Triathlon and Mental Health: Getting the Balance Right

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Given that it was World Mental Health Day last week I thought it was only fair to give the topic of triathlon and mental health a bit of attention. The benefits of triathlon for good mental health have been widely publicised over the last week and rightly so. Benefits include the release of endorphin’s that can boost our mood, a reduction in stress levels, increased sociability through involvement with a club or team and increased serotonin levels from being outdoors (n.b. this is benefit is very rarely realised). However, it has frustrated me slightly that media focus on the potential negative consequences of elite sport on our mental health has received relatively little attention. Everybody has mental health and therefore everybody has the potential to be affected by mental health issues.

Struggling in Silence

There appears to be an assumption that elite athletes have good mental health, as how else what they would be able to train and perform at such a high level? However, in recent years many high profile sportspeople have come out and openly discussed their struggles with mental health issues (e.g. Ian Thorpe, Natasha Danvers). Despite athletes openly discussing their struggles, there is still a tendency for mental health issues to go unrecognised and many continue to suffer in silence. There appears to be an expectation that those involved in elite sport can handle things and therefore they don’t always get the help and support they require to tackle mental health issues.

Risk Factors

Individuals experiencing mental health issues can be particularly hard to identify in individual sports such as triathlon, and there are a number of inherent risk factors associated with individual sports, particularly at an elite level. Firstly, elite triathletes are required to invest large amounts of time and energy into training which can result in a loss of personal autonomy and disempowerment (1). The elite-sport environment can also result in ‘identity-foreclosure’ leaving athletes few other avenues through which to shape and reflect personality (1). High athletic identity has been linked to psychological distress when this function of identity is removed, and to overtraining and athlete burnout (1). Over training can result in self-isolating behaviours, whereby the athletes withdraws from social interactions in order to train and is strongly correlated with affective disorders such as major depressive disorder (2). Self-isolating behaviour is something that have struggled with in the past but have learnt to and continue to manage.

It also appears that athletes competing in high-intensity sports are at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder compared to the general population, with prevalence rates of 17.2% for males and 32% for females (3) Other studies have reported eating disorders in women athletes to be as high as 60% (4) Compounding this, the injury experience of an elite athlete has been likened to the grief process observed following bereavement, with an estimated 10–20% of athletes warranting clinical intervention, with suicide a cause of concern (5) A dose–response relationship exists between physical activity and the likelihood of injury; again, with elite athletes at most risk.

So to conclude, there are both positive and negative mental health outcomes of triathlon and like with most things it’s about managing your mind and body to get the balance right.

Strategies to maintain good mental health

Here are a few strategies that I try to use (N.B. This is not an exhaustive list and you might find that some of these work and some don’t, it’s about finding what works for you!) :

Mindfulness – focus on the here and now. I always try and schedule a run or bike every week where I utilise all of my senses to tune into my surroundings and bodily sensations (e.g. heartbeat, breathing, foot striking the floor during a run). I try to avoid getting bogged down in the stats during this session and instead just go on how I feel, and what feels comfortable. Obviously, there will be sessions were a focus on heart rate, power, cadence and timings etc are essential, but it’s good to give yourself a break from the numbers, make space in your training schedule for a run/cycle where you just appreciate triathlon for what it is and you should find that your both your mental health and appetite for the sport will benefit no end.

Finding the right balance – for some of you triathlon may be an important part of your life and may define who are you are, but there is more to life than triathlon. To maintain positive mental health it is important that we pursue other interests and make time for those that important in our lives (friends and family). It can be hard to make time for this alongside training (and work!) but I always try and have at least one day a week where I make an extra effort to meet up or chat with family and friends, as social support and social interaction are one of the most important factors in predicting physical health and well-being. The isolation that can arise as a result of participating in an individual sport, particularly for elite triathletes, makes this time doubly important.

Acceptance and resilience – accept that things will not always go well, this is life! We will all experience failure at some point in our triathlon lives, but it’s about how you respond to these setbacks that really define who you are as a triathlete. A demanding sport such as triathlon has a tendency to attract those who are highly competitive and display perfectionist traits. These characteristics can make it difficult to for us to recognise our progress and achievements, and instead lead to focus on what went wrong or what we could have done better. High levels of self-criticism and blame can increase the likelihood of low mood and the onset of depression.

Positive reinforcement – No matter how small or insignificant, it is good to reward progress. Next time you smash out a big session or achieve a new PB why not treat yourself? You’ve earned it!

*Disclaimer – I am not a qualified psychologist, so am not an expert on these topics. However I am currently working as an assistant psychologist and have a bachelors degree and Masters in Psychology, and therefore have some knowledge and experience of mental health issues.

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