How I mentally prepare for my next challenge

When I think about how I mentally prepare for my next challenge, I always think of my experiences with Ironman. One of the most mentally gruelling and demanding experiences of my life, and so intense. Lining up at the start, there's no doubt about how I want to be feeling; mentally ready, focused and confident. Yet the reality can often be very different.

plan vs reality
plan vs reality

Pre-event stress

In the days leading up to the event, everything that happens has the opportunity to make or break my performance. The stress of things like traveling to the location, organising kit, checking things off lists, eating the right food and getting to bed early all add to the pressure of the challenge ahead. I always find the most stressful part is racking my bike and kit in transition. At Ironman Wales you are given five different coloured plastic bags and I always have a moment of panic sitting on the floor surrounded by kit, these plastic bags and lists. "Deep breath, you can do this..." I say to myself!

Ironman Kit and race preparation lists
Ironman Kit and race preparation lists

What could go wrong?

Prior to the event here are some common mistakes that waste precious energy:

  • worrying about the 'what happens if' thoughts, which can be totally destructive. What happens if... I don't make the cut off, get a puncture, don't stick to my nutrition plan...
  • comparing ourselves (unfavourably) against the opposition
  • focusing on the outcome (which is largely uncontrollable)
  • worrying about all the stuff we haven’t done (training or preparation)
  • changing things or trying new things last minute (because someone else is doing something, or there’s a new wonder nutrition bar available, etc)

The challenge is to manage these thoughts before the race starts and control them so they don't control us.

How do I get into my ideal mental state?

Sophie Radcliffe, Ironman Wales
Sophie Radcliffe, Ironman Wales

The first thing I do is to take a full assessment of my present state and accept it. Wherever I am is where I am and no amount of worrying about anything that may or may not happen in the future will change that. Once I've accepted my current situation, training, preparation and mindset, I can begin to use this as the foundation I need to rely on throughout the race.

Putting myself through extreme physical and mental stress during any challenge, requires for me to be constant in one thing; my mind. I have broken my body more times than I can remember. I've fallen over and picked myself up, I've been reduced to tears, I've been so cold I couldn't talk and so scared I could barely think. But the one thing that gets me through the darkest moments in these challenges is my mental resolve.

This is why it's so vitally important that in the days leading up to the event, preparing myself mentally takes precedence.

Here are the ways in which I do this:

  • Creating alone time to think and visually prepare for what lies ahead
  • Imagining myself feel strong, confident and focused. Know what that feels like and believe I have a right to feel that way
  • Visit the race venue on my own or go down to the sea if it's before Ironman. Watch the waves and feel the tranquilty in the sea, I imagine the carnage that it will feel like swimming in there and imagine myself finding calm in that carnage and finding my way through with strength
  • Do nothing. Literally, spend the afternoon before the race watching films, lying on the sofa. Nothing taxing
  • Go to bed very early - before Ironman I eat dinner at 5pm and go to bed at 7:30pm for a 4am wake up
  • The night before, I read positive messages and cards from friends and family. I have a bank of 'happy photos' on my phone to scroll through. I also I read through my favourite motivational quotes
  • In the hour before the event, listen to my 'getting in the zone' songs with headphones - Bon Jovi all the way!
Mental preparation for Ironman Challenge Sophie
Mental preparation for Ironman Challenge Sophie

Working with K2

As an ambassador for K2, I work with their coaches with the goal of improving my performance across all areas of life. In sport, work and my general outlook around important moments when I want to deliver the best I can. I talked to them about mental preparation for challenges with my next one being the Vertical KM race in Chamonix on 26th June.

K2 asked me about times when I think my preparation went well and times when it didn't. The comparison between the first and second times I completed Ironman Wales were clear examples to learn from. The first time, it was my focus for an entire year. The second time, it was two weeks after finishing the Alpine Coast to Coast and I was already broken before the race started. The difference showed up in my times; 12:56 and 14:05 respectively.

Challenge Sophie becomes and Ironman, Ironman Wales 2013
Challenge Sophie becomes and Ironman, Ironman Wales 2013
Sophie Radcliffe, Ironman Wales
Sophie Radcliffe, Ironman Wales

Working with K2 has given me insight into how professional athletes prepare to deliver the best performance they can and how critical the days leading up to the event are. K2 shared something with me from one of their athletes that I love and wanted to share with you. She has a list of '5 reasons why I can perform' that she refers to whenever she needs to remind herself. I think we all need one of these! 5 reasons why I can do this...

My motivation

Having analysed my own preparation and results, and compared that to what elite athletes do, I know I need to be more consistent.

However, I must take into consideration that I do these challenges because they inspire and motivate me, because I love them and because (as cheesy as it may be) it really is all about the journey. Crossing the line, finishing the adventure, reaching the top of the mountain... yes, these are the goals and they are amazing experiences in their own right, but what's really important and what I keep with me forever is who I become on the way there. If, in the lead up to a challenge, life gets in the way, then that is ok too. I just need to accept that and build from there.

Sophie Radcliffe, Ironman Wales
Sophie Radcliffe, Ironman Wales

The 5 pieces of advice I would give to anyone wanting to take control of their mindset and mental preparation for a big challenge are:

1. Know that you have an absolute choice over what you think about. Feed your mind with thoughts and images that make you feel strong, positive and confident

2. Develop your own recipe for success with mental and phsyical preparation in the days, hours, minutes before your challenge

3. Accept the moment as it is and you as you are. Do not waste precious energy worrying about the things that can go wrong or what you haven't done

4. Control the controllables. Anything outside your control is futile to worry about

5. Breathe, smile, believe. You are here for a reason and you deserve to show the world what you're made of!

Becoming an Ironman
Becoming an Ironman

K2 provide business and personal coaching to help people think, prepare and perform like elite athletes.