3 simple exercises to develop mental toughness

Dan Golding is a respected triathlon coach and author of Triathlon For Beginners and Triathlon: Winning at 70.3. How to Dominate the Middle Distance.  

Through his coaching practice and training camps, Dan has seen the immense need for aligning mental strategies with physical training as this critical aspect of success is severely lacking for most athletes. 

Dan is a regular contributor to www.triathlon-hacks.com and is passionate about helping more people set outrageous goals, develop a plan and achieve them. 

In this episode Dan shares, simple mental toughness skills that endurance athletes can practice in just 10 minutes daily to become unstoppable.

The chatter… it never stops!

That “voice” in your head, will either be your secret weapon or will sabotage every challenge you try to attempt…

It is how you deal with it that matters. Its how you train it to serve you instead of destroy you. It needs to be tamed like a wild horse, intensely powerful but can easily get out of control.

The buzz word lately in athletic and achievement circles is “grit”. It is easy to show “ grit” and determination when you set your goals January 1st.  It is easy to tell everyone you will “never stop until it is done”. 

These words are easy to say but what happens when you are 2 miles into a 10-mile run and it starts to hail? 

What happens when it is dark, cold and wet outside, your alarm goes off at 5am, and that cute person snuggled up next to you is encouraging you to stay in bed with them?

It is in these moments that your destiny is formed.

Mental toughness must be trained just like a muscle. You cannot “wish” for mental toughness and grit to fall upon you. You cannot “wish” for the ability to get out of bed at 5am daily to train before work, you actually have to DO it.

Not many people are “born” with absolute hard-core grit and determination. Most people say they have it but actually when the going gets tough, it is amazing how quickly they quit. 

Mental toughness develops with intentional practice and with training like any muscle. 

You can train your mental toughness skills to be unstoppable in just 10 minutes a day. This is a critical skill to develop whether you want to climb Mount Everest, whether you are competing in triathlon or whether you want to give a speech on stage. 

Lack of mental toughness (not lack of talent) is the number #1 reason for poor performance

Your attitude, your will and your inner conversation rule everything. 

Mental toughness will build mental strength to enable you to:
• Train harder during sessions
• Focus on the task at hand
• Manage your self talk (very important!)
• Develop Powerful mantras

That inner voice in your head is not going away. You will not get rid of it but you can learn NOT to listen to it and to replace it with something else. 

Exercise No. 1

Work out the phrases that work for you and say them again and again and again.
Believe them, internalize them.

Here are some ideas:

“ This is so much fun”
“ I’m so glad to be out here”
“ I am feeling great, getting closer to the line”
“ My training is going great”
“ I am overtaking lots of people” 
“ It does not matter whether I win or lose- I am beating everyone sitting on the couch!”

Replace all negative thoughts. They will not serve you. Do not listen to this negative voice. It will interfere with your performance.
Replace them with positive thoughts.

Feel confident, happy and in control.

Do mental toughness rehearsal 

Exercise No. 2

Find some time in your week to do specific mental rehearsal.

Sit down somewhere comfortable, where you will not be disturbed. Set your alarm for 10 or 15 minutes so you will not be clock watching.

Start doing some nice, deep, relaxed breaths.

Shallow breathing in itself destroys performance and leads to increased stress and anxiety.

When you are settled, start rehearsing.

Try to clear your mind of all other distractions.

Then start to zero in on what you want to achieve this session.

Is it having a good race overall?
Is it to enter the water on a cold day and having an amazing swim?
Is it improved running technique?

Imagine the scene as vividly as you can.
What can you see?
What can you hear?
What can you smell, feel and taste?

Maybe you have picked running to focus on and you pretend you are running in the forest. Maybe the leaves are slightly wet and have a lovely fresh smell. You have a running cap on and are wearing your sports watch.

Visualise yourself running perfectly.

Think about how you want to look and focus on that-picture it exactly.
Think about the components of successful running one at a time:

Think about your high knee lift
Think about lifting your heel up at the back
Think about having a strong, stable torso
Think about landing on your forefoot.
Think about your elbows by your side, helping your legs drive you forward.
Think about relaxed breathing and maintaining a relaxed neck and shoulders even when it gets tough and you are getting tired.
Think about engaging your core and having a stable strong mid section.

Scan through the body as you are picturing yourself running perfectly, fix this image in your mind.

Remember to feel positive emotions as you do this.
Focus on it like you are there, like you are actually running.


"When you have finished come out of this
state slowly. Feel good about it and congratulate yourself for getting this done. Champions do this all the time."


Both Muhammad Ali and Tiger Woods attribute much of their success to mental rehearsal. They both spent many hours doing mental rehearsals, self-affirmations and positive self-talk.

Seasoned athletes practice daily highly detailed images and “run throughs” of their entire performance, engaging all their senses in their mental rehearsal.

It works as it stimulates the same areas of the brain and lays down the same neural pathways as physical practice.

Even better, in your mind you can execute the perfect shot, the perfect transition, the perfect swim stroke without any mistakes, without any pain(lactate burn) or suffering.

When we do physical practice however- you often practise bad habits- and reinforce bad motor patterns. This is made worse if you are fatigued or distracted by other thoughts.

When you vividly think about something in the mind, the mind cannot distinguish between imagination and reality.

Do not wait for race day, or until you become a sponsored athlete- start this practice now and you will get better results along the way.

Become a Master of Positive Self talk

Do you ever spend a lot of time thinking “what if this happens? What if that happens?”

90% of the time none of it happens!

Do not waste energy worrying about things that have not happened!

This does not come naturally- you must practice it consciously.
Try to become aware of all the times you have a negative script running through your head with the same destructive thoughts. 

Imagine if you tell yourself 100 times a day that you are a terrible swimmer- your brain will start to believe it- and every time you go to the pool- it will be a struggle. You will not get much better either!

These are some of the phrases triathletes have told me they have flying through their brain on race day:

Nasty destructive things like:

“ Everyone else is more prepared than you”
“ You should not really be here”
“ Everyone is laughing at you”
“ Everyone has a better bike than you”
“ You look really fat in that wetsuit”
“ You should slow down- you are so tired”

Most of this chatter is complete drivel!
And a very bad habit!

Develop a pre race ritual

Exercise No.3

This is a very important mental toughness strategy.
It will help you mentally get “in the zone” very quickly.
It will help you deal with stress and calm down.

In this ritual, plan to do the same things each time, in the same order to give you confidence.
Some people develop a trigger or a cue to switch them on mentally to their “race ready” state.
It might be a fist pump, or wearing your favourite green running socks or a quick routine of 3 power movements.

Before the race, clear your mind of clutter. Think about
the ability to focus on right here, right now.

Use your breath; say your mantras. Fill your mind with positive self-talk, with images of strength, success and control.

This needs to be practiced well in advance.

Do not wait until race day then wonder why you can’t control your mind.

On race day if you are not mentally prepared- it is easy to feel out of place, scared, small, weak, fearful and a little pathetic!

Do not let this happen.
Remember everyone is feeling the same.

Focus on your race mantras you have practiced over and over again.

“I deserve to be here”
“I am feeling stronger”
“I can’t wait to start”
“I have done all the hard work”
“I will execute my race plan perfectly”

What do most people do?

Most triathletes think about bad things happening and failure obsessively.
They engage in negative self talk with themselves and others about how they are a terrible swimmer, how they will get an asthma attack, how they don’t have enough time to train and will probably have to pull out and guess what happens?

Inevitably, a terrible swim and a poor race.

Do your mental toughness practice. You will notice incredible results.

As Bruce Lee famously said “the successful warrior is the average one with the laser like focus…”

Excuses and mediocrity will destroy your goals and dreams.

Do not allow this to happen!

Also do not allow anyone else to input doubt into your head. Well meaning people sometimes say phrases like this:

“Oh that sounds hard- do you really think you can do it?”

“But you were never really sporty as a kid!”

Do not listen to your inner voice of doubt and self-sabotage. Do not allow anyone else’s doubt enter your thoughts. 

Announce Bold Goals.

Public accountability is a fantastic (but scary) tool which champions use to make themselves do great things.

In many sports, the competitor announces to the media that they “know they will win” the upcoming tournament or race. This provides incredible motivation to train harder than ever as they have made their goals public. They do not wish to look foolish. 

Chris McCormack did it all the time. He was a master at goading the media and goading his competitors with bold statements. He had total self-belief. The media sometimes told him he was delusional, that his career was over and that he would never make it. But this just gave him more fuel to prove everyone wrong. And he kept winning against the odds.


“I’ve been calling out for 12 months
how I was going to win the race and everyone said the guy is delusional, can’t happen.”
Chris McCormack. 


Muhammad Ali was also a master of this. He said massive self-belief statements all the time and believed them!

“I am the greatest”
“If you even dream of beating me you’d better wake up and apologize.”
“My only fault is that I don’t realize how great I really am.”

Bill Gates announced in the 1990s when no one had a computer, that he would put a PC in every household. Now it seems obvious, But at the time, no one could see why they would need a computer in their house!

Massive self-belief statements. Of course then they had to go and work hard and deliver massive results.

Be bold. Be brave. Make yourself accountable.


"Winners are not timid with small goals."
Dan Golding


Believe it. Stand with powerful posture. Take deep breaths. Have a smile on your face and a knowing look. Think about your goal as you are training. Movement creates power. Taking action creates power. Try to internalise this feeling. Do it so many times you believe. Repetition is key. It works. This is what separates consistent champions from the “very good”. 

Use imagination! You must believe things how you want them to be rather than how they are. Walk how you would walk if you truly believed you will win. Talk how you would talk as though you knew you will win. Act with total certainty.

Focus only your goal and on what you want, NOT what you are afraid of.

Visualize yourself crossing the finish every day to great applause. Visualize yourself over taking your closest rival.

Be great.
Be jaw-dropping.
Make it happen.

Do not succumb to other people’s norms of what you can achieve.
Do not let people put you in a box of “you can’t do that because:
• You are over 40
• You have 4 kids
• You broke your leg when you were 10

Play to your own rules. You will respect yourself more. Then other people will respect you more.

Start right now. What do you want? See it, feel it. Then announce it to at least 5 people. Then schedule 5 minutes a day to focus on it.

You will become unstoppable.

Dan Golding


You can train your mental toughness skills to be unstoppable in just
10 minutes a day