It’s been said that triathlon is a mental sport. But truth be told, well… actually, yeah, it is.
Far too often we “data-buffs” find ourselves deep in the nitty-gritty of the science of triathlon training, nutrition, and gear optimization that we forget to mention how our brains are going to handle all of it.
To state the obvious, triathlon takes focus and lots of it. This is something most of us struggle with. Fear and distractions are what take athletes with great potential and limit them to mediocrity.
How do we exercise our minds to keep them focused? And how do we clear them to avoid fears and distractions?
One of the best ways to focus your mind on the task at hand (i.e. training and racing) is to be realistic about your expectations. Being aware of what you’re capable of allows you to focus on what you’ve already done in training.
Think of it this way. If you’re about to race a half Ironman triathlon, you’ve undoubtedly practiced in each discipline at your half Iron pace to some extent. Therefore, you know exactly what to expect in the pain department. Now, if you have tempered expectations of your ability to hold that pace over the duration of the full gambit, there’s really no fear of the unknown. You know what you’re getting into and what you’re going to feel.
If you’ve trained smart and plan on racing smart, sure there’s the fear of the inevitable pain. But at least it’s nothing new. Your expectations are realistic, so you’ll be able to focus solely on your pace and your pain.
And speaking of pain, yeah, it’s going to be there. As simple and as easy it is to put into words, the best way to keep your mind clear and focused while triathlon training and racing is to just accept it.
As already stated, you’ve endured previous training at various intensities. Therefore, you should know how long you can handle each level of pain at each intensity. The only challenge now is to accept that what you’re body is going through is ok.
Of course, this takes practice and adaptation. My personal advice is to hone in on the level of pain appropriate for the distance and submit to that feeling for as long as possible.
This is synonymous to the nature of pacing. However, you’re doing more than keeping an eye on power, heart rate, and speed. Additionally, you’re accepting the perceived pain derived from the required level of exertion. Become one with it and you’ll learn to push through it and eventually even power past it.
Another great tool for the triathlete’s mind is to mentally segment portions of the activity. In other words, temporarily removing unnecessary thoughts of what’s coming and focusing solely on the segment you’ve created in your brain. This can be incredibly beneficial because, if sustained, you’ll be removing anxiety and distractions of the future and optimizing every second of the present.
The main goal of segmentation is to mentally devote yourself fully to each segment you’ve created. That means (intelligently) keeping your pace until the very end of your fictional timeframe; at which point you’ll be entering into the next phase. From there, the process repeats.
This is a great way to trick your brain into thinking you only have to complete a number of short challenges rather than one, long daunting trial.
Disclaimer: This does NOT insinuate completely forgetting the later stages of your workout or race altogether. Remember that your segments are all pieces to a perfectly paced puzzle. You’re not treating each one physically like it’s your last. You’re simply dedicating your mental energy to each one without worrying about the next until it arrives.
Additionally, segmentation will differ for the athlete depending on how they want to utilize it.
For some, maybe focusing on frequent five-minute segments is beneficial. For others, 60-minute segments are what do the trick. Perhaps it’s only each leg of the triathlon (i.e. the swim, bike, and run) that requires your full attention. Find what works best for you and divide up your race or workout accordingly.
The Silver Linings Playbook
Hollywood has some advice on this last point. However, we’re not talking about bipolar disorder. I would be remiss if I didn’t say something about the affect positive thinking has on the triathlete’s mind. Except, we can go deeper than simple positivity.
I’ve had maybe 1% of my races go entirely according to plan over my five-year professional triathlon career. And I think most can agree with this sentiment – something almost always inevitably goes wrong.
When we do encounter an unexpected roadblock or challenge, how do we deal with it mentally?
The trick is to look for the silver lining. There’s almost always one to be found. Even if you’ve hit a disaster such as bonking, at the very least you can tell yourself something like this: “Ok, I’ve bonked. Let’s think about why this happened and use that knowledge to prevent it from happening at the next race.”
See? There’s your silver lining. You can find one in nearly every situation. Didn’t see a buoy and added some distance to your swim? Focus on how awesome you’ll feel if you can catch the guy or gal you had been swimming with until you lost sight of them.
Finding your silver lining in each negative situation is what keeps hope alive. And with hope, more often than not surprising yourself is the end result. Stay hopeful and you’ll persevere through hardships you never thought you could overcome.
TRIDOT TAKEAWAY: The best way to clear and exercise the mind of a triathlete is to keep expectations based in the real world, accept the pain, experiment with segmenting portions of the race/workout, and always look for your silver lining.
TALK WITH TRIDOT: What methods of the mind do you use to stay focused? Have you ever used any of the advice mentioned above?
JARED MILAM is a professional triathlete, TriDot coach, and member of the Tri4Him Pro Team. He has 16 years of competitive running experience and 11 years of competitive triathlon experience with a half Iron PR of 3:59 and a full Iron PR of 8:30. Coaching under the TriDot system since 2011, Jared loves working with aspiring triathletes of all ages and performance levels.