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Ironman champ: Your mind matters more

By Chrissie Wellington, Special to CNN
July 13, 2012 -- Updated 1425 GMT (2225 HKT)
Four-time World Ironman champion Chrissie Wellington says her mind is her greatest athletic tool.
Four-time World Ironman champion Chrissie Wellington says her mind is her greatest athletic tool.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Champion Chrissie Wellington says a strong mind is an athlete's greatest attribute
  • Ability to push hard during races and during practice when you want to stop is key
  • A strong mind helps you stay positive, focused, and self-aware, even when in discomfort

Editor's note: Chrissie Wellington is a four-time World Ironman champion and a guest coach for CNN's Fit Nation Tri Challenge. Her autobiography, "A Life Without Limits," is available on Amazon.

(CNN) -- Of all the body parts we train, none is more important than the mind.

There is an obsession in triathlon with logbooks and data, with tracking how far and how fast we have gone in our latest session. People think that if their logbook is in order, then so must be their preparation.

But it's when the discomfort strikes that they realize a strong mind is the most powerful weapon of all.

This is more or less the first thing my coach said to me, even if his macabre observation that he needed to "cut my head off" was a somewhat unconventional means of conveying that message. I was fretful and obsessive when I first turned pro, running at everything like a bull out of a gate.

"The training you got a handle on," he told me. "The walking around in nerd land you have not. You get over that the same way as you improve an athletic weakness -- by knowing and training it out. Life is nothing but a habit. Get to work."

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I believe that it is my mind that has carried me through to some of my greatest victories -- a mind that I have had to work hard to train and hone.

The CNN Fit Nation Team will be no different. Training the brain will be as important as training the body. And although some characteristics are innate (self-motivation, drive, determination, stubbornness), I also think that there are strategies and tools that you can learn, develop and deploy.

Remaining positive really is one of the most precious faculties for any athlete. That and an ability to stay focused and disciplined. I encourage every member of the Fit Nation team to develop a mind bank of positive images and thoughts -- family, friends, previous successes, favorite places, a big pizza. They will need to build it up as they would any collection, but soon they will have a range of thoughts to flick through when their bodies are screaming for them to stop.

I also write my own mantra on my race wristband: "Never, ever give up -- and smile." It might not be the same for everyone, but smiling, for me, is crucial.

First of all, it relaxes my face and gives me a lift. Second, it shows how much I love the sport. We need to take triathlon seriously, but ultimately it is something to be enjoyed. Through my smile, I like to convey that joy and passion for what I am doing. Third, a smile is often useful to mask the pain and convey the impression that I am finding things easy.

I also always try to remain focused. The CNN Fit Nation team members need to maintain the same level of concentration in training as they would when racing. It's no use imagining you will miraculously develop that focus come race day in September.

Athletes should stay in the moment, and focus on getting every ounce of strength out of their bodies at that one second in time. If your mind wanders, so does your body.

You should constantly ask yourself questions. Are my arms relaxed? Is my face? Am I working as hard as I can? Am I breathing into my belly or am I stopping in my throat? There should be a regular check/feedback mechanism, whether you're in training or in a race.

If you lose that continual self-assessment, before you know it your face and shoulders have tensed up, you're clenching your fists and you're holding your breath or gasping when you don't need to. It all adds up to a waste of valuable energy and also affects your form.

But it's not just in swim/bike/run sessions that athletes can train their minds. I find I do some of my most valuable work on the sofa.

Visualization is a hugely important tool, one that requires little more than some peace and quiet. Close your eyes, relax, then go through each stage of the race in your mind.

Picture yourself performing at your peak. Then imagine all the things that could go wrong and picture yourself dealing with them. What will I do if my goggles are knocked off? What will I do if I suffer a puncture or cramps? Visualize each situation and rehearse what you will do so that if problems do arise, you are able to react decisively and calmly despite the chaos and adrenaline of race day.

In an endurance athlete's life, discomfort is never far away. Discomfort is little more than a conversation between your body and your brain -- another reason why a strong mind is so important.

The brain is the master computer of the body. Even when we are working on the efficiency of the peripheral components -- the legs, the arms, the butt cheeks -- we can recruit the seat of all power to enhance the effectiveness of our work. It's a question of testing limits.

You are not just working your muscles and lungs, you are working your brain to learn to accept each new level of exertion as something that can be endured safely. The brain -- at least, the safety-first part of the brain -- will try to dig its heels in.

Eventually it will prevail, because, of course, there are limits. I can't launch into an Ironman as if it were a sprint, so a sense of what really is too much is always crucial.

The key is to push that point back as far as possible.

The interface between the conservative and ambitious impulses in our brain should be a frontier of continual struggle. Remembering the pain of previous sessions or races we have successfully endured gives us the confidence to go through it again and the evidence to present to the brain that we are capable of handling it.

That way, the next time we hit want to stop, we know that a) we have been here before, and b) our discomfort can be overcome.

And of course, the final word needs to be given to motivation. How can we train our minds to overcome when our mojo slumps?

There are many tools and strategies. The first is to remember your individual goals and recall why you chose to embark on this great journey. You can also use uplifting music and videos to give you a huge mental boost. A favorite of mine is "Cool Runnings," as well as YouTube videos of athletes overcoming adversity or even of my previous race victories.

Don't be frightened to rely on family and friends for support and encouragement. And having a buddy to train with can always help get you out of the door on dreary days.

I would encourage every athlete to look back at the training log and take the time to really celebrate how far you have already come.

Most importantly, know that every session you do, every step you make, is taking you closer towards the goal, closer to the start of the Nautica Malibu Triathlon and closer to that hallowed finish line.

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