Racing Resilience

Focussing on key words in training is a valuable exercise. Brainstorming with Professor Luke Bell one long ride, we talked in and around the most useful characteristics for success in long course triathlon. That spark led to this essay about resilience.

Resilient - Adjective
1. Recoiling; springing back; resuming it’s original shape after bending, stretching, compression
2. Readily recovering from shock, depression; buoyant.

In sport (as in life), things go wrong. It’s your ability to cope with these set-backs that determines your success. Responses vary greatly in individuals to similar stressors. You’ll remember Julie Moss, Wendy Ingraham, Sian Welch and Chris Legh pushing to finish in Hawaii by crawling! This demonstrates a level of resilience that would have stopped others hours earlier- so what sets them apart? Their race plan is clearly off piste and they just continue down the extreme run. Is it resilience that allows the mind push the body through or past breaking point? Or is it mental illness? Many in the community would argue that simply completing an ironman is beyond human tolerance- body and mind.

Not to say that anyone who fails to crawl to the finish of a race is lacking resilience. My experiences with catastrophic failure are two-fold: one personal, one racing. In 2000 I did not finish my first attempt at Kona- coughing blood and difficulty breathing was not appealing to my rational brain. Rather than continue, my strategy was self preservation, so I could return to try again with my full capacity. I did so two years later, with two more ultra races of experience and won my age group in 8:59. The failure had been worth it’s weight in gold to induce greater coping capacity.

Similarly, episodic cuckholding led to divorce and reactive depression which lasted for years. The skill set that was induced has led me to be more resilient and happier in a marriage than I thought possible- with baby not far away! And this resilience has crossed from my relationship with my wife to my sporting life. My twelve hour record would have been unobtainable from my psyche circa 2000…but the changes induced by my failures have fortified greater resilience.

A colleague of mine is starting to investigate resilience in elite athletes with a view to develop strategies to combat and understand depression. Rather than focus on the spate of high profile cases of depression in the professional sporting community, he is looking to identify how and why the great majority of athletes can cope with the physical and mental hardships associated with their sports. Other areas of life have been identified as providing reinforcing elements for resilience (e.g. spirituality as highlighted by Huchida et al 2017) so what is it about sport that provides building blocks for resilience? Is it self-selection by individuals with the pre-requisites (neurochemistry?) for coping or is it training of strategies that makes the difference (parents/coaches/peers)? Probably a bit of both.

Training is the perfect way to tune up resilience.  In essence, that’s all training really is in any case. Starting the season in mediocre form is a measure of untrained physical and mental resilience. The efforts put in through the season condition (for instance) the muscle to send more lactate transports to the brush border of the muscle, allowing it to cope with more metabolic load. Similarly, muscle units that are stretched regularly may not change length but are able to ‘cope’ with more stretch (Bentley et al 2017). Discomfort is trainable, so how can we best manage and improve resilience?

Practicing in all conditions is part of this process. Ensuring that an athlete knows what it feels like to corner on a bike in the wet and/or wind, how to ignore the discomfort of swallowing salt water when it gets choppy in the water or maintain run form in a head or tailwind is part of maintaining mental buoyancy. All these conditions can be distracting from performance if they aren’t read by the psyche as ‘situation normal’. Athletes who avoid training in these types of conditions are failing the psychological training for their potential event.

Coaches play a key role in building of this resilience in their protégées. Running through schema or situations where things go wrong is a critical aspect. So a wet day where cycling is not dangerous, encourage your athlete to head out. Same goes with wind- even try a disc or deep-dish wheel as race practice, rather than just the day before. Adding these mental skills to the physical helps build resolve on race day. Furthermore, an in-depth pre-race conversation needs to be in place to prepare for almost every eventuality. Resilience encompasses having an A, B, C, D or E plan. Even Z. Pulling out can be the better long term strategy if you are injured or sick.

In terms of other professional help- a sport psychologist can help build coping skills. A mental health care plan from a GP to see your neighbourhood psych is a physically passive way to optimising mental preparation for those with anxiety or depressive traits. They can take you through association and dissociation processes to allow focus under stress. Additionally discuss coping strategies with your athletic peers or senior athletes to ask about how they have developed to perform. Use your minds eye as a way to practice- transitions, flats, wetsuit changes, smooth cycling are all worth travailing through mental imagery.

Don’t leave your mental training untapped- true resilience can make you faster than any wetsuit, wheel set or running shoe.

See you on the road.


-       Train in all conditions
-       Talk with coaches about hypothetical’s
-       Mental imagery helps
-       Sports Psychology consult
-       Association/dissociation ploys
-       Use peers/seniors for advice


Resilience and spirituality in patients with depression and their family members: A cross-sectional study. Ozawa C1, Suzuki T2, Mizuno Y3, Tarumi R1, Yoshida K1, Fujii K4, Hirano J1, Tani H1, Rubinstein EB5, Mimura M1, Uchida H6. Compr Psychiatry. 2017 Aug;77:53-59. doi: 10.1016/j.comppsych.2017.06.002.


Impact of stretching on the performance and injury risk of long-distance runners. Baxter C1, Mc Naughton LR2, Sparks A2, Norton L1, Bentley D1. Res Sports Med. 2017 Jan-Mar;25(1):78-90. doi: 10.1080/15438627.2016.1258640. Epub 2016 Dec 2.