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Racer’s mindset: mental prep for triathletes

On race day, it’s often the competitor with the stronger mental approach that reaches his or her goals and dreams. Your mind can be your biggest asset or your worst enemy. Embrace the concept that you have the power to train your mind as you train your muscles. It simply takes observation, practice and a desire to change what is not working . What are the messages you tell yourself? Are they positive and helpful or negative and detrimental? How can you change that message and change your performance?

Whether your goals are to finish first or “not finish last”, the following tips are applicable to all levels of triathletes:

Goal setting and achievement. There are many levels of goals all depend on what is important to you. Whatever your goals, set them for the short and long term: daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. Write them down and revisit them often. The goals you set begin the process of visualization. Remind yourself how much you want them and how hard you’re willing to work to achieve them. Once you’ve written down your goals, go back and make sure that you have both process (ex: focusing on a strong arm pull in the swim) and outcome (specific finish places, times or qualification) goals

 You have the power to choose your thoughts. Many athletes wrongly assume that the mental aspects of performance are innate and unchangeable. In reality, systematic mental training can have a similar impact on performance as physical workouts. Choosing your thoughts and attitudes can make or break your race experience and result. When negative, powerless thoughts arise simply flip the switch.

Train your brain as you train your muscles. Triathlon is a sport of repetitive motion. On the swim, bike and run, you repeat the same motion over and over again. But it takes millions of these repetitions to improve. The same concept applies to mental skills acquisition. The more you practice, the more you strengthen your mind and attitude.

Be courageous. Courage: “I was afraid, but I did it anyway”. This is my favorite definition of courage. We all face fears. It’s up to you if the fear wins or your dreams and goals win on race day.

Race day mindset. Show up on race day with a competitor’s mindset. This is crucial for both top performance and completion goals in triathlon. Plan to have a great race.

Control. You may not be able to control what confronts or challenges you on race day, but by training the mind, you can control your reaction to those variables. Uncertainty is a common anxiety trigger and is inherent in all triathlons. The key is to control the things you can control but not to waste energy on things you can’t control. The one thing you can control is your own preparation, so this should have your full attention and focus. By developing consistent routines and ways of coping with distractions, uncertainty can be reduced and you are less likely to be negatively impacted by external factors. Distractions and challenges can occur at any time. They don’t have to negatively influence your mood or focus if you learn to let them go and refocus.

Refocus. Distractions occur constantly at the race site: friends, family, environmental conditions, last minute course changes, delays, irrelevant or unhelpful thoughts, coaches, teammates, opponents’ comments, etc.   Learn to clear your mind, remove yourself from these distractions and refocus on your tasks and routines.

Emotions, both negative and positive, influence mood states. In the pre-race timeframe, days or hours before the race, triathletes become excited and nervous as the body readies itself for competition. The key to achieving an appropriate mindset is to analyze the changes in your mood state and channel your emotions in a positive direction. Practicing this on a regular basis creates a new normal in your thought and emotional process.

Strategy to deal with pre-performance stress. Even the most experienced and accomplished triathletes get nervous. It.’s your interpretation of physiological changes and emotional triggers that directs your emotional response. If you experience negative thoughts and fears in the days leading up to your race or the morning of, know that you can change them.  Create a new response to any negative thoughts or emotions that arise. Observe those thoughts or emotions let them flow, but not stick. Replace them with positive, powerful messages that will flip the switch on your mindset. Visualize yourself performing well, bringing up images of when you had a good race, workout performance or goal achievement process.

Challenge the belief that emotions and mood states are simply reactions to external events. In fact, you have considerable control in this area. Simple acts such as changing location or listening to music help you control your response to stress triggers; both of these strategies can be either calming or stimulating, depending on what you need. Everyone has their unique coping response. The key is to find coping responses that are automated and can be consistently applied in changing circumstances.

Specific mental preparation routines & visualization. Rehearse in your mind what you are going to do during an event, your desired process, good technique application and outcomes and various scenarios (what could happen during a race and how you would deal with any challenges that come up). Using imagery, a form of visualization, that includes an all sensory experience: kinesthetic sense, emotions, sounds and smells increases the positive impact. Imagery is a powerful technique as the brain interprets the imagined scenarios very literally and can positively influence confidence and execution.

Positivity. Positive self-talk, positive thinking, positive self-statements (affirmations or mantras) have a strong impact on physical performance. An affirmation such as: “ I have trained hard and am in great shape”, or “I have prepared to the best of my ability” work by occupying our attention and then changes our belief system over time. Then we begin to focus our attention on events that reinforce our belief system that we are achieving our goals and dreams. Negative perceptions are then tuned out.

Importance of warm up. The warm up can be important as both a physical and a psychological preparation. By developing a regular warm up routine, you can decrease uncertainty as you direct your attention to preparing your body to meet the physical demands of the competition. Your warm up routine can be systematically designed to promote optimal functioning in the final few minutes before performance.

More on optimal pre-race triathlon warm up routines in my next blog post.

Interested in learning more about your mental preparation?  I have a mental skills inventory and assessment tool I use with my athletes. Please contact me if you’d like to learn more about your mindset, both strengths and weaknesses.