#OurAthletes: Nicole Sifuentes on the mental side of competing

CBC News is pairing up with Canada's athletes competing in the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games to give a behind-the-scenes look at the competition, training and day-to-day life. Nicole Sifuentes, a 1,500m runner from Winnipeg, explains the importance of mentally preparing for competition.

Mental training is often considered optional, writes 1,500m runner from Winnipeg

Nicole Sifuentes wins the women's 1,500m race at the Canadian national track and field championships Saturday in Edmonton on July 5. (Jim McDannald/Athletics Canada)

Athletes from across Canada are gearing up to compete in July's Pan Am and Parapan Am Games in Toronto.

Using the #OurAthletes hashtag, CBC News is pairing up with competitors to give Canadians a behind-the-scenes look at the competition, training and day-to-day life of the athletes, both leading up to and during the games.

We're teaming up with Nicole Sifuentes, a 1,500-metre runner originally from Winnipeg.

Don't forget to share Nicole's blog entries — you could win Pan Am Games merchandise from CBC!

I'm still unpacking after spending five days in Edmonton for the Canadian Track and Field Championships. In my suitcase are two gold medals — I won my first and second national championships in the same weekend!

Several times in the past, I went to the national championships with the fastest time of the year, but never won. But despite a lot of disappointment over the years, I never stopped preparing for the next race.

For me, there are three main aspects in preparing for races: training, tapering, and mental preparation. 

Training is the most obvious way to prepare — the weeks, months and years of physical work leading up to competition. This was the topic of my last blog, which you can read here if you missed it.

"The money's in the bank" is a pretty common expression in the running world and it refers to tapering — the process of resting up before a big race when the hard work is done.

While athletes vary in their approach to tapering, everyone can agree that it is crucial to get the best out of yourself in competition. If I've been training intensely leading up to a race, my legs will be tired before I even start. Normally the goal is to train as hard — and smart — as possible without over-training or getting injured. But leading up to an important competition, I run less and feel good about it.

Finally, there's the mental side of competition. Physical training is obvious, but often it seems that mental training is considered optional. Many athletes (myself included) have spent years training their bodies without training their minds for competition.

In the past, I neglected mental training and it kept me from reaching some of the potential that I earned from physical training. I had to begin training my mind to help get more out of my body. Part of that is visualizing a successful race ahead of time.

As a young athlete, I was taught to imagine myself running with strength, pushing myself to the limit, and sprinting to the finish.

Visualization is a valuable skill that has helped me greatly over the course of my career. I find that it's a lot easier to overcome fatigue and discomfort during a race when I have decided beforehand that I will be tough.

For a long time, visualization was the only way I addressed the mental aspect of racing, but over the past two years I've embraced disciplined mental training with the help of a sport psychologist.

I've learned that I am generally hard on myself and constantly striving to improve. That sounds great, but it is important to balance that attitude with recognition of and appreciation for the things I do well. I now make a conscious decision to stop thinking about what "needs improvement" and instead focus on my successes. Specific to racing, I make a conscious decision to stop thinking about possible outcomes and instead focus on my race plan.

Thinking purposefully has significantly impacted my life — in fact, it's the inspiration of my personal blog on

In short, mental training has helped me manage nerves and emotions, and gain confidence as an athlete. 

Between months and years of training, perfecting the taper, and honing a winning mindset, so much is invested behind the scenes of race day. Races are the purpose for my preparation and they are opportunities to showcase everything I've been working on.

The best thing about the investment is when it pays off when you want it most. As the 2015 Canadian 5000m and 1500m Champion, I say that with certainty!


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