Mental Barriers

Everyone has mental barriers.  It might be the fear of open water swimming or swimming in a group.  It might be running a certain distance or pace.  For me, I have different barriers for each discipline and they've developed over years.  They came from plateaus, failures, poor training, etc.  But regardless of how they developed, they exist and need to be addressed.  

Devil's Lake swim last summer.


Swimming is a tough one.  I can't really define my mental barrier easily, but it appears to be somewhat fitness related.  I don't have confidence in the water.  I don't believe I can swim hard for 2.4 miles (by hard, I mean a good solid Ironman pace, not all out).  My form has always fallen apart after about 30 minutes of swimming and because of that I've gone out too easy in the past couple of Ironmans and had slow swims.  I've also lost confidence through failure in swimming.  I've set out several times to set a PR and come up short.  This has hurt my confidence and left me questioning my ability to swim well.  A lot of this has come from me not putting in enough time in the pool.  If I ever skip a workout, it's swimming.  It's the sport I feel I can't master, but to be brutally honest with myself I've never put in the time or effort required.

No more!

This winter I'm committed to improving my swimming, and I'm doing it the way I've improved in the other two disciplines:  volume.  I'm going to swim and swim and swim.  More is more.  In the last 28 days I've logged more than 90,000 yards in the pool (more than 52 miles).  I have my 1000 yard time trial coming up this Friday so hopefully I'll see some improvement and set a new PR.  14 minutes flat is my current PR so I'm looking to break that mark on Friday.

Taken during the 24-hour indoor TT.  Feb 2011.


300 watts.  That's the barrier, and it drives me crazy.  When I started cycling in 2006, it didn't take that long to get my threshold* up to 280 watts.  That's where it was when I raced my first Ironman in 2008 (IMWI).  Since it grew so quickly, I figured it keep on going for a while.  I knew there would be a plateau, but I didn't think I was so close to it.  The following year I improved my threshold a bit and have more or less been stuck around that 300 mark for a couple of years.  My endurance has improved, but my threshold has been a sticking point.

Sometimes it's physical and I'm not strong enough to break 300, but many times it's mental.  I see a number in the 300s and I subconsciously back off because I don't believe I can hold it for an hour.  I've tried to hit 300+ and failed in the past many times.

In the 24 hour TT a few weeks ago I put out 295 watts for an hour.  That's a good place to be for November, but again I was short of 300.  

To address this, I'm doing plenty of threshold work and going back to what I did when I started cycling - weightlifting.  I know a lot of people claim it doesn't help, but I'm going to try it out for myself.  I'm pretty old school when it comes to weights.  No fancy schmancy machines for me (except leg extensions and leg curls, but that's only because of my knee injury).  I prefer a dusty old squat rack.  I'm working my way up gradually.  I've made progress, but still I'm squatting 50 lbs less than I did in high school.  I've got a ways to go.

I also tell myself, when I do threshold work, that I belong in the 300s.  If my wattage isn't 300+, I'm slacking and not reaching my potential.  I'm convincing myself I belong in the 300s, not below.  It's a mind game.  I have a one-hour TT coming up in early Jan so I'll have a chance to test myself.  300+ or bust.

This is from a threshold workout I did a little over a week ago - 287w for 20 minutes, 301w for 15 minutes, 316w for 10 minutes and 342w for 5 minutes.  I finished it off with some Ironman-paced work.  It was a solid workout.

I dug up an old pic.  This is the halfway point of the run at IMWI '08.


6 minute miles.  I set a 5K PR of 19:19 in 2008 and since then have only brought it down to 18:55.  That's a 6:05 pace. I know I have it in me to run a sub-6 pace for a 5K.  It's mental, just like my 300 watt barrier.  I see numbers that start with a 5 and I start thinking I need to pace myself because I can't hold it.  I've tried many times and come up short on this one.

One thing I've discovered is that I'm not running enough 5K paced work.  I put in a lot of time doing solid distance work, but I'm not putting in enough sub-7 minute miles to really develop the endurance and confidence I need to run a sub-6 5K pace.  

Unfortunately, my knee has been giving me a lot of problems again so running is on the back burner.  I need to get these tendons healed before I can address this barrier, and it may not happen until late in 2012.  

Until then, my focus will be on smashing my swim and bike barriers.  Hopefully, I can break through those this year and then I'll work on my run barrier for 2013.

Barriers can be frustrating, and they definitely hold us back, but without them the reward isn't as great.  PRs are fun, but smashing through a long-time mental barrier is incredibly rewarding....or so I hear.  I've yet to crack these.  

My first opportunity will by my cycling TT.  Swimming will be the Galveston 70.3 in April.  I can set all the PRs I want in the pool until then, but it's race day that counts.  That's my real barrier.  My goal will be to break 30 minutes in the swim.

*threshold is the max power you can hold for one hour. 

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