Our resident Ultraman, Mary Knott (aka Finding Kona), shares how she uses mantras in her training and racing to focus her mind and find joy in concentration.
Mantras: Finding Aloha Inside My Head
A thought, behind speech or action.
A word or sound repeated to aid in concentration of the mind.
A statement or slogan repeated frequently.
I'm talking about mantras. Useful little phrases that can turn your world around in an instant.
I've been using mantras since I started in sport back in 2000. When things get tough in training or during a race I often had a phrase that I would repeat to keep my mind positive and my body moving forward. Since my High Vibe Retreat in October, where I first learned about meditation, I now also use mantras when I sit in mediation, to focus on what I want to create in my life.
Inhale joy and contentment. Exhale fear and doubt.
So what does this look like in practice? How does one start to use mantras in every day life? Here are some of my favorite mantras for swimming, biking, running...and sitting!
When I swim I count. I count backwards by length. So if I have a set of, say, 6 x 150y (36 lengths of the pool), I will count backwards from 36. In my head every time my right hand enters the water my mind repeats the number: 36. 36. 36. 36. 36. And so on until I flip, and then it goes to 35, and so on. The repetition does several things for me. 1. It keeps my mind focused and I don't lose track of where I'm at. 2. It doesn't allow my mind to drown in thoughts motivated by fear or anxiety. The mind is an amazing tool and it's pretty incredible how many thoughts you can actually indulge in a few seconds. But if I'm counting it's much more difficult to be distracted by thoughts of, “OMG I'm dying! I am never going to make this interval!” And so on.
If I do need a little something extra when swimming I like the following phrases, or mantras:
Relaxed and strong. When I'm going after it in a hard set, but feeling good, this phrase helps me to remember how to get the best out of myself, instead of fighting the water and trying to muscle my way through it.
I'm fine. I'm fine, right now, I'm fine. When I'm dying and on the verge of failing a workout, I use this phrase (borrowed from Jess of YogiTriathlete), to remind myself that at this very second I am alive, and I am breathing and I am...fine. I may fail the workout, and that happens sometimes, but I am, in fact, fine. This calms the mind and prevents full blown panic. And nine times out of 10, I don't fail the workout and I'm still...just fine.
As you can probably imagine, there is a lot more time on the bike for the mind to wander. Ironically, my mind doesn't tend to go too crazy with long, solo hours in the saddle. Often I sing to myself. Always the same song (no idea why). Anna Nalick's Breathe. Totally random I know. And not really a mantra, but it does fit the category of repetitive sound. I will occasionally employ the usual "I'm fine" or "I am strong" when needed to power through some tough intervals.
I'm fine. I'm fine, right now, I'm fine.
The bike is a place where mindfulness is key. Ironman bike rides are somewhere in the ballpark of 5-6 hours. That's a lot of time to mess things up if you're not paying attention. I am constantly in the moment and asking myself, "What do I need now?" Sometimes the answer is calories. Sometimes water. Sometimes nothing at all, but at least I know that in that moment all is fine in the world. If I don't stay focused, inevitably three hours down the road, I will suddenly become super negative and then it will dawn on me that I haven't eaten nearly enough.
Similar to the bike, the run is a good chunk of time. If I've trained well and execute my nutrition perfectly, I can hold race pace without too much stress and like to remain focused on, "What do I need now?" When things go south, as they sometimes do, I try to focus on things that I can control. Like my cadence. My coach told me once that my run pace is very much tied to my cadence, and for some reason this has stuck with me. I never noticed it before she pointed it out, but it's true. I normally have a decently high cadence and if I keep my feet moving quickly, my pace will be a bit quicker. When I hit the wall and start to drag my legs through the run stroke, my pace suffers. If I can remind myself, “quick feet, quick feet, quick feet,” then I can fight off the decline a little bit. I also bring back, "relaxed and strong,” from the swim. Relaxing my shoulders, smiling (relaxing the face!), and remembering how strong my body is helps me to get through rough spots in the run.
Relaxed and strong.
When I sit in meditation my mantra since October has been "inhale joy and contentment, exhale fear and doubt.” This phrase came out of my first one-on-one session with my meditation teacher, and has worked so well for me. It helps me to work through fears—fear of being hit by a car, fear of failure, etc—and replace those thoughts with ones of joy in all things.
I think sitting in meditation and learning to recognize thoughts (without judgement) has been super helpful in training and racing. I have learned to see the thoughts as they arise in my mind, and without indulging in them ("this feels terrible" can lead to a pity party very quickly!), let those thoughts go. Sometimes I will even say to myself, “This is not my thought.” Or, “This is not my energy.” This is particularly helpful in a triathlon setting where the panicked energy is palpable before a swim start, or when everyone is freaking out online about a course change. That energy is not my energy, and though I can recognize those thoughts, they are not mine. I am free to move forward with calmness—a winning feat in any athletic pursuit!
Your mind is your strongest tool. (I know, you thought it was your legs!) Why not maximize your ability by indulging in some positive self-talk?
Mary Knott is a SMASH-Dimond team member , a 24 x ironman-finisher, and 2017 Ultraman Australia 2nd place female finisher.