Positive Self-talk: Your Best Ally
April, 2005, p. 58
The most powerful psychological tool you have at your disposal to achieve your triathlon goals is positive self-talk. What you say to yourself when you’re in the pool, on your bike, or in your running shoes affects what you think, how you feel, and how you perform. It also will often determine the quality of your workouts and your results in your races. Whatever you think more of—whether positive or negative—will determine the road you go down.
Yet negativity is rampant in the triathlon world. You hear it during swims, rides, and runs. And it sucks the life and love out training and races. You may be a victim of negative self-talk too. If your talk is negative, your thoughts and feelings will be negative. Negative self-talk involves thinking or saying anything that reflects a lack of confidence and a defeatist attitude, for example, “I’m going to do lousy terribly today,” “I stink,” and “I can’t deal with these conditions.” If you say these things, you’re convincing yourself that you have little chance. With that attitude, you really have no chance because not only is the rest of the field and the course against you, but you are against you too. You’ve become your own worst enemy. Your motivation will disappear, you’ll get nervous, lose focus, feel frustration, anger, and despair, and experience much more pain. You will definitely not be having fun out there.
If your talk is positive, your thoughts and feelings will be positive. Sounds like a good thing to me (and I know it is from first-hand experience!). Don’t say, “I don’t have a chance today.” Say, “I’m going to try my hardest today. I’m going to perform the best I can.” That will get you positive and fired up. By using positive self-talk, you’ll be your own best ally. You show yourself that, despite the fact that the rest of the field may be against you and the course is trying to break you, you’re on your own side.
Positive self-talk helps you in many ways. It increases your motivation to work hard because you believe that your efforts will be rewarded. You’re relaxed and focused because you know you can handle anything that is thrown at you by the course and the weather. Your emotions reflect your positive self-talk with feelings of excitement and joy. Positive self-talk can counter feelings of fatigue. And, as they say, “You will feel no pain” (or at least a lot less).
Most importantly, positive self-talk helps keep your mind strong and your body going, especially when your body starts to weaken. As your body wears down late in workouts and races, it will communicate to your mind that it has had enough—“I get the point! We can stop now.” If your mind listens to your body and responds with negative self-talk—“my body is so tired I can’t go on,” “this hurts too much to continue”—your body will take over your mind, your body and your mind will give up, and you will fail to achieve your goals. Positive self-talk can help your mind assert itself over your body, so when your body is yelling at you to stop, your mind can say, “NO! Keep going. That’s an order!” And your body will almost always keep going.
Positive self-talk is especially valuable when you think your tank is empty. Unless you’re having a Julie Moss moment (recalling her unforgettable 1982 Ironman Hawaii experience where her body simply gave out and only a supreme and inspiring effort enabled her to crawl the last 100 yards and cross the finish), there is always something left. Positive self-talk is the only thing that can take you from where you think there is nothing left to where there is nothing left. It is your greatest tool against fatigue and pain. Positive self-talk will allow you to tap into that final reserve at the end of a race that will allow you to perform your very best. If you can say, “Keep at it. This is what I’ve worked so hard for. I will not give up,” then your body will listen—however reluctantly—and you will cross the finish not only having succeeded against the course and the clock, but also having claimed victory over your greatest challenge—YOU—and there is no greater joy than that!
Training positive self-talk. Positive self-talk is a simple, but not easy, strategy. It’s simple because all you have to do is replace your negative self-talk with positive statements. It’s not easy because you may have developed some poor self-talk habits that are difficult to change. You begin retraining your self-talk by looking at the situations in which you tend to become negative, for example, when you have to do a cold open-water swim, at 60 miles of a bike ride, or in the fifth of ten 800-meter intervals (See Know Your Talk form).
Next, figure out exactly why you become negative in these situations. Common reasons we have found include fatigue, boredom, pain, frustration, and despair. All triathletes have “hot button” issues that trigger negativity. Finding out what yours are is essential to changing your self-talk. Then, monitor what you say to yourself. I’ve found that triathletes tend to rely on favorite negative self-talk when their buttons get pushed, for example, “Gosh, I suck,” “You’re such a loser,” and “What’s the point of even trying.” Realizing what you say and how bad it is for you is an important step in changing your self-talk. For most of the triathletes I’ve worked with there is a consistent pattern of the situations in which negative self-talk arises, the causes of the negativity, and the specific self-talk they express.
Before you go out and face those hot-button situations again, choose some positive self-talk with which you can replace your usual negative self-talk. The positive self-talk should be encouraging, but it must also be realistic. If you say things like, “I love being out here” when you really don’t or “I ‘m feeling so strong” even when you don’t, there’s no way you’ll buy what you’re saying. Acknowledging the hot button, but putting a positive and realistic spin on it will make it more likely you’ll believe what you’re saying, such as “If I keep working hard, good things will happen” and “This really hurts, but its money in the bank for my race.” By putting this new tool in your toolbox before your buttons get pushed, you’ll have more ready access to it and have a better chance of responding more positively.
At this point, training yourself to use positive self-talk depends on your ongoing commitment to it and focus on it. Because negative self-talk may be so ingrained, you’ll have to constantly remind yourself to be positive. Realizing when the hot-button situations are approaching will prepare you for your buttons gets to pushed and help you focus on what you say when it happens. At first, you will probably “fall off the wagon” and slip back to your old, negative ways, but just accept it as part of the process and return to being positive when you realize it. With time and persistence, you’ll see a gradual shift away from negativity and toward positive self-talk until you realize that you just went through one of those hot-button situations and you stayed psyched.
Balance the scales. When I work with triathletes, I have them chart the number of positive and negative things they say during training and races. In most cases, the negatives far outnumber the positives. In an ideal world, I would love to eliminate all negatives and have triathletes only express positives. But this is the real world and any triathlete who cares about the sport is going to think negatively sometimes.
In dealing with this reality, you should try to balance the scales. If you’re going to be negative when you make mistakes and perform poorly, you should also be positive when you perform well. The immediate goal is to increase the positives. This means rewarding yourself when you perform well. If you beat yourself up over an error, why shouldn’t you pat yourself on the back when you get it right. Unfortunately, too many triathletes are very tough on themselves and beat themselves up when they fail to live up to their extremely high expectations, but don’t congratulate themselves when they do. Tell yourself “ nice effort” when you gave a nice effort. Give yourself a “job well done” when you have done the job well. You worked hard and you deserve a reward.
Once you’ve balanced the scales by increasing your positives, your next goal is to tip the scales in the positive direction by reducing the negatives. Ask why you’re so hard on yourself when you perform poorly. The best triathletes in the world don’t always perform their best. Why shouldn’t it be okay for you to have down periods in your performances?
This step of tipping the scales toward positives is so important because of some recent research that found that negative experiences such as negative self-talk, negative body language, and negative emotions carry more weight than positive experiences. In fact, it takes 12 positive experiences to equal one negative experience. What this means is that for every negative express you make about yourself, whether saying something negative or screaming in frustration, you must express yourself positively 12 times to counteract that one negative expression.
Ultimately, you want to tip the scale heavily in the positive direction. Sure, you’re going to say some negative things periodically. That’s just part of being human and being a triathlete (no, you can’t be one or the other). You get tired, sick, and injured. You get frustrated, angry, depressed. The conditions get the better of you. So you get down on yourself once in a while. But you generally respond well to the situations that used to push your buttons and the preponderance of what say is positive.
Using negative thinking positively. As I mentioned earlier, even though I very much emphasize being positive at all times, the fact is, you can’t always be positive. You don’t always perform as well as you want and there is going to be some negative thinking. This awareness was brought home to me USAT national team training camp at which I worked not long ago. During the training camp, I was constantly emphasizing to the athletes about being positive and not being negative. One night at dinner, several of the triathletes came up to me and said that sometimes things do just stink and you can’t be positive. I realized that negative thinking is normal when you don’t perform well and some negative thinking is healthy. It means you care about performing poorly and want to perform better. Negative thinking can be motivating as well because it’s no fun to perform poorly and lose. I got to thinking about how triathletes could use negative thinking in a positive way. I came up with an important distinction that will determine whether negative thinking helps or hurts your triathlon efforts.
There are two types of negative thinking: give-up negative thinking and fire-up negative thinking. Give-up negative thinking involves feelings of loss and despair and helplessness, for example, “It’s over. I can’t finish.” You dwell on past mistakes and failures. It hurts your motivation and confidence, and it takes your focus away from continuing to give your best effort. Your intensity also drops because, basically, you’re surrendering and accepting defeat. There is never a place in triathlon for give-up negative thinking.
In contrast, fire-up negative thinking involves feelings of anger and energy, of being psyched up, for example, “I’m doing so badly. I hate performing this way” (said with anger and intensity). You look to doing better in the future because you hate performing poorly. Fire-up negative thinking increases your motivation to fight and turn things around. Your intensity goes up and you’re bursting with energy. Your focus is on continuing to work hard and not let the training or race beat you.
Fire-up negative thinking can be a positive way to turn your performance around. If you’re going to be negative, make sure you use fire-up negative thinking. Don’t use it too much though. Negative thinking and negative emotions require a lot of energy and that energy should be put in a more positive direction for your training and races. Also, it doesn’t feel very good to be angry all of the time.
Keep Cool and Race Your Best
May, 2004, p. 56
Like all endurance sports, triathlon success involves preserving and apportioning out your energy evenly during a race. Burn too much gas early in a race and you’re finished before T2. Run out of gas late in the race and you have no fuel for a strong finish. In either case, you’re in for one horrendous sufferfest that keeps you from achieving your triathlon goals and sucks the fun out of racing triathlons. One of the best tools you have in your tri-toolbox for saving your energy is learning to staying relaxed before and during a triathlon. There are four places during a triathlon in which staying relaxed is especially important: before the start, early in the swim and bike, and late in the race.
The greatest threat to staying relaxed and preserving your energy before your start is anxiety. The swim alone is anxiety provoking for most triathletes. You’re about to face a big physical and mental challenge. Most of the triathletes around you are nervous. Your heart is pounding, your adrenaline is pumping, you’re sweating, you’re worrying about the race, and you’re burning fuel that you can’t afford to lose.
Some triathletes make this anxiety worse by worrying about it (“Oh my gosh, I’m nervous. Maybe I’m not ready for this. What am I doing here?”) until they work themselves up into a full-blown panic attack. The first thing you want to do is realize that some pre-race anxiety is normal; everyone feels it to some degree. In psychology jargon, we call it “anticipatory arousal,” which means that your body is getting ready for a challenge. You want to make sure your pre-race anxiety doesn’t get out of hand and drain your fuel tank. You also want to take steps to relax yourself so you minimize your energy burn rate.
The most basic, yet most powerful, thing you can do to reduce your anxiety is breath. When you get nervous, your breathing system becomes constricted, your breaths become shorter and you get less oxygen into your system. As oxygen is essential for endurance sports, this is obviously not a good thing! As you go through your pre-race preparation, be aware of your breathing and consciously take slow, deep breaths on a regular basis. Also, keep your body moving. If you allow yourself to sit or stand still for too long, your muscles will tighten up. Walk around, stretch, shake out your arms and legs, anything to keep your blood flowing and your muscles relaxed. Another underappreciated tool for staying relaxed is to talk to people. By talking to your fellow competitors, you take your mind off the race and can share support and encouragement with each other.
The next place staying relaxed is important is in the early stages of the swim. Just before the start of the swim, everybody’s anxiety increases, adrenaline is flowing, and there can be a tendency to go out too fast. That’s why it’s so common to see triathletes sprinting the first 200 yards of the swim and then having to slow down considerably to catch their breath. To keep from “cooking” yourself early in the race, just before the start take a few more deep breaths, then, when the horn goes off, focus on starting off with a smooth, relaxed, and consistent stroke at a pace that you want to maintain throughout the swim. You will still go out a bit faster than your normal pace, but you’ll settle in more quickly and you won’t burn too much fuel before the pack separates.
Going out too fast and building up lactic acid early in the race can also happen right out of T1 on the bike. Because you’re probably thrilled to have gotten out of the water alive, your adrenaline is probably pumping again and, because it’s early in the race, you still have tons of energy. Just like the swim, there’s a tendency to put the hammer down and go out of T1 too hard. Of course, the problem is that you’ll burn tons of fuel in the process. As soon as you get on your bike, take a few deep breaths, settle your body down, focus on establishing a steady cadence and, most importantly, ignore the riders who may be flying by you (either they’re just faster than you or you’ll see them later in the race after they run out of gas).
The end of the race is where staying relax is most important. Once you’re well into the run, your two greatest enemies, fatigue and pain, show their ugly faces. At this point in the race, your body’s feeling threatened and it takes steps to protect itself by tensing up (think of a muscle cramp as a really loud plea from your body to stop!). Unfortunately, this tension actually increases fatigue, burns more fuel, and causes more pain. You can slow your energy drain and lessen the pain you feel by actively relaxing your body. Focusing on taking slow, deep breaths ensures that you get enough oxygen into your system and helps your muscles to relax. Checking your running posture, stride, and pace will help you be sure you’re running as efficiently and relaxed as possible. As your body braces itself, your shoulders and arms will tense, which not only increases fatigue and pain, but also raises your center of gravity and shortens your stride. To counter this reaction, you can shake out your arms and hands, and settle your shoulders. Finally, one of the most effective, and oddest, ways to relax in the face of fatigue and pain is to smile. Smiling releases endorphins which have a real relaxing effect on you. It also generates some positive thoughts and emotions which take your mind off the fatigue and pain you feel as you approach the finish.
All of these strategies will enable you to conserve your fuel throughout your race so you’ll have energy to burn at the end. While other triathletes are out of gas and slogging their way to the end, in the last few miles, you have the fuel to now put the hammer down and cross the finish line strong in a burst of energy.
Are you Sure You Want to Do an Ironman?
November, 2003, p. 50-51
Ironman is the ultimate in triathlon competition. It’s the standard by which triathlon is known to the world at large. When I began doing triathlons, almost every non-tri person I met would ask if I had done an Ironman (that’s all they knew), as if that is the only badge of honor in our sport. Within our sport, Ironman competitors are accorded a certain reverence. Because of its status, the pull of doing an Ironman is strong for any triathlete who takes his or her participation seriously. Putting in the training time, going the distance, crossing the line as an Ironman finisher (even qualifying for Kona!) are all heady stuff that can act as a siren’s call for triathletes.
But should you do an Ironman? Though training for and finishing an Ironman can be a positive, life-enriching experience, it can also be a source of personal, work, and social stress, a cause of injuries, and a less than satisfying experience in which the costs outweigh the benefits. As a two-time Ironman finisher and a sport psychologist who works with triathletes, I encourage you to give careful thought to this question to make sure that, if you choose to do an Ironman, you do it for reasons that are healthy and beneficial.
We live in a ‘more is better’ society. Triathletes can get in the trap of “If I feel good doing an Olympic, I’ll feel even better doing a half-Ironman, and if I feel that good doing a half, I’ll feel even better doing an Ironman.” But we often forget that, like most things, triathlon can have a point of diminishing returns; longer distances won’t necessarily give you greater benefits in terms of enjoyment or fitness. Gosh, is Ironman even enough? Now there is Xterra, double Ironman races, Eco-Challenge, Mt. Everest! There is always a greater challenge; harder courses, tougher conditions, faster competitors, more demanding events. When is enough enough?
We also live in a society in which many people are looking for that elusive something called happiness, self-esteem, or inner peace. We meditate, practice yoga, and, yes, race triathlons. If you are looking for answers to your life’s questions in these experiences, you will probably end up frustrated and unsatisfied because those answers will, in all likelihood, not be found in an Ironman. Ironman will not stop you from running (and biking and swimming) away from your problems. Ironman won’t bring you contentment. It won’t make you a better person. You won’t love yourself more. You won’t be respected more by others. If you are doing an Ironman for the wrong reasons, it is simply not the answer to the questions that you are probably asking yourself.
There are many good reasons for doing an Ironman. Ironman can offer you physical and mental challenges that can free you to test yourself in other areas of your life. It can inspire you, give you confidence, improve your focus, show you how to deal with emotions, and help you learn to overcome pain. Ironman can teach you lessons about patience, perseverance, persistence, and adversity that can benefit you in your work, relationships, and other activities. And you can get great joy (the tri-high!) out of your Ironman experience.
Though the above benefits are important, they are not what Ironman triathletes talk about most when I ask them why they race Ironman distance. With almost complete unanimity, they talk about the people: the camaraderie and the bond that they feel with other Ironman triathletes. Ironman training is very social: master’s swims, long rides and runs, track workouts. Ironman races are noted for their social activities: the pre- and post-race banquets, meals out, the athlete village, the race itself (misery loves company!). Of course, the same sort of social benefits can be found in shorter triathlon training and races, though the bond and the shared experience may be less strong because the investment and suffering is not as great.
The Price of Ironman
Ironman does have its costs as well. It is hugely time consuming; expect that, for 6-9 months, your life will revolve around Ironman. You will make sacrifices in your work and other activities in which you might have been actively involved. Your relationships with family and friends will be tested. You may very well alienate loved ones and lose touch with friends who are not involved in the sport (I know a triathlete who is getting divorced because of his Ironman involvement).
Ironman is also physically demanding. You will be tired and hungry most of the time. Because of the volume and intensity of training, your immune system will be vulnerable and you will likely get sick more easily and more often. Injuries are a common part of the Ironman lifestyle because of the sheer quantity of training and the unhealthy demands you place on your body. Are there physical benefits to Ironman training? Perhaps, but is a 100-mile ride that much better for you than a 50-mile ride? It’s a question of diminishing returns that you must answer for yourself. Ironman is also emotionally taxing. The physical ups and downs of Ironman training often produce stress and emotional highs and lows that you may have never felt before.
The race itself produces varied reactions from people. Some competitors describe the race as a nonstop joyfest in which they revel in every moment. Others describe it as 140.6 miles of hell: the apprehension and fear of the swim, the persistent discomfort and boredom of the bike, the painful and seemingly never-ending miles of the marathon (with most competitors walking much of it). I must admit that I didn’t enjoy either of my Ironman races. Spending that much time physically uncomfortable was just not my idea of fun. I found the ride particularly unpleasant; six-plus hours on a bike is way too much time in a saddle—and you still have to run a marathon!
The finish is the climactic—and perhaps the most interesting—part of an Ironman. I love seeing finishers jumping with joy, high fiving spectators, carrying their children across the finish line. The purity of their elation is inspiring. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that kind of reaction. The best emotion I could muster in both of my Ironman races was relief that it was over. I also sobbed uncontrollably after finishing both of my Ironman races (tears of joy, sadness, or just release, I don’t know). In speaking with other Ironman finishers, my reaction was not unusual.
In the weeks and months after their races, many Ironman finishers I have spoken with told me how the Ironman had changed their lives. They felt that they were different people who responded to world in new and better ways. These Ironman triathletes felt inspired, more capable, and ready to tackle their life’s challenges head on. Their appreciation of Ironman was heartfelt and many spoke about doing another. Others said they were depressed, listless, and felt rudderless and unmotivated. These Ironman triathletes questioned the value of the race and were uncertain whether they would continue with triathlon at any distance. My Ironman races weren’t life altering for me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I did them. I conquered a great challenge, I met and became friends with some wonderful people, and I will always be an Ironman. But, having done two Ironman races, I have decided that, given my overall life, the costs overshadow the benefits and I have decided not to do another Ironman for a long time if ever (never say never).
I don’t mean to sound like a downer trying to discourage you from doing an Ironman. Rather, I am trying to show you there are two sides to doing an Ironman and you don’t often hear about the “darker” side. Only you can decide whether an Ironman is worth it to you. By asking you to think twice before you step up to an Ironman, I want you to ask yourself two questions. First, do you want to do an Ironman for the right reasons? Second, within your overall life picture, will an Ironman be worth it?
THE BEST LAID PLANS:
Never Say, “If All Goes Well…”
June, 2003, p. 52
The most common question I was asked before my first Ironman was, “What time are you shooting for?” In my naiveté, I always responded, “Well, if all goes well, under X hours” (I will keep you in suspense until the end of the article before I tell you how I did). If you answer this question as I did, you are creating two often unrealistic expectations. First is the expectation that you can achieve a certain race time that you have set for yourself. Given the vagaries of triathlon, becoming too fixated on a specific finish time can cause great disappointment.
Second is the expectation that all will go well. One of the great lessons I learned about Ironman’s in particular and triathlon in general is: All never goes well! Because there are so many things that can go wrong in a triathlon—equipment, physical, logistics, weather—by simple odds, something will go wrong. It’s Murphy’s Law 140.6 fold for an Ironman and a similar exponential effect for shorter triathlons.
If you are incredibly well prepared—and lucky—only one or two things will go wrong and you can only hope that the problems don’t end your day and you can still cross the finish line, pick up your medal, and revel in your race. I was fortunate in my first Ironman; only one major thing went wrong. I had stomach distress (that’s a euphemism for what I really had!) during the first half of the marathon and I stopped nine—you heard me—nine times (I counted because I didn’t want it sound like I was telling a fish story and I wanted it on the record). I was lucky that I got it out of my system at the end of the first half and it didn’t bother me the rest of the race.
The best way to increase the likelihood that at least most goes well is to take preventive measures. Figure out everything that can go wrong and take steps to keep those things from happening. Make sure you have your nutritional needs tested in training and dialed in for your race. Inspect all of your equipment—twice! Check the weather and have the proper gear. Have a checklist to ensure that you don’t forget anything. And have a plan for each phase of the race including the layout and process of your transitions.
Then, live by the adage, “The best laid plans of mice and men…” The reality of triathlon is that no matter what you do to prepare yourself and try prevent problems from arising, S#*& happens. What will determine whether the bad thing ruins your race or is just bump in the road is your attitude. You can get upset, not solve the problem, and have it end your race. Or you can accept it, find a solution, and get back to the fun of racing triathlons.
When you say “If all goes well,” you are setting yourself up for failure because you may not have control over your finish time and you certainly don’t have control over everything that can go wrong. My recommendation is to avoid creating expectations over which you have no control.
Expectations can develop in a number of ways. They can arise when you compare yourself to others with whom you train—“If I can keep up with him/her in training, I know I can do it in a race.” You can also develop unrealistic expectations as you gain fitness and speed in your training. As your confidence in your conditioning builds, so can your expectations. A particularly dangerous way expectations can arise is when you try to extrapolate your training and early races times to your upcoming big race—“If I did a two-hour Olympic distance and a 6:30 half-Ironman, that means I can go under 13 hours for my Ironman.”
In our result-driven triathlon culture, many triathletes can feel tremendous pressure to not only finish—which is a big enough accomplishment—but to finish a race in a certain time. This is especially prevalent in Ironman events. But if you focus too much on the time you want to achieve, it will slowly grow into an “outcome expectation” that you MUST achieve it or you will have failed. This expectation will become a burden to you, cause you to feel great pressure to achieve the expectation, and make you really nervous. Paradoxically, emphasizing your outcome expectation will actually interfere with you meeting that expectation, make you anxious, interfere with your enjoyment of the race, and quite possibly keep you from achieving your goal.
I learned this lesson first hand at the 2002 Ironman USA. Having come from running, I never felt the slightest bit of anxiety before my eight previous marathons. But in the days leading up to Lake Placid, I was really nervous. I felt awful, was definitely not enjoying my Ironman experience, and was not looking forward to the race. At the heart of my angst was pressure I felt to achieve my time expectation and a persistent fear that I would go out too hard, bonk early, and have many hours of self-induced suffering. Two days before the race, I called my coach, Duane Franks, and told him how I felt. Duane said that my feelings were natural because I had chosen to undertake a monumental challenge and that the best way to let go of the anxiety was to let go of my outcome expectations. He told me to focus on three things: enjoying myself, maintaining a comfortable pace, and finishing strong.
As soon as he suggested this, I immediately felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. In the last 48 hours, I had fun and felt excited about the race. Before the race, I decided to take his advice to the extreme. I didn’t start my stopwatch at the beginning of the race. I also taped over my bike computer so I wouldn’t see my time, miles per hour, or the miles I was covering. In fact, I didn’t think about my race time at all until mile 19 of the marathon when I happened to notice the time of day.
By freeing myself of my time expectation, I relieved myself of the pressure to achieve it when just finishing an Ironman was sufficiently daunting and accomplishment enough. Instead, I focused on what I needed to do to have a good race. In the swim, I concentrated on not getting pummeled at the start, staying relaxed, maintaining good form, and conserving my energy. On the bike, I paid attention to my pace; riding conservatively and making sure I stayed in my aerobic zone. During the run, I felt so good I actually had to hold myself back. At mile 19, I decided to let myself go. I attacked the last seven miles and finished in a rush and on a high. And, guess what? I achieved my time goal—under 12 hours—to boot!
I have learned my lesson. From now on, when I am asked “What time are you shooting for?,” I smile knowingly and say, “I’ll give my best effort, I will have fun, and I will finish.” In triathlon, unless you’re a pro or a top age-grouper, everything else is just icing on the cake.
RAISING THE PSYCHOLOGICAL BAR
April, 2003, p. 25
So you’ve done a few triathlons. You’ve had a lot of fun and have enjoyed pushing yourself to heights that you never thought were possible. Your mail goal so far has been to just finish, but now you’re thinking that you can go faster. You know you need to adjust your training, but you may not have realized that you first need to adjust your attitude.
Many triathletes don’t realize there is a big difference between simply participating in triathlons and racing them. Being a “competitive” triathlete means placing considerably greater physical, psychological, and emotional demands on yourself. Of course, because of this added effort, the rewards can be that much greater as well. Making this shift to being a triathlete who cares about how fast you go and where you finish in the field starts with developing a different mindset that sets the stage for your newly intensified training and competitive efforts.
The first step in this transformation is for you to set a goal to shoot for. No longer is “just finish” something that you aim for. This objective can be a time goal, for example, doing an Olympic distance race in under 2:45 hours, or an age-group goal, such as finishing in the top ten. This goal provides you with a clear destination to your journey and helps you focus your mind on what you want to accomplish. In choosing a realistic and challenging goal, you should reality test your perceptions of your ability. The key question is: “Can I actually achieve this goal with hard work?” You may want to enlist the feedback of a tri-coach or an experienced triathlete to help you determine what is possible for you.
The next step in raising the bar involves marshaling your desire and determination to achieve your new goal. You must now make a commitment to a path that is going to be more difficult, more time consuming, and more painful than when just finishing was the goal. To overcome these new challenges in training and races, you need to remind yourself why you are “stepping up.” Focusing on the long-term benefits of your efforts will help mitigate the immediate PTA (pain, torture, and agony!) that you will experience during training. And remember this when you are really hurting: the physical pain you feel in training and during the race in no way compares to the emotional pain you will feel if you don’t achieve your goals because you didn’t push yourself enough.
Perhaps your greatest challenge in developing into a competitive triathlete is gaining the confidence that you can actually race a triathlon. With this new emphasis, it’s easy to lose confidence as you fail to show the gains—however unrealistic they are—you were expecting. Training is different now. Whereas before your main focus was on just building the necessary endurance to go the distance, now you must also add speed and strength dimensions to your training. This very different type of fitness takes time to develop. Be patient as you build your fitness, speed, and strength. If you expect too much too fast, you will only get frustrated and discouraged, and you will lose your confidence before you have had a chance to realistically gain it.
A key to building confidence to race triathlons is in trusting your preparation. You must first believe thoroughly in your training program, knowing that if you follow it, your program will enable you to achieve your goals. Then, you need to acknowledge your little victories in training every day—every time you get out of the pool, walk off the track, or get off your bike at the end of a workout, you win! As time passes and your race approaches, these small successes will accumulate, you will see and feel your new-found fitness, and that preparation will give you confidence that you can have a big success when you get to the line of your race.
With the desire for speed in triathlons comes a potential shift in your focus which may actually hurt your efforts to achieve your new goals. Becoming a competitive triathlete can cause you to place increased expectations on yourself that can morph into unpleasant pressure. Remember, you are no longer training and competing for the pure joy of triathlon. Now you are investing yourself in the results. If you allow yourself to become preoccupied with your results, you will not only not enjoy training and racing as much, but you will probably not have the results you want.
The best attitude to have to get faster is to set a competitive goal for yourself and then only think about it occasionally. In your training and races, rather than thinking about the results, focus on why you do triathlons in the first place, for example, overcoming physical challenges, the camaraderie, the “tri-high,” and then simply do what you have done in the past, just more of it with greater intensity. With this “process” attitude, you not only continue to have a great time rather than getting burdened with these new expectations, but you also gain the necessary fitness, perform your best, and achieve the results you originally set for yourself.
NEWBIE LESSON #1:
IRONMAN WILL CONSUME YOUR LIFE.
Triathlete Special bonus issue
The Road to Kona, 2003, p. 16
Doing an Ironman is not a part-time endeavor. The race will be, for the 6-9 months that you train for it, the guiding force in your life. You will spend many hours each week training for Ironman. You will spend even more hours each week thinking, dreaming, talking, reading, and surfing the Internet about Ironman. Ironman will consume you!
Your life will revolve around training (up to 20 hours a week), sleeping (going to bed by 9 pm and getting up before dairy farmers and West Coast stock brokers), food (you can and want to eat everything in sight), and drink (I have seven forms of liquid in my fridge). Your social life will involve 5 am master’s swims, Saturday rides, and Sunday runs. If you are married, have children, or have friends who are not triathletes, Heaven help them!
Your conversations will revolve around your past triathlon experiences, your training program, your race goals, gathering training and race tips from experienced Ironman finishers and tri-mags, and figuring out which of the always-conflicting tips you should accept. You will be consumed by equipment and technology. You will ask essential life questions, such as “Will an aero seatpost make me faster?,” “700′s or 650′s?,” and “What is your favorite energy bar?”
You will obsess about the minutiae of triathlon. You will buy videos on swim technique. You will call the top pros by their nicknames-”Hey, Macca, Walto!” You will read the latest research on Ironman nutrition. You will look forward to going to your local tri-store hoping there is something you forgot to buy that you absolutely must have. You will make lists of what you will need in your Ironman, what you will put in each transition and special-needs bag, and what you will have to do the day before and the day of the race.
Your conversations will revolve around your past triathlon experiences, your training program, your race goals, gathering training and race tips from experienced Ironman finishers and tri-mags, and figuring out which of the always-conflicting tips you should accept. You will be consumed by equipment and technology. You will ask essential life questions, such as “Will an aero seatpost make me faster?,” “700′s or 650′s?,” and “What is your favorite energy bar?” You will live for your daily workouts. You will have trouble falling asleep because you can’t wait to get up the next day and train. You will compulsively record every detail of your training program in your computer: distance, time, intensity, heart rate, splits, strokes per length, miles per hour, minutes per mile. You will track your progress. You will wonder how a person can enjoy swimming 100 laps in a 21.88-yard pool and riding a bike for over seven hours, and then you will understand how. You will revel in completing your first two-mile swim, 100-mile ride, and 20-mile run. You will add, “brick,” to your vocabulary and use it proudly. You will extrapolate your training and shorter-distance race times to your Ironman (bad idea!). You will add up your weekly volume every Sunday and gush with pride as you approach 20 hours.
You will develop a deep and abiding hatred of water bottles. You will have at least 10 water bottles at some point in a never-ending cycle of Ironman life; on your bike, in the sink soaking with soapy water, in the dish rack drying, or taking up an entire counter in your kitchen poised, seemingly eagerly, to return to your bike.
You will arrive late to work, take long lunch breaks, and leave early. You will fall asleep at your desk. You will pray that you have a forgiving boss or be thankful you are your own boss. You will not get fired. Your body will look different—leaner, more muscular, harder.
You will walk differently: a new spring in your step, a bit of swagger in your gait. You will feel differently—energized, yet tired, relaxed, yet jazzed. You will think differently: more confident, determined, and focused. After never having experienced the runner’s high, you will get the “tri-high” regularly. You will begin to think training is better than sex.
You will experience more emotional highs and lows in one day than you usually feel in a week. You will feel excitement, frustration, hope, anger, despair, doubt, awe, sadness, and inspiration. You will constantly question the meaning of your life and why you are doing an Ironman—and you will come up with different answers every time. You will dream of qualifying for Kona, even if the only chance you have is to win the lottery. You will smile with joy at the thought of being an Ironman and cringe in fear at the thought of not finishing.
After the race, you will feel like you are about to explode with pride. You won’t want to take off your finisher’s medal. You will look forward to wearing all of that over-priced, yet so worth it, Ironman clothing that you bought. You will savor that first workout when you wear the hat or shirt that announces to the world that you are an Ironman. You will feel special, like having joined an exclusive club. You can now say, “I am an Ironman.”
Well, that is the way it was for me. You may be different.
OVERCOMING TAPER ANXIETY
Fall, 2002, p. 50
For the last several months, you have been training your butt off getting ready for your big triathlon. You are doing everything you can to have a successful race. You have been committed to your training program, missing few if any workouts and putting in your best effort in all aspects of your training. You have devoted time in the pool, on your bike, and running on the road.
Then, with your race approaching, you look at your training schedule and it reads, “Begin taper.” You are faced with the pre-race taper, usually one week for an Olympic distance up to three weeks for an Ironman. You feel a tightness in your chest. You become short of breath. You start to get scared. You have crazy thoughts like, “I’m going to get out of shape. I’m going to get fat. If I back off now, there’s no way I can have a good race.” You are now experiencing “taper anxiety,” the fear of losing everything you have gained from your training and failing to achieve your race goals.
Everyone talks about the importance of the taper and deep down you know you should commit to it. But each day that you go shorter distances and with less intensity, you feel more and more like a lazy bum. Taper anxiety can drive you to do crazy things—like a hard track workout or a long run a few days before your race. I saw extreme examples of taper anxiety when I arrived at Ironman Lake Placid. One fellow I met rode the first loop of the bike—56 miles—three days before the race! A group of triathletes I know went for a hilly, two-hour ride two days before the race! These people have serious tapering issues.
You are now at a fork in the road that will determine whether you have a successful triathlon. If you give in to your urge to act on your taper anxiety and you maintain your training volume and intensity shortly before your race, you will almost guarantee to fail to achieve your triathlon goals. You will enter the race physically tired and mentally dull. You will lack strength, endurance, energy, motivation, confidence, and focus. You will feel frustrated, sad, and, ultimately, disappointed. After your race you will be angry at yourself for not following your program to the end—which meant DOING YOUR TAPER! If you begin to take this fork in the road, be sure to have someone nearby who hasn’t completely lost his or her mind and who can talk some sense back into you. Having someone you trust who can help you regain your perspective and get you back on the right road is essential. I find a good smack on the back of the head works pretty well (gentle prodding might not be enough).
It’s simple; tapering will make your race. If you do an triathlon without a taper, you will likely bonk along the way or, at the very least, not perform up to your ability. Your body needs the taper to fully prepare itself for your race. The taper allows your body to rest, repair all the damage you did to it, and maximize the benefits you gained from the long and hard months of training.
Because of its importance, you have to change your attitude toward the taper and relieve your taper anxiety. See it as an essential part of your training program that you must adhere to—would you skip workouts that are on your schedule? Enjoy this “chill” time before the race. See the taper as your reward for those last few weeks of high volume/high intensity training. Direct your energy into something else, such as spend more time with your family and friends—they deserve it after all of the time you have devoted to triathlon—get some more things done at work, take yoga or get a massage, anything that will either reduce your taper anxiety or at least distract you from it. Finally, tell yourself in no uncertain terms, “I must taper or I will not achieve my goals,” believing that you will be rewarded for your commitment to the taper with a great race.
A big part of this lesson for me was the evolution of how I felt during my taper for Ironman Lake Placid (this example applies for shorter distance races too). For the first ten days, I felt awful: tired, unmotivated, sluggish in my training efforts, questioning my readiness for the race, and just not psyched to do an Ironman. I was truly worried that I was overtrained and that I would experience a solid day—and night!—of joyless suffering. Then something amazing happened. I woke up on the 11th day, went for a hilly 40-mile ride and felt great—lots of energy and enthusiasm, power on the climbs, and I had fun for the first time in a while. I had turned a corner that I didn’t know was there. I had gotten my “mojo” back. The final days before the race I continued to feel strong and ready for the Ironman. And I had a great race!
Preparing for a triathlon involves putting together all of the pieces of a complex puzzle—fitness, technique, equipment, tactics, and finally, the taper. Committing to a sufficient taper will not only ensure that you have the best race of which you are capable and achieve your triathlon goals, but, more importantly, that you enjoy yourself every step of the way.
PAIN IS YOUR FRIEND:
Overcoming Triathlon’s Great Challenge
November, 2002, p. 54-55
Pain is an essential part of triathlon training and competition, and at the same time, the greatest obstacle triathletes face as they pursue their goals. Pain plays an important role in providing you with information about your triathlon, including your level of effort and the intensity of your training program. But pain is also a persistent and powerful physical warning to your body, often screaming at you to stop! Whether you use pain as an ally to achieve your triathlon goals or as an enemy to keep you from realizing your dreams depends on your understanding of pain and whether you can gain mastery over it.
Perspective on Pain
Using pain to your advantage starts with gaining a realistic perspective on what pain really is. A few weeks ago, I was out for a long, hilly (about 6000 vertical) ride with some friends. At the end of the six-hour ride, one of the guys said, “That was a sufferfest!” Here is where some perspective on pain is needed. You need to understand the difference between suffering, pain, and physical discomfort.
Here is a simple fact: What we experience in our triathlon training and races is not suffering (I think we use such language because it makes us feel tough and heroic). I give talks to the Leukemia Society Team in Training groups and those talks have put training and competitive pain in perspective for me. People with cancer suffer because their pain is severe, long lasting, life threatening, and often uncontrollable. What we feel in training and races is not really even pain. Real pain comes from injuries. This pain is similar to suffering, but injury pain—though sometimes severe—is not life threatening, typically doesn’t last that long, and can be controlled much more easily.
What we really feel in training and races is discomfort. It hurts and it interferes with our training and competitive efforts, but we can ease the discomfort by slowing down or stopping. For simplicity’s sake, though, let’s continue to call what we experience pain because it is commonly used, it is only four letters, and it makes us feel a little bit heroic. But even though we’ll call it pain, we now know what it really is and that perspective is the first step to mastering pain.
The next step to overcoming triathlon pain is to understand that pain isn’t just a physical experience that you have to tolerate in your training and races. Pain also has a major psychological component to it; how you think about it and the emotions you connect to it affect the pain you feel. How you interpret your pain either propels you to new and higher levels of performance or it hurts your motivation, reduces your confidence, increases your anxiety, and distracts you from your training or competitive focus. If you can interpret your pain in a positive way, your pain will feel, well, less painful.
Pain as Your Enemy
Pain is your enemy when you start with negative perceptions like, “Pain is bad,” “Pain means I am weak,” and “Pain means I will fail.” This attitude about pain puts you in defeatist mindset in which the first experience of pain in training or competition will set off a vicious cycle of negative thinking and negative emotions. When you are doing those 10×100’s in the pool, those hill repeats on your bike, or that 30-minute tempo run and you start thinking, “I hate this. What am I doing out here? Is this really worth it?,” this negative self-talk will actually increase the pain you feel, lessen your desire to fight through the pain, and limit the benefits you gain from training.
Some fascinating research has emerged recently that has found that the emotions that we connect with our pain have a significant impact on how much pain we feel. We’ve all had the experience late (or perhaps even early) in a race where we’re hurting. You begin to get frustrated that you won’t reach your goal time. You get angry at yourself for not training harder. You may even despair of your ability to finish. When you connect these negative emotions with your pain in training or a race, you will feel more pain. Between the pain you feel, your negative self-talk, and the negative emotions, you have little chance of giving your best effort in training or being successful in races.
Pain as Your Ally
Making pain your ally is a deliberate process that takes commitment, effort, and practice. It starts with accepting that pain is a normal and important part of training and competition—“no pain, no gain,” as the saying goes. The reality is that if triathlons weren’t difficult, they wouldn’t be very satisfying and you probably wouldn’t do them.
Staying emotionally detached from training and competitive pain can also reduce the pain you feel. This can be accomplished by using pain as information during your workouts and races. Pain tells you how hard you are working and whether what you are feeling is due to exertion or injury. With this information, you can adjust your pace, modify your technique, change your body position, or shift your tactics. Making these changes will help you reduce the pain and also maximize your performance.
Another useful way to respond to your pain is to realize that others around you are in pain too. It can be frustrating sometimes late in a race to be hurting pretty badly and look over at other triathletes who appear to be having no difficulty at all. Don’t be fooled by this. You can’t see inside of them and experience their discomfort. On the outside, you probably look cool, calm, and collected too, even though inside you may be in agony. If you’re in pain, the chances are those around you are too. Take comfort in knowing that. Remember, misery loves company.
You can also take active physical steps to reduce your pain. When your body begins to struggle, it tries to protect itself from the pain by tightening up. Your body doesn’t realize that this only makes it worse, so you need to tell it relax. Simple techniques during training and races, such as deep breathing, raising and lowering your shoulders every few miles, swinging your arms, shaking out your hands, and keeping your face relaxed, can make a huge difference in how your body responds to pain.
What you say to yourself about the pain you feel influences its intensity. Positive self-talk, such “I’m getting stronger with every step,” “This is making me tougher,” and “I’m working toward my goals,” not only reduces your pain, but it has other psychological benefits including increased motivation, greater confidence, better focus, and more positive emotions.
Much as negative emotions increase the experience of pain, positive emotions have the opposite effect. Connecting positive emotions such as excitement, joy, and fulfillment with the pain you feel in training and races reduces the pain and makes it more tolerable. Positive emotions create more positive self-talk and have other psychological advantages, such as greater motivation and confidence. Physiologically, positive emotions release endorphins (neurochemicals that act as our internal painkillers) which not only reduce the perception of pain, but actually lessen the physical pain.
Inspiration is my favorite positive emotion to experience when I’m training and racing. I view the pain I feel as part of an epic challenge to achieve my goals. My pain tells me I’m working hard and making progress toward my triathlon dreams and the satisfaction and joy that motivates me to be a triathlete in the first place. To that end, I have a two-pronged strategy that combines generating positive self-talk and positive emotions. When I’m in a lot of pain, for example, riding up the Seven Sisters in Marin County, I smile and say, “Money in the bank, baby, money in the bank” (you have to say “baby” or it won’t work). Smiling creates positive emotions and releases those pain-killing endorphins, and the self-talk tells me that I am making deposits on my fitness that I’ll be able to withdraw in races (unlike checking accounts, triathlons don’t have overdraft protection).
Finally, perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned as both a sport psychologist and an endurance athlete is this: The physical pain you feel in training and races in no way compares to the emotional pain you will feel if you don’t achieve your goals because you didn’t master the pain.
OUT OF THE BLUES:
Dealing with Post-race Depression
October, 2002, p. 54-55
Anyone who has ever committed considerable time and energy to training and competing in a triathlon that is important to them knows the feelings. During training and the race, you are motivated, excited, and energized. As you cross the finish line, you are psyched, elated, and joyous at having accomplished your goal. Up to that point, triathlon is fun. Then, a day or two later, it hits you. You feel down, lethargic, even sad. After a week, that malaise is still there. You start to worry. You ask yourself, “Why am I so down?” You try to resist it by getting back to your training, but this just makes it worse. You wonder if it will ever go away. You have been struck by “post-race depression” (PRD)!
PRD is a common affliction that most triathletes (and, in fact, most endurance athletes) experience after big races. Such “post-big-race” down periods are natural and, despite triathletes’ best efforts, usually unavoidable. The fact is, triathletes shouldn’t try to avoid these feelings. PRD actually plays an essential role in the continued physical and mental health of triathletes. Yet PRD is a source of uncertainty, concern, and just plain discomfort for triathletes.
Races such as an Ironman or any race that means something to you require tremendous physical, psychological, and emotional investment. That investment causes you to put considerable time, energy, and effort into your training and to make substantial sacrifices in other parts of your life. In other words, your life becomes all about preparation for the big race; you become the race. It is this investment and the conclusion of your efforts that lead to PRD. These down feelings are especially likely if triathletes fail to achieve their competitive goals. This lack of “payoff” can create feelings of anger, frustration, and disappointment that can exacerbate the normal and healthy PRD that triathletes would otherwise experience and can make recovery from PRD longer and more difficult.
When the big race is over, PRD is occurs for several reasons. First, your body has been performing at a high level in training and then in the race for so long, it needs to take a break. Because it no longer needs to be up, your body shuts down. In fact, most of the “depression” (I don’t mean it in the “I need to be on anti-depressant medication” sense which is extremely rare) is physiologically based. The body, in a sense, decides to take a brief vacation so it can rest and rejuvenate. As our thoughts and emotions are fundamentally physiological, this physical downturn also expresses itself mentally in “down” thoughts and emotions.
This so-called depression also has a direct psychological and emotional component. For months of training and during the competition, your goals, thoughts, and focus have had a clearly defined objective and direction; your life had purpose. With the event concluded, that purpose is gone and along with it is a short-term loss of a significant part of your self-identity (the part that is, “I am a triathlete.”). This lack of direction causes you to feel lost and rudderless. Questions such as, “Who am I?” and “What now?” are common. You may feel unmotivated, question your recent performance and your ability, and be uncertain about your future as a triathlete.
An emotional letdown is a powerful and uncomfortable part of PRD. After being on an emotional high–excitement, elation, joy–from the intense training and the event itself, the combination of the physiological decline and psychological loss of purpose inevitably leads to down emotions such as depression, sadness, listlessness, irritability, and a general malaise. These emotions can be mild or quite severe depending on your personality, your experience with endurance sports, your coping skills, and how you performed in the recent race. It is not uncommon for triathletes with PRD to lose interest in other aspects of their life, withdraw from previously enjoyable activities, feel sorry for themselves, and generally to do a lot of moping around, especially if they performed below expectations.
Given that some level of PRD is inevitable after big races, the key question is not how to avoid it, but rather how to deal with this uncomfortable post-event experience so that you can get through it as quickly as possible and use it help you prepare for your next big race.
The first step in working through PRD is to accept that it is a normal and necessary part of training and competition. Allowing PRD to run its course and using it to your benefit will help you minimize both its severity and duration. PRD, though clearly uncomfortable, plays a vital role in your recovery from big races, much like a rest day after an intense week of training is essential to increased fitness. A common feeling with triathletes suffering from PRD is that it will never go away. This perception alone causes you to feel even more down and makes PRD worse. A part of the acceptance process is acknowledging that the feelings are okay and that they will pass in time.
Because triathletes are such active, goal-directed people, it is common for them to attempt to resist PRD by setting a new goal and returning to intense training before they are physically or psychologically ready. If you try this strategy, you may prolong the PRD and you are more likely to get sick, because your immune system functioning is down as well. Or, you may get injured because neither your body nor your mind are prepared for the renewed physical demands.
Instead, allow yourself to experience and naturally pass through the PRD. Be good to yourself. Ensure that you get extra rest, eat healthily, have a regular massage, take yoga, and try not to tax yourself too much. Enjoy not having a goal or direction. Revel in doing things you couldn’t do when you were training—having weekends free, going to sleep after 9 pm, drinking normal liquids instead of that awful energy drink, or eating a big, fat, juicy burger, curly fries, and an Oreo shake (okay, that is not healthy eating, but it tastes so good and you have earned it!)—and not doing all the things that you started to hate before your race—getting up for those early morning masters’ swims, washing so many god-forsaken water bottles, having your life revolve around your training. This “indulgence” will give your body the rest it craves and your spirit the lift it needs. It allows your mind and body to rejuvenate more quickly and enables you to return to your usual high-energy self sooner.
A difficult part of PRD is feeling like you have lost a part of yourself and that you feel “starved” for affirmation. But setting aside that big part of your self-identity periodically is healthy because it shows you that you are a person before you are a triathlete and that triathlon is a part of your life, not life itself. Because you are not “feeding” the physical part of your self-identity, turn your attention to other significant parts of your self that you find nourishing, perhaps social or creative activities. This alternative “nutrition” will provide you with other meaningful sources of validation that will help you to generate positive emotions that counteract your malaise and enable you to continue to feel good about yourself despite the absence of reinforcement from triathlon.
Lastly, do things that you enjoy simply for the experience—no goals, no purpose. Try being a “human being” for a while instead of a “human doing.” This reconnection with who you are rather than what you do is an essential part of keeping triathlon in perspective, gaining the most joy out of your participation, and ensuring that you maintain some balance in your life despite your investment in triathlon. It also makes certain that, when you do return to training, you continue to participate for positive, healthy, and life-enriching reasons, and you are physically, psychologically, and emotionally ready to master the challenges of the new goals you have set for yourself.
Dr. Jim Taylor is an internationally recognized sport psychologist, sub-three-hour marathoner, and Ironman triathlete. Jim lives in San Francisco. To learn more, visit www.alpinetaylor.com.
BRING IT ON!
September, 2002, p. 78-80
What separates a Chris McCormack or Barb Lindquist from other less successful professionals? Do they have superior physical capabilities? Perhaps. But what is noticeably different about them and other top triathletes is their unwavering belief in their ability to succeed. In fact, confidence is the single most important mental contributor to triathlon success. Whether you are a pro, a committed age grouper, or a first-time triathlete, in addition to building the fitness to be successful, you want to develop a strong and resilient confidence in yourself to give your best effort, perform at your highest level consistently, and achieve your goals.
Confidence Either Hurts or Helps
Confidence is so important because it influences your training and competitive efforts in two ways. First, you may have the physical ability and fitness to, for example, break three hours in an Olympic distance race, but if you don’t have confidence in that ability, you won’t use your ability to its fullest extent. Second, confidence affects every other mental factor. If you lack confidence, you will have a lot of negative self-talk, saying things like, “My bike is so weak” or “I know I’m going to bonk on the run.” You will feel nervous before races because you won’t believe you can be successful. All of that anxiety hurts your confidence even more because you feel physically uncomfortable and there’s no way you can race well when you’re so uptight. The negative self-talk and anxiety cause negative emotions, such as frustration and despair, all of which hurt your confidence more and cause you to perform even worse.
The negative self-talk, anxiety, and emotions hurt your focus. You can’t help but focus on all of the negative things rather than on things that will enable you to do your best. All of this accumulated negativity then hurts your motivation. As bad as you feel, the last thing you want to do is train or race. The bottom line is that if you lack confidence, think negatively, feel nervous, frustrated, and can’t focus, you’re not going to have much fun and you’re not going to achieve your goals.
In contrast, high confidence positively influences all of the other mental factors. Your self-talk is positive: “I’m going to give my best effort” or “I’m going to have a great race today.” Instead of being your worst enemy, you are your best ally. Your confidence and the positive self-talk get you feeling relaxed and energized. You have a lot of positive emotions like joy and excitement. You focus on things you need to perform your best. All of the positive thoughts and feelings motivate you to work hard and achieve your goals. If you’re thinking positively, feeling relaxed and energized, experiencing joy and excitement, and are focused on doing your best, you’re going to have a lot of fun and you’re going to be successful.
The Chicken or the Egg?
A question I’m often asked is, “Do you become confident by succeeding or do you succeed from being confident?” I believe that triathlon success comes from confidence. You don’t just go from 0% confidence to 100% confidence in one big step. Rather, it’s a building process, just like your fitness, in which confidence leads to success which reinforces the confidence which, in turn, leads to more success. For example, you may only have, say, 40% confidence in his ability to complete a half-Ironman that is 12 weeks away. By training hard and working on your triathlon skills, you confidence goes up to 60%. With your confidence you’re going to have greater focus and intensity in your training, which results in improved fitness. Your hard work and progress raise your confidence to 80%. Your improved preparation and greater confidence results in better endurance and speed in your training. Your increasing stamina and speed lifts your confidence to near 100% as the race nears, enabling you to go to the start confident that you will achieve your goals.
Confidence is a skill, much like physical skills, that can be learned. Just like with any type of skill, confidence is developed through practice and experience. If you don’t believe in yourself as a triathlete, you must take steps to build your confidence. The strategies described below will help you to steadily build your confidence as you approach a big race.
Preparation breeds confidence. Preparation is the foundation of confidence. If you believe that you have done everything you can to perform your best—put in the hours swimming, riding, and running—you will have confidence in your ability to achieve your goals. This preparation includes the physical, technical, tactical, and mental parts of triathlon. If you have developed these areas as fully as you can, when you get to the start line, you will have faith that you will be able to use your preparation to have your best race possible.
Mental skills reinforce confidence. Confidence is a skill that develops with practice. A meaningful way to strengthen your confidence is to use mental skills increase your belief in your ability to handle anything a triathlon can throw at you. These mental skills include goal setting to bolster motivation, intensity control to stay relaxed, keywords to maintain focus and avoid distractions, emotional control to stay calm when things aren’t going well, and pain control to combat discomfort at the end of a race.
Adversity ingrains confidence. One of the most demanding aspects of triathlon is the many types of adversity that you confront in races—cold water, surf, bumping against others in the swim, hills, headwinds, and flat tires on the bike, and sore legs, blisters, and fatigue on the run. Your biggest challenge is to maintain your confidence when you’re faced with adversity. To more deeply ingrain confidence in your ability, you should expose yourself to as much adversity as possible in training. Instead of avoiding swimming in cold water, riding when it’s windy, or running in the rain, you should seek out these opportunities, so when you get to the race and you have these conditions, you can say, “Been there, done that, no big deal.”
Support from others. Whether you belong to a triathlon club like the Golden Gate Triathlon Club, a formal training group, such as Team Sheeper, or you just train with friends, the social aspects of triathlon is one of its joys. It is also an important contributor to confidence. Training with triathletes who are positive and motivated is contagious. When other triathletes show confidence in you, you’re reminded of the progress you are making, it helps you through difficult times, and it reinforces your own growing confidence in yourself.
Success validates confidence. When most triathletes think about success, they think about having great races and reaching their competitive goals. But success starts in training. Every day you swim, ride, or run, you’re scoring little victories. With each of these small “wins,” your confidence steadily increases until you have the confidence to achieve a big “win.” After every training session, be sure to acknowledge the small victory—give yourself a pat on the back for your effort and remind yourself of the goal you are working toward—let them accumulate.
All of the previous steps in building confidence would go for naught if you did not then have a good race and achieve your triathlon goals. Success validates the confidence you’ve developed in your ability and fitness and shows that your belief is well-founded. These big “victories” further strengthen your confidence, making it more resilient to the frequent challenges you face in training and races. Finally, success rewards your efforts, encouraging you to continue to work hard and strive toward your triathlon goals.
Mind Over Body
All of your efforts to build your confidence are put to the test late in triathlons. At some point, your body begins to rebel, communicating to your mind, “I get the point! We can stop now.” You may think there is simply nothing left. Your mind and body will get into a battle over who’s in charge. If your body wins out, your mind will use negative self-talk as a weapon against your triathlon aspirations. If you say things like, “I can’t do this. It’s over,” your race is over; you will slow down or stop, and you will not achieve your goals.
But there is always something left (short of a Julie Moss experience)! The only chance you have to tap into that final reserve of energy is for your mind to win the battle over your body. Then you can use positive self-talk as a tool against fatigue and pain. If you can say, “Keep at it. This is what I’ve worked so hard for. I will not give up,” then your body will listen—however reluctantly—and you will cross the finish not only having succeeded against the course and the clock, but also having claimed victory over your greatest challenge—YOU—and there is no greater joy than that!
PRIME TRIATHLON: TRIUMPH OF THE TRI-MIND
Published in TeamSheeper Newsletter (2001-2002)
WHAT IS PRIME TRIATHLON?
I define Prime Triathlon, as “performing at a consistently high level under the most challenging conditions.” There are two essential words in this definition. The first key word is, “consistently.” I’m not interested if a triathlete can have a great swim leg, but poor riding and running legs or one outstanding race and a bunch of poor races. That is not enough to be truly successful. I want triathletes to be able to perform in training and races at a consistently high level day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out. Prime Triathlon means performing at a high level with only minimal ups and downs instead of the large swings in performance that are so common among triathletes. The second key word is, “challenging.” What makes the great triathletes successful is their ability to perform their best under the worst possible conditions against tough competition when they’re not performing their best. Rough, cold water on the swim and headwind and hills on the ride and run are some of the most familiar difficult conditions triathletes encounter.
Where does Prime Triathlon come from? Though I focus on its mental contributors, the mind is only one necessary part of Prime Triathlon. You must also be at a high level of physical health including being well-conditioned, well-rested, eating a balanced diet, and free from injury and illness. Prime Triathlon is also not possible if you’re not technically sound. Your technical skills must be well-learned and your tactics must be in place.
Let me describe some of the common experiences of Prime Triathlon. First, Prime Triathlon is effortless. Though no triathlon is easy, the overall experience of Prime Triathlon is surprisingly comfortable and natural. You don’t seem to have to try to do anything. Everything just flows. Prime Triathlon is also automatic. There’s little thought. The body does what it knows how to do and there’s no mental interference getting in the way. You also experience sharpened senses. You see, hear, and feel everything more acutely than normal. Prime Triathlon also has effortless focus. You’re totally absorbed in the experience and are focused entirely on the process. You have no distractions or unnecessary thoughts that interfere with performing your best. You have boundless energy and your “wall” seems to be much farther off than usual. Finally, you experience what I call prime integration. Everything is working together. The physical, technical, tactical, and mental aspects of triathlon are integrated into one path to Prime Triathlon.
TEN LAWS OF PRIME TRAINING
First Law: Prime Triathlon is not achieved on the day you compete, but rather in the days, weeks, and months before the competition. Many triathletes believe that if they’re ready to go on the day of the triathlon, then they are prepared to perform their best. But I have found that success is determined more by what you do in the days, weeks, and months leading up to the competition. If you’ve put in the time and effort to develop your physical, technical, tactical, and mental abilities, you will have the capabilities and the belief to perform your best on the day of the triathlon.
Second Law: Take responsibility for everything that impacts your triathlon performance. The only way that prime preparation can be achieved is if you know every area that influences your triathlon performance. These areas include all of the components of physical, technical, tactical, and mental preparation. If you address every one of these areas, you can be sure that when you get to the triathlon, you will be totally prepared to perform your best.
Third Law: Triathlon preparation is about the Grind. To be your best, you have to put a lot of time and effort into your training. I call this the Grind, which involves having to put hours upon hours of time into training, well beyond the point that it is fun and exciting. If you let these immediate negative aspects of your training override your long-term goals of working hard and putting in the time, your motivation is going to suffer and you’re not going to perform your best in the triathlon. You must love the grind!
Fourth Law: Prime Triathlon requires smart mileage. Training for a triathlon demands that you put in large amounts of mileage swimming, biking, and running. However, there can be a tendency among triathletes to believe that more is better. This attitude will cause overtraining, burnout, and injury. A well-planned triathlon training program will balance high mileage, quality mileage, and, most importantly, rest. The physical demands of an triathlon training program calls for smart training, not hard training.
Fifth Law: Patience and persistence are essential to achieving Prime Triathlon. Triathlon fitness takes time to develop and you will experience plateaus and down periods along the path to Prime Triathlon. You may become frustrated, impatient, and want to quit. If you let frustration and impatience overwhelm you, you will never achieve Prime Triathlon. If you understand that progress takes time and that there is no way to hurry the conditioning process, you will have the patience to achieve Prime Triathlon. Drawing on that patience, if you persist long enough in the face of setbacks and obstacles, the improvement will come and you will achieve Prime Triathlon.
Sixth Law: Prime preparation requires clear purpose, prime focus, and prime intensity. You must have a clear purpose that tells you what you’re doing in training every day. You must consistently maintain focus on your purpose during training. Your body must be physically capable of performing the purpose by being rested and healthy.
Seventh Law: Consistent training leads to consistent triathlon performance. Consistency is essential for Prime Triathlon and is one of the most important qualities that put the best triathletes above the rest. Consistency in an triathlon comes from consistency in training. Consistency relates to every aspects of triathlon training and life. In addition to the obvious areas such as conditioning, technique, and tactics, it also pertains to attitude, effort, focus, intensity, emotions, sleep, and diet. Any area that influences your performance must be consistent before you can be consistent in a competition.
Eighth Law: Failure is essential for Prime Triathlon. There can not be success without failure. Failure shows you what is not working. It means that you are moving out of your comfort zone. Failure means you are taking risks. Failure teaches you how to deal positively with adversity.
Ninth Law: Prime Triathlon comes from “one more thing, one more time.” You can assume that most of your competitors are working hard to become the best triathletes they can be. If you want to defeat them, you must ask yourself, “What can I do to get the edge over them?” Here is a simple rule I learned from an Olympic champion: “One more thing, one more time.” When you feel you have done enough, you should do one more lap, do one more set of weights, or do one more mile. By doing one more thing, one more time, you are doing that little bit extra that will separate you on the day of the competition. Note: This law needs to be balanced with the Fourth Law related to smart mileage.
Tenth Law: Prime preparation is devoted to readying yourself to perform your best under the most demanding conditions in the most important competition of your life. I’m not interested in you performing well in unimportant competitions, under ideal conditions, against a field that you know you can defeat. The ultimate goal of Prime Triathlon is for you perform your best when it really counts. Prime preparation will allow you to achieve Prime Triathlon in your equivalent of Ironman Hawaii.
One of the most difficult things about dealing with the mental side of triathlon is that its not tangible. Unlike physical conditioning where you can see yourself getting stronger by the amount of weight you=re lifting or technical training where you can see progress on video and on the clock, mental training can=t be directly seen or measured.
Prime Profiling helps you make your mental strengths and weaknesses more concrete. By having a better understanding of yourself mentally, you can more clearly specify the areas you need to work on. I have identified 12 mental and emotional factors that are important to triathlon success. To create your Prime Profile, rate yourself on a one to ten scale for each of the 12 factors listed below.
Motivation – How determined you are to train and race to achieve your competitive goals (1-not at all; 10-very). Confidence – How positive or negative is your self-talk in training and races (1-very negative; 10-very positive). Intensity – Whether your physical intensity helps (relaxed and energized) or hurts (get too nervous) your race performances (1-hurts, anxious; 10-helps, relaxed). Focus – How well you’re able to stay focused on performing your best and avoid distractions that hurt your performing (1-distracted; 10-focused). Emotions – Whether you lose control of your emotions and they hurt your races or you have control over your emotions and they help you perform well (1-lose control, hurt; 10-have control, help). Consistency – How well you’re able to maintain a high level of performance in races and throughout the season (1-very inconsistent; 10-very consistent). Routines – How much you use routines in your preparations including in training and before races (1-never; 10-often). Competitor – How you perform in races as compared to training (1-not as well; 10-better). Adversity – How you respond to difficulties you’re faced at races with such as bad weather or tough course conditions (1-poorly; 10-well). Pressure – How you perform in important races (1-poorly; 10-well). Ally – Whether you are your best ally or your worst enemy at races (1-enemy; 10-ally). Prime Triathlon – How often you achieve and maintain your highest level of race performance (1-never; 1- often).
Having completed the Prime Profile, you now have a clear description of your mental skills in triathlon. Scores below a 7 indicate areas that you need to work on. Write down the factors that you need to address, set goals related to improvement in those areas, and decide how you will develop the areas. Then consistently work on them until you have strengthened them.
Much like physical testing, take the Prime Profile every few months to see your progress. With time and effort, you can develop your mental strengths and alleviate your weaknesses so you can achieve Prime Triathlon.
PRIME TRIATHLON PERSPECTIVES ON COMPETITION
Triathlon is obviously important to you. You put a great deal of effort into your triathlon participation. Because of this, you put your ego on the line every time you get to the starting line. When you don’t perform well, you’re disappointed. This may not feel good, but it’s natural because it means you care about your triathlon.
There is, however, a point at which you can lose perspective and your feelings toward your racing can hurt your performances. The key warning signal of this overinvolvement is “too.” When you care too much, when it is too important to you, when you try too hard, when you press too much, then you have lost perspective.
In this “too” situation, triathletes’ investment in their training and racing is so great that it is no longer enjoyable. If you find yourself feeling this way, you should reevaluate what your triathlon participation means to you and how it impacts your life and your happiness. You will probably find that it plays too big a role in how you feel about yourself. When this happens, you not only perform poorly and have worse results, but you may find that triathlon is no longer fun.
To have fun and perform your best, you need to keep your triathlon participation in perspective. It may be important to you, but it should not be life or death. What is important is that you have a balanced view of triathlon. Remember why you participate; it’s fun, it feels great to push your limits, and, yes, you like to compete and achieve your goals. The Prime Triathlon view of competition means keeping your triathlon in perspective. If you have fun, work hard, enjoy the process of triathlon, and do not care too much about winning and losing, you will enjoy triathlon more, you will perform better, and you will have better results as well
DEVELOPING PRIME MOTIVATION
Motivation is the foundation of Prime Triathlon. Without your desire and determination to improve your triathlon performances, everything else is meaningless. To become the best triathlete you can be, you must be motivated to do what it takes to maximize your ability.
Focus on your long-term goals. To be your best, you have to put a lot of time and effort into your triathlon. But all of that time and effort is not always enjoyable. I call this the Grind, which involves having to put hours upon hours of time into training, well beyond the point that it is fun and exciting. During those times, focus on your long-term goals. Remind yourself why you’re working so hard. Imagine exactly what you want to accomplish and tell yourself that the only way you’ll be able to reach your goals is to go through the Grind. Remember that the physical pain you may feel in training doesn’t come close to the emotional pain you will feel when you don’t achieve your goals because you weren’t well prepared.
Have a training partner. It’s difficult to be highly motivated all of the time on your own. There are going to be some days when you don’t feel like getting out there. A training partner is someone who can push you through those motivational lows. The chances are that on any given day one of you will be motivated. Even if you’re not very psyched to train on a particular day, you will still put in the time and effort because your partner is counting on you.
Focus on greatest competitor. Another way to keep yourself motivated is to focus on your greatest competitor. I have triathletes identify who their biggest competition is and put his or her name or photo where they can see it every day. Ask yourself, “Am I working as hard as him/her?” Remember that only by working your hardest will you have a chance to overcome your greatest competitor.
Set goals. There are few things more rewarding and motivating than setting a goal, putting effort toward the goal, and achieving the goal. The sense of accomplishment and validation of the effort motivates you to strive higher. You should set clear goals of what you want to accomplish in your triathlon and how you will achieve those goals.
Daily questions. Every day, you should ask yourself two questions. When you get up in the morning, ask, “What can I do today to become the best triathlete I can be?” and before you go to sleep, ask, “Did I do everything possible today to become the best triathlete I can be?”
The heart of motivation. Motivation is not something that can be given to you. Motivation must ultimately come from within. You must simply want to train and compete. You should train because you love to challenge yourself and push your limits. You should compete because you have a great passion for triathlon. You should race because you just love to get out there and do it.
PROGRESSION OF PRIME CONFIDENCE
The ultimate goal of prime confidence is to develop a strong and resilient belief in your ability as a triathlete to give your best effort, perform at your highest level, and achieve your goals. I have identified four steps that are required to develop prime confidence.
Preparation breeds confidence. Preparation is the foundation of confidence. If you believe that you have done everything you can to perform your best, you will have confidence in your ability to perform well. This preparation includes the physical, technical, tactical, and mental parts of triathlon. If you have developed these areas as fully as you can, you will have faith that you will be able to use those abilities gained from preparation to have your best race possible.
Mental skills reinforce confidence. Confidence is a skill that develops with practice. A meaningful way to strengthen your confidence is to use mental skills that provide repetition of the confidence. These mental skills include goal setting to bolster motivation, positive self-talk to fortify confidence, intensity control to combat anxiety, keywords to maintain focus and avoid distractions, and emotional control to stay calm when things aren’t going well.
Adversity ingrains confidence. Your biggest challenge is to maintain your belief in yourself when you’re faced with adversity. To more deeply ingrain confidence in your ability, you should expose yourself to as much adversity as possible. Adversity can involve anything that makes you uncomfortable and takes you out of your comfort zone. Adversity can include bad weather, poor course conditions, or difficult terrain.
Success validates confidence. All of the previous steps in building prime confidence would go for naught if you did not then perform well and achieve your goals in triathlons. Success validates the confidence you have developed in your ability. It demonstrates that your belief in your ability is well-founded. Success further strengthens your confidence, making it more resilient in the face of adversity and poor races. Finally, success rewards your efforts to build confidence, encouraging you to continue to work hard and strive toward your triathlon goals.
VICIOUS CYCLE OR UPWARD SPIRAL
Confidence is the single most important mental factor in triathlon. Not only does confidence impact your triathlon directly (you may fully capable of achieving your triathlon goals, but if you don’t believe you have that ability, you won’t use that ability), it also affects every other mental factor. To help illustrate this influence of confidence, think back to a time when you didn’t have confidence in your triathlon. You probably got caught in a vicious cycle of low confidence and performance in which negative thinking led to poor performance, which led to more negative thinking and even poorer performance, until your confidence was so low that you don’t even want to race.
This vicious cycle usually starts with a bad leg of a triathlon or a few bad races. These can lead to negative thinking and self-talk. “I’m terrible. I can’t do this. I don’t have a chance. I can’t perform well today” You are becoming your own worst enemy.
You start to get nervous before a triathlon because you believe you will do poorly. All of that anxiety hurts your confidence even more because you feel physically bad and you can’t perform well when you’re so uptight. The negative self-talk and anxiety causes negative emotions. You feel frustrated, angry, depressed, and helpless, all of which hurt your confidence more and cause you to perform even worse.
The negative self-talk, anxiety, and emotions then hurt your focus. You focus on all of the negative things rather than on things that will enable you to have a good race. All of this accumulated negativity hurts your motivation. As bad as you feel, the last thing you want to do is race a triathlon. If you’re thinking negatively, caught in a vicious cycle, feeling nervous, depressed, and frustrated, and can’t focus, you’re not going to have much fun and you’re not going to have a good triathlon.
In contrast to those times when you have had low confidence, recall when you have been really confident. Your self-talk is positive. “I’m a good triathlete. I am feeling strong. I can have a good race today.” Instead of being your worst enemy, you’re your best ally.
With the positive self-talk, rather than being dragged down into the vicious cycle, you begin an upward spiral of high confidence and performance in which positive thinking leads to better performance, which leads to more positive thinking and even better performance.
All of the positive talk gets you feeling relaxed and energized before and during the race. You have a lot of positive emotions such as happiness, joy and excitement. You focus on things you need to perform your best. Racing is actually an enjoyable experience for you.
All of the positive thoughts and feelings motivate you to race. If you’re thinking positively, riding an upward spiral, feeling relaxed and energized, experiencing happiness and excitement, and are focused on performing your best, you’re going to have a lot of fun and you’re going to have a great triathlon.
MEET THE CONFIDENCE CHALLENGE
The real test of confidence is how you respond when things are not going your way. I call this the Confidence Challenge. It’s easy to stay confident when you’re healthy and well-rested, have been training well, and the conditions are ideal. But an inevitable part of triathlon is that you will get over-trained occasionally, be a little sick or injured, and be faced with difficult race conditions. What separates the best from the rest is that the best triathletes are able to maintain their confidence when everything is going against them. By staying confident, they continue to work hard rather than give up because they know that when they aren’t at their best, they can still be competitive and have a good race.
All triathletes will go through periods where they’re not at their best. Most triathletes when they don’t feel good before a race or start a race poorly lose their confidence and get caught in the vicious cycle of low confidence and poor performance. Once they slip into that downward spiral, they rarely can get out of it. In contrast, triathletes who meet the Confidence Challenge maintain their confidence and figure out a way to stay motivated and focused, and to have the best race they can.
The Confidence Challenge can be thought of as a Prime Triathlon skill that can be developed. Learning to respond positively to the Confidence Challenge comes from exposing yourself to demanding situations and difficult conditions in training and races and practicing positive responses.
There are several key aspects of mastering the Confidence Challenge. First, you need to develop the attitude that demanding situations are challenges to be sought out rather than threats to be avoided. When you’re faced with a Confidence Challenge you need to believe that experiencing challenges is a necessary part of becoming the best triathlete and an opportunity to take your triathlon to the next level. You have to realize that, at first, these challenges are going to be uncomfortable because they are difficult and unfamiliar. As you expose yourself to more challenges, they will become less threatening and more comfortable.
With this perspective, you should seek out every possible challenge in training and races. Be sure you’re well-prepared to meet the challenges. You can’t master the Confidence Challenge if you don’t have the preparation to do so. Stay positive and motivated in the face of the difficulties. Don’t allow yourself to be sucked into the vicious cycle. Then, focus on what you need to do to overcome the challenge rather than on how difficult it may be or how you may fail. Also, accept that you may not fully succeed when faced with a challenge for the first time. Don’t take this as a failure, but rather as an experience you can learn from to overcome the difficulties next time. Finally, and most importantly, never, ever give up!
RED FLAGS FOR BAD INTENSITY
Bad intensity—physical changes that hurt your triathlon—produces a wide variety of physical and mental “red flags” that can help you recognize when your intensity is too high or too low. By being aware of these signs, you can know when you’re not at prime intensity and can take steps to reach that ideal level.
Overintensity. Muscle tension and breathing difficulties are the most common signs of overintensity. Most triathletes indicate that when they’re too intense, they feel tension in their shoulders and legs, which happen to be the two most important physical areas for triathlon. For example, if a triathlete’s shoulders are tense, his swim stroke will be shortened, and less smooth and efficient.
Many triathletes also report that their breathing becomes short and choppy when they get nervous. This restriction in breathing means that they’re not getting enough oxygen into their system so they will tire quickly. I’ve also found that the smoothness of triathletes’ movements tends to mirror their breathing. If their breathing is long and smooth, their swimming stroke, pedal cadence, and running stride are fluid too. If their breathing is abrupt and choppy, their movements in the water, on the bike, and running are uneven too.
Triathletes who are overly intense often exhibit poor posture. Muscle tension causes their shoulders to rise and their body to close up. This change in posture is especially noticeable on the ride and run. Triathletes also often look rushed and frantic in the start and transition areas. They are moving so fast that they are actually slowing rather than accelerating their transitions.
Overintensity hurts triathletes mentally as well. Anxiety lowers confidence and causes doubts in ability. The physical and mental discomfort produces negative emotions such as frustration and despair. The anxiety, doubts, and negative emotions hurt focus by drawing triathletes’ attention away from performing their best and onto how badly they feel.
Underintensity. Though not as common, triathletes can also experience underintensity before races. Most often due to a lack of motivation to race, fatigue, or overconfidence, the most frequent symptoms of underintensity are low energy and lethargy. Triathletes lack the adrenaline they need to give their best effort. Though not as discomforting as overintensity, underintensity hurts as much because triathletes lack the physical requisites such as endurance and strength to meet the demands of a race.
Mentally, underintensity undermines motivation. Triathletes just don’t feel like being out there. The lack of interest caused by too low intensity also impairs their focus because they’re easily distracted and have difficulty staying focused on performing their best.
PSYCH-DOWN FOR PRIME TRIATHLON
When you’re in a triathlon, it’s natural for your intensity to go up and for you to feel nervous. If you want to perform your best, you have to take active steps to get your intensity back to its prime level. There are several simple techniques you can use to help you get your intensity back under control.
Deep breathing. The most basic way to lower your intensity is to take control of your breathing again by focusing on taking slow, deep breaths. Deep breathing ensures that you get enough oxygen so your body can function well. By getting more oxygen into your body, you will relax, feel better, and you will have a greater sense of control. This increased comfort will increase your confidence, calm you, and improve your focus. Deep breathing should be a big part of your pre-race routine and during the three legs of the triathlon. If you focus on taking deep breaths regularly throughout your race, you ensure that your body is relaxed and comfortable, and you’re focused on something that will help you have your best triathlon you can.
Muscle relaxation. The most common sign of overintensity is muscle tension. This is the most crippling physical symptom because if your muscles are tight and stiff, you won’t be able to swim, ride, or run your best. Similar to deep breathing, muscle relaxation is beneficial because it allows you to regain control of your body and to make you feel more comfortable physically. It also offers the same mental and emotional advantages as does deep breathing. There are two muscle relaxation techniques you can use to relax your muscles.
Passive relaxation involves focusing on tense muscles and allowing them to relax. Take a deep breath and feel your muscles relaxing as you exhale. Active relaxation is used when your body is very tense and you can’t relax your muscles with passive relaxation. Instead of trying to relax your muscles, tighten them more, then release them. Active relaxation typically involves tightening and relaxing different muscle groups. When you feel tension in a part of your body, tighten those muscles for five seconds, then relax them. Take a deep breath, then repeat. As you go through the active relaxation, focus on the differences between tension and relaxation and be aware of how you are able to induce a greater feeling of relaxation.
Process focus. One of the primary causes of overintensity is focusing on the outcome of the triathlon. If you’re worried about how you will perform, you’re bound to get nervous. To reduce the anxiety caused by an outcome focus, redirect your focus onto the process. Ask yourself, what do I need to do to have a good race? This process focus can include paying attention to pace, hydration, nutrition, or technique. Or it might involve focusing on mental skills such as positive thinking or the psych-down strategies I am currently describing. You can also shift your focus onto your breathing which will take your mind off of the outcome and will directly relax your body by providing more oxygen to your system.
Smile. The last technique for lowering intensity is one of the strangest and most effective I’ve ever come across: Smile! As we grow up, we become conditioned to the positive effects of smiling. In other words, we learn that when we smile, it means we’re happy and life is good. Second, brain research has found that when we smile, it releases brain chemicals called endorphines which have an actual physiologically relaxing effect. When you are feeling too intense, simply hold a smile on your face. In a short time, you will feel yourself relaxing and feeling better.
DEVELOPING PRIME FOCUS
Developing focus control is essential if you want to achieve Prime Triathlon. Being able to focus on things that will help you perform your best and avoid distractions that hurt your performances are critical to achieving your triathlon goals. There are several simple strategies you can use to ensure that you are focused on what you need to perform your best.
The eyes have it. We obtain most of our information about the world through our eyes. The most direct way to develop prime focus is to control our eyes. If you want to minimize the external distractions during training and before and during races, keep your eyes down and focused on your equipment, your pre-race preparations, and your race efforts. If you’re distracted by something, either look away or turn away from it. If you’re not looking at something, it can’t distract you.
If you find that you’re thinking too much or being negative or critical, raise your eyes and look around you. For example, watch the triathletes around you or talk to other triathletes with whom you are riding or running. By looking around, you’ll be distracted from your thoughts, you’ll be able to clear your mind, and then you can narrow your focus back to the race.
Outcome vs. process focus. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to prime focus is having an outcome focus before a race. Outcome focus involves focusing on the possible results of a race: winning, losing, rankings, or who you might defeat or lose to. Many triathletes believe that by focusing on the outcome they’re more likely to achieve that outcome. What most triathletes don’t realize is that having an outcome focus actually hurts performance and makes it less likely that they will perform well. With an outcome focus, triathletes are no longer focusing on things that will help them do their best. The way to achieve the desired outcome of a triathlon is to focus on the process of the race. Process focus means focusing on aspects of the race that will enable you to perform your best, for example, pace, technique, tactics, or intensity.
Focus on what you can control. A major focusing problem I see with many triathletes is that they focus on things over which they have no control. Triathletes worry about their competition, the weather, or the conditions, to name a few things outside of triathletes control. This focus has no value because they can’t change those things. This kind of focus hurts performance because it lowers confidence and causes worry and anxiety. It also distracts triathletes from what they need to focus on. The fact is, there’s only one thing that triathletes can control, and that is themselves, for example, their thoughts, intensity, technique, and tactics.
Three P’s. I have a general rule you can follow that will help you identify what kinds of things you should focus on in a triathlon. The first P is positive; focus on positive things that will help you race and avoid negative things that will hurt it. The second P is process; focus on what you need to do to perform your best. The third P is present; focus on what you need to do right now to perform well, not on the past or future.
DESIGNING A PRE-RACE ROUTINE
Routines develop consistency in all areas that impact triathlon. By consistently going through your routine, you train your mind and body to respond the same way regardless of the situation. At the same time, consistency does not mean rigidity. Routines are flexible. They can be adjusted to different situations that arise, for example, a delay in the start of a triathlon. Flexibility in routines means you won’t be surprised or stressed by changes that occur during your preparations. Flexibility means you will be better able to perform your best in a wider range of race situations and conditions. The goal of routines is to ensure that when you enter the water, you’re totally physically, technically, tactically, and mentally prepared to perform your best.
The first step in designing a pre-race routine is to make a list of everything you need to do before a triathlon to be prepared. Some of the common elements you should include are meals, transition area set-up, physical warm-up, equipment check, and mental preparation. Other more personal things that might go into a pre-race routine include going to the bathroom and using mental imagery.
Then, decide in what order you want to do the components of your list as you approach the start of the triathlon. In doing this, consider race activities that might need to be taken into account. For instance, how long it takes to register and the length of time it takes to set up your transition area can influence when you accomplish different parts of your pre-race routine.
Next, specify where each step of your routine can best be completed. You should use your knowledge of race sites at which you often perform to figure this part out. For example, if you like to be alone before a triathlon, is there a place near the start where you can get away from people?
Finally, establish a time frame and a schedule for completing your routine. In other words, how much time do you need to get totally prepared? Some triathletes like to get to the start only a short time before their start. Others like to arrive well advance. All of these decisions are personal. You need to find out what works best for you.
Once your pre-race routine is organized, try it out at triathlons. Some things may work and others may not. In time, you’ll fine-tune your routine until you find the one that’s most comfortable and best prepares you for a race. Lastly, remember, pre-race routines only have value if they’re used consistently. If you use your routine before every triathlon, in a short time, you won’t even have to think about doing it. Your pre-race routine will simply be what you do before each race and it will ensure that you are totally prepared to perform your best.
MAXIMIZE YOUR PRIME TRIATHLON IMAGERY
Triathlon imagery is perhaps the most powerful mental skill you can develop to help you achieve Prime Triathlon. There are four factors that will impact the quality of your triathlon imagery: perspective, control, multiple sense, and speed. You can develop each of these areas so you can get the most out of your triathlon imagery.
Imagery perspective. Imagery perspective refers to where the “imagery camera” is when you do triathlon imagery. The internal perspective involves seeing yourself from inside your body looking out, as if you were actually performing. The imagery camera is inside your head looking out through your eyes. The external perspective involves seeing yourself from outside your body like on video. The imagery camera follows you from the outside. Research indicates that one perspective is not better than the other. Most people have a dominant perspective with which they’re most comfortable. You should use the perspective that’s most natural for you and then experiment with the other perspective to see if it helps you in a different way.
Control. Have you ever been doing triathlon imagery and you keep making mistakes, for example, while imagining yourself swimming, the water feels thick like molasses or while imagining yourself running, your feet stick to the road? This problem relates to imagery control, which is how well you’re able to imagine what you want to imagine. It’s not uncommon for triathletes to perform poorly in their imagery. If bad images occur in your imagery, you shouldn’t just let them go by. If you do, you’ll ingrain the negative image and feeling which will hurt your confidence. Instead, when you perform poorly in your imagery, immediately rewind the “imagery video” and edit it and rerun the imagery video until you see yourself performing well.
Multiple senses. Good triathlon imagery is more than just visual. The best imagery involves the multi-sensory reproduction of the actual triathlon experience. You should duplicate the sights, sounds, physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions that you would experience in an actual triathlon. Visual imagery involves how clearly you see yourself performing, for instance, seeing yourself having a fast transition. Vivid auditory images are important because sounds can play an important part in triathlon, for example, the sound of your breathing during the run. The most powerful part of triathlon imagery is feeling it in your body. That’s how you really ingrain new skills and habits. To improve the feeling of your imagery, focus on the movement of your muscles as you imagine yourself in each leg of a triathlon.
Speed. The ability to adjust the speed of your imagery will enable you to use triathlon imagery to improve different aspects of your performances. Slow motion is effective for focusing on technique. When you first start to work on technique in your imagery, slow the imagery video down, frame by frame if necessary, to see yourself executing the skills correctly. Then, as you see and feel yourself performing well in slow motion, increase the speed of your imagery until you can perform well at “real-time” speed.
LESSONS FROM THE WORLD’S BEST TRIATHLETES
I have been fortunate to have worked with and spoken to many world-class triathletes over the years. Whenever I am with one of these triathletes, I ask them what lessons they have learned that have enabled them to reach the highest level of triathlon.
Perform to the best of your ability. In any given triathlon, you may not be at your best. You may not be fully prepared due to fatigue, illness, injury, or any number of reasons. An important lesson is that you can’t always perform your best. Many times, before a race, triathletes just don’t feel very good, and know they’re not going to have a good race. Because they’re not going to be at 100%, they, in essence, throw in the towel before the race even begins. However, you don’t have to perform your best to have a good experience and learn from the triathlon. So, you must learn to do your best with what you have on that given day. For example, if you’re only at 80%, perform at the full 80%. That may still be enough for you to have a good triathlon.
KISS. Triathlon is really pretty simple. Whoever goes the fastest wins the race. Yet, triathletes can make triathlon complicated by trying to do too many things. A rule to follow is the KISS principle. Most triathletes know the KISS principle as “keep it simple stupid,” but I believe it should be “keep it simple SMART!” When things aren’t going well, you might think too much and try to find some complex solution to the problem. This approach usually just makes it worse. Your goal should be to focus on a few things and do them to the best of your ability. In fact, on race day, the simplest of the KISS principle you should focus on is this: Give your best effort.
Expect it to be hard. Whether a sprint distance or an Ironman, there is no such thing as an easy Triathlon. Every race is hard. Triathlons should be difficult. That is what makes them so much fun and rewarding. They should be physically demanding, test your technical and tactical capabilities, and show you what you are made of mentally and emotionally. If you expect it to be hard, then there will be no surprises. If you have a bad swim, that is part of triathlon. If you fight as hard as you can and still don’t have a personal best, well, you can still feel good for having given your best effort. If you expect it to be hard, you will prepare yourself physically and mentally for the demands of triathlon.
Win the mental race. When you begin a race, you actually compete in two races. You compete against other triathletes and the course in the actual race. You also compete against yourself in the mental race. To win the mental race, you have to be your best ally rather than your worst enemy by staying positive all the time. Another key is to never give up. Remember what happens when you give up; you automatically lose. Two essential mental skills are to stay relaxed and focused throughout the race. Without these two Prime Triathlon skills, you will not be physically or mentally capable of having your best triathlon.