quickly, they take over all of your hard work and paralyze you with fear. You can’t get your swim cap on. Your goggles are fogged up. You let someone get ahead of you and exit the water two minutes slower than anticipated. On the bike, you convince yourself you can longer podium or make a new PR. The race is only one third finished, but you’ve already sabotaged yourself.

Most of us know there is more to triathlon than just swimming, biking and running. There’s transition, nutrition, strength training, recovering and mental toughness. But sometimes we forget these important elements or put them on the back burner because “I barely have time to fit in three sports, how in the world can I master this other stuff?”

XTERRA is designed to test mental toughness. At its core, it is about going the distance and overcoming every conceivable obstacle in your way. Many triathletes master the first part of the definition of mental toughness—being able to cope with huge workloads and exacting demands—and have a good handle on hard training and physical pain. They are able to reframe their minds and create positive mental energy.

However, when things start to go wrong and unplanned obstacles come up, it’s much easier to freak out than to stay present. This is the second part of mental toughness – can you handle the unexpected? Can you stay calm when all the evidence points towards disaster? Can you keep your head in the game even when the rules have changed?

Developing mental strength is all about being comfortable being uncomfortable. In other words, you have to habitually do the things that many people are unwilling to do. Honing your triathlon mindset is an underrated – yet invaluable – tool for improving your swim/bike/run performance. And, the great thing about a strong mindset is that we are not born with it. We don’t even have to learn it at a young age. A strong mindset comes simply from the decisions you make, and make again, time after time. The great news about this is that you can start today and reach levels of your training, competition, and success that you never thought possible. Outstanding athletic prowess will take someone only so far. But a strong mindset you will enable you to reach your full potential.

Below are a few proven methods to assemble a mentally tenacious, resilient and resolute brain. If you aren’t doing these things on a regular basis, you should be, for these are the habits upon which mentally strong athletes and people rely.

Fight when you already feel defeated.

You always have two choices when things begin to get tough – you can either overcome an obstacle and grow in the process or let it beat you. Humans are creatures of habit. If you quit when things get tough, it gets that much easier to quit the next time. On the other hand, if you force yourself to push through a challenge, the strength begins to grow in you. If you quit during a tough workout, you will never develop the confidence to fight during a race. On the other hand, if you maintain your integrity and push through all of your challenges in practice, you have that much more confidence to draw upon on race day.

Additionally, if you actively visualize race day scenarios—and I mean imagine every possible scenario that the day might throw at you—you can mentally prepare yourself for how you want the day to go, and also for any curveballs that are thrown your way.  If you visualize your approach—objectively and not emotionally—you can improve your response to these potential race day setbacks and deal with them calmly, confidently and successfully.

Make mistakes, look like an idiot, and try again 

Studies have shown that the most successful athletes tend to have two critical things in common: they’re terrible at imagining failure and they tend not to care what other people think of them. In other words, they put no time or energy into stressing about their failures as they see failure as a small and necessary step in the process of reaching their goals. As you grow as an athlete you will fail. The best athletes get comfortable with failure, accept it, learn from it, and move on.

Keep your emotions in check 

Negative emotions challenge your mental strength every step of the way. While it’s impossible not to feel your emotions, it’s completely under your power to manage them effectively and to keep yourself in control of them. When you let your emotions overtake your ability to think clearly, it’s easy to lose your resolve.

You just got passed by a fellow age-grouper on the bike? That’s not the time to have a meltdown – instead, it’s the time to dig deep and say to yourself, “I can catch him—I’ve got this.” You are what you think, so make those thoughts good ones. It’s really quite simple:  Think negative, get negative results. Think positive, get positive results.  If you tell yourself something enough, you will start to believe it.

Trust your gut 

There’s a fine line between trusting your gut and being impulsive. Trusting your gut is a matter of looking at decisions from every possible angle, and when the facts don’t present a clear alternative, you believe in your ability to make the right decision. You go with what looks and feels right. For example, you have to trust your gut to take a certain path down the hill; steering your bike hard to the left of the big rock just feels right and therefore you do it.

Focus on the moment and not the outcome

Nothing tests your mental strength like focusing on the present, especially when you’re tired. It’s so tempting to focus on the finish line, the end of the workout, or even the next set within the workout. How many times during a race have you thought, “OMG, where is the finish line?”  This failure to focus on the present—what you are doing at that exact moment—can result in making poor decisions or an inability to execute the ideal race strategy.  Focusing on the outcome or end-goal can also cause performance anxiety.  And this, as many of you know, can wreak all sorts of havoc and prevent you from your best performance.

Lead when no one else follows. 

It’s easy to set a direction and to believe in yourself when you have support, but the true test of strength is how well you maintain your resolve when nobody else believes in what you’re doing. People with mental strength believe in themselves no matter what, and they stay the course until they win people over to their ways of thinking or doing. (I’m still working on this one.)

Be accountable for your actions, no matter what. 

People are far more likely to remember how you dealt with a problem than they are to recall how you created it in the first place. By holding yourself accountable, even when making excuses is an option, you show that you care about results more than your image or ego.

Handle the pressure with grace. 

No one likes feeling pressure. But you can make it easier on yourself by accepting that anxiety is inevitable in competition. Again, get comfortable being uncomfortable. Learn how to let go of mistakes quickly if things do not go the way you want. A key part of mental training is about compensating, adjusting, and trusting. If plan A does not work, go to plan B or C, and visualize these plans.

Visualizing how you are going to handle pressure creates a state of mind that’s ready to race. Examples include creating a favorite playlist, taking four calm deep breaths before the swim start, and focusing on feeling strong and competent in the water.

Bringing it all together

The good news is that any of us can develop mental toughness with a little extra focus and effort. It is as simple as relying on all of your strengths and abilities and pushing through your weaknesses. But I’m not going to sugarcoat this – when done correctly, mental training is hard work. It forces us to acknowledge aspects about ourselves that we might not want to acknowledge.

I’ll never forget when I DNF’d a race down in Arkansas, a race for which I was so physically prepared. I thought I was tough—I did XTERRA races after all. I never challenged that assumption and just took it for granted. That race quickly challenged me. I got in the freezing cold water and had a panic attack and then everything fell apart. I doubted myself, my brain was flooded with negative talk and I ended up pulling out of the race halfway through the bike.

That race was sobering, but it taught me a great deal. I realized that my panic came from my doubts and there can be no room for doubt during an XTERRA race. I learned that I have to be my own best friend and my own biggest cheerleader. Any XTERRA is physically hard. You push your body well past the breaking point.  The only thing holding it all together is your mind, and that mind needs to be strong. So it’s a good thing that mental toughness is just another muscle that we can develop by remaining calm, staying present, and believing the best about ourselves.

The XTERRA Couch to XTERRA training series is presented by Sheri Anne Little and five-time XTERRA age group world champion Mimi Stockton of Next Level Endurance. Their new 12-week “Couch-to-XTERRA” training program is designed to do just that, get aspiring athletes off the couch, into training, and to the start line of an XTERRA. Learn more at https://nextlevelendurance.net or email info@nextlevelendurance.net.