How to Use the Off-Season to Strengthen your Mental Game

Now is the time to build the skills you’ll need when things get tough in training and racing!

When you’re deep in a training block and extra hours in the day are hard to come by, that’s not the time to build and grown new mental skills. During those times, we want your mental skills to be running smoothly, to help you get through those long days and tough workouts. That’s why it’s so important to work on your mental game in the off-season, so that by the time you’re in the building and racing phases of training, you’ll be able to utilize them automatically.
Last week, Coach Marion talked about the many benefits of the off-season and finding the balance that will allow your body to recover while also not letting any gains vanish. This week, we’ll look a bit more into how the off-season is the best time to build mental skills that will support you when you head back into your training blocks. 
Why do we start building mental skills in the off-season? Short answer: because that’s where we have the time. You’re not out running, cycling, swimming, or whatever else you’re doing for hours at a time, most likely all while keeping a job, too.
Longer answer: When you train hard, your body will already be exhausted, which makes it harder, if not impossible, to start a new skill, especially one that involves learning to relax more deeply. Your body simply won’t be able to, because it’s hard at work trying to keep up with the training load. You may feel exhausted, but that’s not the same as relaxation.

What is relaxation then?

Great question. Many of us are so used to “being on” all the time, that the body and the mind have almost forgotten how to fully relax. As a clinician, I look at the ability to relax like this: if you are able to let your mind and body release and simply sit without needing to do or think or complete anything, if then you feel your body release all tension and your breath slows and you have no urge to rush on to the next thing (and you’re able to complete this at almost any time of day or in any situation), then you are actively able to call up your relaxation response. If not, then we still have some work to do. So ask yourself, can you shut off, maybe even right now, and just enjoy the moment for what it is? 
Unless you have been consistently practicing how to relax for a while, most likely your answer is no. And that’s ok. Now we go to work.

So then, how do I learn to relax?

The big challenge is that, especially endurance athletes are comfortable with performing, with doing, with getting things done. Relaxation is the exact opposite of doing, of needing to do something to feel good. Relaxation is feeling good, calm, settled through NOT doing. I know, easier said than done!
There are many ways to practice relaxation. The key is to practice regularly, just like you would go out for a run regularly, and to not expect to jump from one day running a 10 minute mile to running a 6 minute mile the next day. Relaxation is a process too. All you have to do is show up.
 Here’s a list of 10 options for you to consider as you start planning your off-season:

  • Meditation (remember, nobody is expecting you to be a master meditator when you start!)
  • Breathing exercises
  • Gentle yoga
  • Journaling
  • Walks alone in nature (without music or podcasts)
  • Sitting alone out in nature (without music or podcasts)
  • Therapy/counseling (this too helps us relax by releasing old pain that may still hold on)
  • Time with pets
  • Playtime with children
  • Deep emotional conversations with friends and/or family (without alcohol or other substances)
This is not a complete list, but I’m hoping this will get you started on the way to finding more relaxation. Make sure that you plan your off-season as intentionally with these items as you would with your workouts. If possible plan them ahead of time for the entire upcoming week.

If you want to know in more detail how some of these things can help you in your own day to day or how to get started with them, send me a message!
On top of the tools provided by Coach Stefanie, there are habits around diet that can help with relaxation as well, like taking some quality time with yourself to prepare your breakfast, or simply brewing some tea and taking a minute to practice being grateful for what you have to eat. This practice triggers your parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for the “rest and digest” mode, which promotes good digestion. If you’re brewing some tea, I suggest chamomile, lemon balm and passion fruit. These gentle herbs work by helping your nervous system to calm down.
Daniela Salvado
Nutrition Coach

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Something for you to try...

After finishing this article, find a comfortable place to sit and set a timer for 10 minutes. Close your eyes and just notice what happens when you ask your system to not do anything. Are you able to be with your thoughts and your emotions? If the 10 minutes are too challenging to sit through, then let’s chat, I’d love to help!

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