Mental Coping

Techniques and Strategies for Mental Coping.

There are many areas of PST (Psychological Skills Training) used by psychologists in both medical and clinical settings, however my area of focus for this article is in Mental Coping.

I’m sure everyone has heard of and can relate to the term ‘time flies when you’re having fun’. You often find that when you’re actually doing something enjoyable, time seems to go faster than when you’re at work for example. But what about when you are training? Have you ever taken to the running machine or a turbo trainer and found that as you bury yourself and give every ounce of effort to turning your legs, the time on the clock seems to tick away so slowly, or even stops at points of utter exhaustion?


Anyone who has ever done some form of training will have probably experienced this, but there are techniques to battle mental pain and to help with learning to cope with periods of extreme duress whilst training.

Of course, when you run, cycle, or indeed do any sport outside, it is much easier to cope with the mental pain since there is a constant changing environment for you to look at and consider. Equally when you are in a running race, you often forget about the pain because there are other competitors to think about. Even indoor sports have their own distractions. Squash is a great example since the only thing you are really focused upon is chasing down a ball, rather than constantly thinking how much pain you are in; this usually comes soon enough at the end of each rally.


But what about the times when you are on your own, on a treadmill, or on an exercise bike/turbo trainer, where there is nothing to distract you from the pain except for the wall you have been staring at for the past 30 minutes? It is in this situation where good mental skills will help you train more effectively, and crucially harder, as you learn to distract yourself from the pain by any means necessary.

There are a number of skills which you should have in your arsenal should bad weather arrive and you find yourself needing to go to the gym or to take your bike off the road and put it on your turbo trainer for the winter. Remember however that these are simply coping strategies; a hard training session will always feel hard, but the techniques listed below will simply help you to cope better with the pain.

  • Routine
  • Mental trickery
  • Music & film distractions
  • Training plan design and how you visualise a session
  • Thought pattern
  • Breakdown of time elements
  • Mental clock
  • Perception of time

So taking the points in order, the first thing to mention is the routine. This is simply referring to your routine with exercise and training. Equally, if you have several training programmes that you like to do, how often do you do each one? The first process in making any training regime easier is to simply create a routine, and then try to stick to it as much as possible. If you have time to train in the morning, the more often you wake up and get straight on the bike, the easier this will become. This takes no psychological strengthening, just a healthy amount of will power to pull yourself out of bed and get straight down to training.

But my favourite psychological skill is to trick the mind whilst you’re exercising. This is exceptionally difficult and requires a number of other skills that I will come onto later, but in essence, you need to trick your mind during the hardest parts of your training session to make those periods of time pass just as quickly as the easier parts of the session. There are several methods in doing this, but the most common is by ‘not clock watching’. You’ll see a number of people in the gym who stare at the clock, willing the numbers to go by, but no matter how hard you stare, the numbers seem to last an age before changing. Your goal with ‘not clock watching’ is to set yourself a separate challenge on top of your exercise. Simply, when you reach a hard interval, see how long you can go without checking your time. When I use my turbo trainer, I use my cycle computer in cadence mode which means I can’t see the time. I use a separate stopwatch for the time, and by doing this, I can challenge myself to only monitor my cadence for as long as possible without checking how long I have left. You might then think ‘what happens if I go over my time’? Well there is no need to ‘not clock watch’ whilst in the easiest parts of your session, but if you go over time during the hardest parts, then you have just reaped a surprise benefit from your training. Having said that, the chances of going over time when you are really burying yourself is relatively slim.

Aside from clock watching, there is a question of what music or films to watch. As you’ll notice, all of these techniques are personal preference, and your choice of music or films is no different. The main thing to note is that it will be much easier to complete a training session by listening or watching something other than just staring at the wall which is often pure agony. My own preference for music is varied; however I like to add music that will make me smile such as “Surfin’ Bird by The Trashmen” which always makes me smile on all but the hardest of programmes.

Of course not everyone will share this taste, and so it’s important to use your own personal preference and keep your iPod close to hand to change the track as and when. Is music always enough though? Films are often a good way to pass the time, however some films are much better than others. The key with this is to watch a film you have already seen. Then, you won’t be tempted to concentrate too much on the film and lose focus on your training, but when you are able to lift your head, you’ll be able to instantly recognise the scene, and on looking down, the film will continue playing in your mind. “Top Gun” is always a favourite and the perfect length for 90 minute torture sessions.

Before you start your exercise, how much time do you spend actually planning what you are going to do? Do you allow a personal trainer to design your programmes for you, or do you enjoy setting the challenge yourself? With any training session design, the key is always variation. It is easy to sit down and design a session which has you at 95% of max heart rate for a full hour, but when it is actually time to attempt this session, you’ll soon become disillusioned with a programme which even Bradley Wiggins wouldn’t complete. So instead of large blocks of time at specific work intensities, try blocks of between 1 and 10 minutes split between building, max effort and recovery, and then repeat. By doing this type of interval session, you are less likely to become bored, and will have a list of times and intensities to focus on during the session rather than the pain surging up your legs. Combining this more interesting session with a film and music makes the ultimate pain distraction.

But once you’re actually in the process of acting out your session, what is going through your mind? Your thought process is the second part to the mental trickery technique, and allows you to do just what you weren’t allowed to do at school; day dream. Generally, the easiest days of training are those when you know exactly what you are training for. It could be to simply win your local 10K race, or it could be to make it all the way round your first marathon. When you’re prevented from training outside, mentally visualising the successful completion of your goal on the bike or treadmill is a great way to distract yourself from the pain. But what if you’re not training for anything in particular, what should you think about then? Well now it’s time to get creative and literally let your imagination run wild. For the final 10 brutal minutes on your turbo trainer, instead of looking despairingly at the clock, imagine for example you are on the final run in to the Champs Elysees being led out for the finish line. Imagine how you will feel, the excitement, the noise around you, the colours and your focus as you are surrounded by the peloton. Visualising to this level of detail about anything which motivates you is the key to coping mentally with any hard training session. And as with any training, the more you practice this type of visualisation, the more you will be able to focus on everything but the work you are doing. Remember the beauty of visualisation too: you can imagine yourself leading the final 1km of the world championships race in any sport multiple times during a single session, where each successive time you iron out the details in your own mind, right down to your winning celebration.

The final three techniques which I will mention all center around how you think of time. This may seem like a strange thing to say since 1 hour is made up of 60 minutes and each minute is 60 seconds. But altering the way you think of the time you have left to exercise is a key step in lasting the full distance during long training sessions. A simple tactic is to use a countdown timer instead of a stopwatch. With the time counting down, this gives you a fixed end point to focus on rather than a normal stopwatch which will keep on counting until you stop it.

The first technique is all to do with how you break down individual elements of time. For example, with a hard 1 hour treadmill session, if you allowed yourself to simply consider the training as a solid 1 hour block, you may start to struggle as early as 5 minutes in when you realise you have 55 minutes to go, or even when you get to 20 minutes and realise you’re not even half way. The key with a long session is to break it down into bite sized chunks which for me during a 1 hour session would be into 4 lots of 15 minutes. Then, with each 15 minute block, I would break this down into a further large 10 minute block, and a smaller 5 minute block. In truth, it doesn’t matter how you break each session down, just as long as you can picture how you have organised that session in your mind where you can mentally tick off each block as you complete it. Usually, by the time I have organised a session into manageable stages, the first 15 minutes will have all but gone, and so I only have three 15 minute blocks left to do.

The second technique is the mental clock. This is nothing more than micro version of the previous technique. Imagine you are in the middle of a training session, and rapidly approaching is a five minute torturous interval at 80-90% max heart rate. How would you break this 5 minute session down, knowing that you will be in agony after the first minute? The first thing to realise is that this five minute interval is a separate entity from the rest of the programme, and once finished, you will have knocked a significant amount of time off your overall session. The next thing is to break this down into a four minute period by eliminating the final minute. The reason for this is that no matter how utterly exhausted you are, you could probably squeeze out a final minute from your legs. Finally this four minute period can be broken in half. Now, you’re left with an initial two minute period with relatively fresh legs, a second two minute period where you will force yourself not to look at the clock, and lastly, a single minute which you will get through by any means necessary. As you can see, this is far from rocket science, but by simply breaking each element of a training session down, what seems like a mountainous training session at the beginning can soon be broken down into manageable pieces.

For a final question, what is your perception of time? Could you constantly exercise for five minutes and accurately indicate when each minute has gone by without looking at the clock? With practice of the above techniques, especially ‘not clock watching’, you will develop somewhat of a sixth sense for time, where you won’t be compelled to look at the clock, instead, you’ll know roughly for how long you have been going and how long you’ve got left, and in turn, this lets you concentrate on other elements such as your cadence or pace, or even on visualising your next win without constantly feeling pressurised to look at the clock, only to see that it has only moved 10 seconds since your last desperate glance.

As I hope you can see from the above, these psychological techniques will never make training easy. Everyone including your Bradley Wiggins, Ueli Steck and Jessica Ennis Hill’s suffers during training, but by using the above techniques, your ability to deal with the pain will drastically improve, allowing you to reach the next level in your training, and over time, you will develop your own mental coping strategies using every trick in the book to allow you to push for that next 1% during training and competition.