Mental Training: 3 Strategies for Building Resilience

unplashmWe hear a lot about resilience in the endurance sports world – it’s practically built into the job title; to endure, one must be resilient. If you listened to the TRS interview with Lesley Paterson, you probably heard her nonchalantly describe swimming with one arm in an Xterra race after tearing a tendon – that’s some badass crazy resilience. In psychology speak, resilience is simply your capacity to respond to adversity – to take bad circumstances and move beyond them, or perhaps even grow as a result of a failure/accident/spot of bad luck.

It’s not the ability to walk through life unscathed – we’re all human (except, maybe, for Sebastian Kienle), and $#^& happens. You crash your bike. Something crashes into you while you’re on your bike. You’re chased by a moose while you’re on your bike. You get the idea – in triathlon, there are plenty of opportunities for adversity. Particularly while on a bicycle.

Cue dramatic music…it’s all about the journey, right? How many times do we hear triathletes talk about their “journey”? I’m pretty sure it’s right up there with all the “journeys” you hear referenced during an episode of The Bachelor.

But anyways, how you react to the stressors during your journey is a factor of how resilient you are as a human being and as an athlete. Do you bounce back? How quickly and effectively? And, are there mental training practices that can help you bounce like a kangaroo instead of 5 cases of expired Clif bars?

Yes. Yes there are.

Wiring Your Brain for Resilience

Here’s why it works: When you work on the mental skills that build resilience, you activate a specific set of regions in your brain. At first, maybe these neurons aren’t used to talking to each other, so the connections between them are weaker – they’re speaking through two paper cups tied together with a piece of string instead of the latest iPhone. So how do we train a neural circuit to make it more efficient? In short, the more frequently those neurons are firing, the stronger the neural pathway between them will become – neurons that fire together, wire together.

The key here is repetition. Every time you’re practicing those resilience-building thoughts and behaviors, you’re forcing that circuit to fire, until eventually it becomes automatic – and so do those thoughts and actions.

What brain regions are involved in this circuit? A few cool studies can point us toward the brain areas that may be important. In a study of fire-fighters, subjects heard either a stressful or relaxing script being read while they were in an fMRI scanner. The more resilient they were, the more activity they had in the right amygdala, insula, and left orbitofrontal cortex when they listened to the stressful stimulus. These are regions involved in emotion regulation and interoception (awareness of your physical state) – suggesting that more resilient folks may be better able to call up the appropriate brain circuitry for emotion regulation when they need it.

In a second study, resilient Special Forces soldiers completed a monetary reward-anticipation task (exactly what it sounds like – you play a game where you think you’re getting money! Then you do or don’t get a lot of money.) Compared to (less resilient) civilians, the soldiers showed less of a difference in brain activity in 2 regions– the nucleus accumbens and subgenual prefrontal cortex – between high-reward and no-reward conditions.

So, there also seem to be differences in how more resilient people respond to reward (and presumably, failure). Makes sense, right? If your brain has less of a reaction to not receiving a reward it was expecting, you’re going to psychologically experience that as “getting over it faster.”


How do I make my brain work more like a Special Forces soldier or Firefighter’s brain, so that I can get past my bad race/injury/moose chase sooner?

1. Train your response to anxiety, fear, and self-doubt. 

You can do this by acknowledging these feeling when they arise, and then simultaneously calling up a positive feeling, gratitude, calm, & happiness. In other words, go to your happy place. By doing this repeatedly, you wire a positive emotion into a circuit that was previously bringing up distress and helplessness.

This process of rehearsal and reconsolidation is a key part of how your brain encodes memories, and it occurs in a network of regions distributed across your frontal cortex and hippocampus. This technique works well for athletes who maybe having problems performing following a bad race, slump, or injury.

When negative memories – your bike crash, the marathon you tanked – come to mind, hold on to that memory for a few minutes while you also bring in a positive experience – that race where you excelled, and all the great feelings that came with it. Essentially, you’re rewiring bad to good.

2. Build Optimism and Focus on Strengths.

Corny but true. Remind yourself of what you’re great at. (For the stereotypical triathlete, this shouldn’t be that hard.) If you need an objective reminder of this and/or love taking self-assessment tests online, go fill out the Signature Strengths Questionnaire. Remembering the good things that are a fundamental part of you helps you separate feelings that arise from a failure from your overall identity.

3. De-Catastrophize.

Minimize catastrophic thinking by first identifying that “worst-case scenario” you’re afraid of when something goes wrong. Then, think about the actual probability of that worst possible outcome playing out. Consider a broader range of possible outcomes, including the best-case scenario. The simple process of thinking about a great outcome can engender positive emotions and thoughts, and behaviors tend to stem from those thoughts. Finally, think about what the most likely scenario is.

And to hammer things home one last time: repeat, repeat, repeat. Force those happy neurons to talk to each other over and over, until they’re as tightly coupled together as peanut butter & pickles, Ben Hobbs & Dark Mark, and Andrew Messick & the Women for Tri board. Then when the day comes that you need to drag yourself kicking/screaming/crying out of whatever hole you’ve fallen into, you’ll have one nice big resilient brain circuit there making it that much easier. It’s ok to wallow and hide for a bit, but you don’t want to be the dude that goes down and stays down.

The ability to harness techniques such as these is what can separate the resilient athletes who bounce back from setbacks from the less resilient, whose careers sometimes never recover from a slump. It’s all in your head – literally.

About the Author

Adrienne Taren
Adrienne is a MD/PhD in Neuroscience researching stress, your brain & the neuroscience of mindfulness training. She is also a fairly decent triathlete/runner/writer and an average ultra-distance swimmer, if there is such a thing. Visit her blog: Follow @SeeSpondyRun