When preparing for a triathlon event, you wouldn’t wait until race day to prepare your legs, lungs, heart, or even your gear. So why ignore and neglect your mind? In fact, some athletes might argue that preparing your mind is more important than your physical preparation, especially when it comes to long course triathlons, such as IRONMAN. The truth is, the most physically fit athlete can easily be derailed on race day if mentally unprepared.
Many athletes think of mental training as pushing their physical limits by mentally blocking out pain or ignoring the desire to ease up or stop. This is, of course, a part of mental preparedness; however, mental training goes far beyond this concept. Techniques and practices can and should be employed throughout each training period to enhance and develop an athlete’s ability to cope with and handle race-day execution. What are some of these practices?
Taking 10-15 minutes each day to focus on visualizing your race-day execution can reap huge benefits. An athlete can also benefit from employing visualization prior to tough training sessions. Below are some tips on performing an effective visualization:
- Think through the entire day, from the time you wake up until you cross the finish line. This means you will imagine yourself eating, gathering your gear, making your way to transition, preparing your transition area, getting ready to start, and executing your swim, T1, bike, T2, and run.
- It is important to make the visualization as real as possible; therefore, try to image all five senses. How will things smell, feel, taste, sound, and what will you see?
- First, run through race day as the perfect day, and imagine executing and feeling perfectly. Then, run through some scenarios you might have to deal with on race day that are less than perfect.
For example, image having a flat tire on the bike and go through each step of how you will handle it. Visualize yourself calmly getting off your bike, assessing the problem, and fixing the issue step by step. Finally, don’t forget to visualize getting back on the bike and calmly returning to your race execution. There is no need for unnecessary adrenaline or hammering way above your race threshold to try to “catch up.”
Focus on the controllable and avoid obsessing over outcomes
No one has ever had their best day by constantly thinking about how they will finish. Instead, the best races come from well-executed races during which the athlete stayed focused on what he or she could control in each and every moment of the race. For example, you can’t control wind, so don’t dwell on how much the wind is slowing you down from your goal pace. Focus on the controllable: What can you control?
- Your effort: Use your heart rate, power, and pacing data. If you are riding into a 20 mph headwind, use your heart rate and power data, focusing on maintaining your target numbers instead of how fast you need to go to meet your goal split. Remember, everyone is performing under the same conditions, and the person who keeps his head and executes his plan will be the one who ultimately performs better at the end of the day.
- Your attitude: You can control whether you think self-defeating thoughts or whether you calmly stay focused on the moment.
- Your nutrition: You can focus on taking in your nutrition and fluids according to your plan. Too many athletes give up on nutritional strategies as soon as the “perfect” day seems out of reach. This not only further derails your race day, but will significantly reduce the enjoyment and likelihood of finishing.
Developing verbal cues that will get your mind and your focus back on the controllable is vital. These will likely be different for each person. Consider repeating these: “Smooth, relax the shoulders;” “Quick steps, relaxed and fast;” or, “Focus, drink, keep cool.”
Depending on your weakness and how that weakness shows up on race day, you will want to develop easy-to-remember, short verbal cues that will re-focus your energy. If you tend to tense up on the bike, the first example might work for you. Or if you forget to hydrate, perhaps the last suggestion. Work on developing your cues throughout your training and you will have them nailed by the time you get to race day.
If you struggle with mental training, or if these concepts are new to you, ask your coach to help you. Ideally, a coach will already be addressing such things, but many coaches may take for granted that you already know how to employ these techniques properly. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
It takes more than physical preparation to perform at your best in triathlon. Visualization, proper focus, and positive self-talk can give you the added mental edge to achieve your greatest potential.
TRIDOT TALK: What steps do you take to keep mentally fit for workouts and races?
STEPHANIE JONES is a professional triathlete, U.S. Marine Corps Veteran, TriDot coach, and member of the Tri4Him Pro Team. She has 10 years of competitive triathlon experience, over 20 years of competitive running experience, and has been coaching since 2007. Her personal best performances include a 9:13 full Ironman and 4:24 half.