Mental Toughness – The Hurt Locker

Coaches and professional Triathletes often talk about “The Hurt Locker” or “The Pain Room”, and the need to be prepared to visit it, and spend time in there! This they claim is the difference between champion athletes and the rest. So what do they mean?

In this article Will Carroll from Aeromax coaching explores the importance of addressing mental preparation for races, an area often neglected by athletes.

Athletes often ask themselves, when it comes to racing “why am I doing this?”, “it really hurts”, and “do I want to hurt that much?”  Nearly always at the 30k of every Ironman they say “I’m never doing another one of these!”

So how do you deal with this? The truth really lies within you. Before you even start training you would have asked yourself, ‘Am I here to finish or here to do the best I can and get a PB?’ If you have answered yes to either one of those, then at some time during a race you are going to visit the “HURT LOCKER”!! (If you have answered no to both than stop reading now!)

I always find it unusual that people will go out every morning and afternoon, sometimes at obscene times, to get their training done. They do this and then seem to think just because they do that, and tick off all the training sessions that they are entitled or are going to have a good race. Whilst your chances of having a good race is greater due to all the training, you will never achieve your full potential without being prepared mentally to deal with uncomfortable periods during the race.

Let’s face the facts; the fitter / better prepared you are, going into a race, the more likelihood there is of you going faster. However to reach that potential, you are going to need to dig deep mentally when things inevitably get tough on race day to unlock all that hard work that you have been putting in. It is not going to happen just because you are fit. In fact the fitter you are the more you may have to suffer as you push the boundaries further than before. To do this you need to start working on your focus and feeling your way for a race during training. Your ability to successfully deal with the uncomfortable periods during the race (because everyone else will have to do this too) can be the difference between an average race and a great race, between a DNF or a finish.

So how do you do this? Well everyone is different and deals with discomfort and effort in exercise differently. I found when I competed that focusing on things you can control like form, nutrition and pacing, as well as asking yourself the questions that you have gone over before the race can serve as a distraction from the “pain”. What pace am I going? Too fast? Too slow? What is my heart rate? Am I eating/drinking enough and at the right times? Answering these questions and solving any problems not only will help your focus and ensure you are doing the right things, but all of a sudden you find yourself through the rough patch and your training kicks in and off you go again. This process may need to be repeated many times over a race, however concentrating on things you can control instead of the pain which is essentially wasted energy, will aid your performance / pace and also get you through the tough times.

Another way push through the barriers is to set yourself smaller goals throughout the race. For example, aim to run to the next aid station at a certain pace and then when you get there aim for the next one. It is the little mental tricks and questions that you internalize throughout the race that can turn a walk into a jog, a jog into a run, a run into a finishing sprint no matter how much you may be suffering.

Essentially it is up to you to get through these difficult times. Internalise your suffering and think positive at all times. Don’t forget even with a good training base behind you, you will, or more importantly should be still hurting in any race……..that’s a given, but internalize the hurt, work through it, and ask the key questions. That way you will be able to tolerate it, go to the “hurt locker” and come out the other side striving / achieving personal bests in no time.


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Articles on training-related topics represent the personal opinions of the author based on their own experience and research. provides these for your review and consideration, but does not endorse any particular recommendations of the authors.

Karl Hayes

Karl is a keen age group triathlete who races more than he trains. Good life balance! Karl works in the media industry in Australia and is passionate about the sport of triathlon.