Red Bull X-Alps

Mind over matter

The human performance of athletes during the Red Bull X-Alps is truly extraordinary. Hiking up to 100km in a day, moving 17 hours a day, every day for nearly two weeks. We asked some of them about the mental game behind this.

© zooom.at/Harald Tauderer

On day one of Red Bull X-Alps 2015 Steve Nash, like most of the pack, enjoyed an epic flight over the Dachstein, reaching an altitude of 3,500m. But it didn’t last long. “I was literally kicking trees,” he says about coming down over Hochkönig. 

But not easily fazed, he used a visualisation technique. “I completely absorbed myself in going up. That’s all I thought about. If I’d been thinking about the pilots on the ground, I’d have been on the deck quicker than you can imagine.” It bought him more flight time – and demonstrates the importance of the mind in the race. 

Day one was equally dramatic for Nick Neynens – he managed to go from first to last place after making a wrong call. He landed, knowing that for the next two days, he faced the real prospect of elimination. An ability to stare disaster in the face, and turn it around was vital.

“Sometimes in life you make bad choices and you have to face the consequences,” he says. “A bad situation doesn't change the fact that a dose of optimism, a good sense of humour, and a belief in yourself is not only easier on your psyche but also the optimum mindset for performance. I never wasted energy on feeling sorry for myself,” he adds. “Attitude is everything!”

It’s easy to imagine that only the big issues impact athletes psychologically. But the little things can eat away at the mind – like fussing over clothing or worrying about reserve batteries before a flight. When this happens, many athletes use the technique of compartmentalising: putting the problem in a box and parking it. “You just forget about it and move on. But you do have to address it afterwards!” says Nash.  

Some athletes say a dose of anger can also be helpful. “We were told on day two that we had a six hour penalty,” Nash recalls. “I was furious when I found out. But you turn that negative into a positive. From 6pm to 10:30 I was going like mad – that’s when you can convince your mind to control your body and channel anger into performance.”

Dawn Westrum also used a healthy dose of anger as a motivational tool. “Sometimes, it’s anger that keeps me going. It brings me back to a steady determination to keep going. I figure if I can take one more step, then I can take two, and then make it to the next big rock, and eventually I always get to the top of the mountain.”  

Nearly all competitors will be familiar with having two voices encouraging them: one, the supportive, friendly voice, and the other the drill sergeant. Knowing which to use is vital. “You should use the harsh one only in short doses, when it really matters,” adds Nash. 

Being kind, offering yourself rewards like a snacks for reaching a landmark are the day-to-day means by which athletes keep themselves going. 

“I try to enjoy the journey itself,” Neynens says. “If you want to last the distance you have to work with your body and not against it – you're on the same team.”

Not only did Neynens escape the elimination axe, he burst through the rankings to make goal and also finish 10th. It worked for him!