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How to prepare mentally for the challenges of triathlon

Try using some of these psychological techniques to maximise your race performance

There’s nothing more frustrating than *almost* winning. You’ve clocked up the hours and the miles, got the kit, timed your taper just right… but the big day ends in a big fat choke.

Whether it’s coping with difficult weather conditions, the anxieties of your first race or a particular challenging course, mental toughness can be the difference between seizing that win and just missing the podium, between a result you can be proud of and a DNF. Whatever your level, psychological strategies could be the factor to bring the performance breakthroughs you need.

“You can be the fittest person in the race,” says Joey Johnson from US mental performance consultancy Worthy to Win Mindset Development, “but if you’re mentally unstable then you don’t have a solid foundation to rely on.”

We look at some of the techniques you can use to get your head right come race day…

Preparation is all

Having confidence in your training and knowing how well you deal with the course and conditions that day will help you maintain a stable mind throughout the race. Having worked alongside athletes from Olympic level to amateur, Johnson knows how important finding the right mindset is.

One amateur triathlete he coached found that “as soon as I began training and helping her develop better mindset habits, her physical ability began to improve. She began shedding layers of fear and doubt off and she was able to see her potential to be worthy to win.”

Runner at Ironman Frankfurt

Visualisation

“Take 10-15 minutes a day to visualise where your current state is and where you hope to be one day,” suggests Johnson. “Start listing what is holding you back from moving towards your future state. Begin to visualise you accomplishing your goals, wins, breakthroughs and successes. Then open your eyes and make those successes a reality.” 

Picture yourself at your event: imagine your nerves, doubts and even your self-sabotaging thoughts. “Think of when you feel most vulnerable or when you usually choke and start to let down your game. Then put those fears behind you and imagine you pulling through that desired win.” Easier said than done? Try it out and see what happens.

Challenge your weaknesses

Working with US Olympic triathlete Michael Smedley, Johnson instilled some habit forming principles that over time became instinctive, particularly to challenge his weaknesses. "Together we created a mental strategy that helped prepare him for the rigours of his weakest of three disciplines,” says Johnson, resulting in far more consistency across his race.

“The smallest improvements are the largest victories when it comes to your mindset because changing the way you process defeat, fears and self-doubt will inevitably change your results.”

Athlete racing at Ironman Frankfurt

Going long

For the longer distances in triathlon, mental and emotional growth in particular is where you are likely to succeed. Starting the race calm, with a positive mindset and a clear outline of your goals, may be just the thing to save your race when it gets tough and the pain starts to set in (usually the point when a devil and an angel appear on each shoulder whispering into your ears).

Pushing through pain

An Israeli study found that triathletes might experience pain in a different way to others, concluding that “it’s possible that through their intensive training, triathletes may have taught their bodies to better suppress pain stimuli.” Another study found that “training for long-distance triathlons improves your mental toughness”, making you more resilient and confident in your own ability. The more discomfort you can take, the longer and harder you can swim, cycle and run. 

Another factor is your previous exposure to suffering. GB triathlete Jack Billingham, for example, throughout his life has been in and out of hospital suffering with Addison’s disease and a chronic salt deficiency. “After coming out of hospital, one of the most difficult tasks was climbing the stairs,” says Jack.

“Three years on, I have represented Great Britain in a European age-group event, I was the first British age-grouper to finish Ocean Lava Triathlon in Lanzarote, and I race other sprint and standard-distance triathlon with the hopes of competing a 70.3 next year.”

The touchstone of Jack’s achievements is that the pain he feels in a race is “nothing” compared to the pain he felt when he was ill and in hospital. 

Training at a high intensity to reach your pain threshold, and then working with it and through it, building up your coping mechanisms, will pay dividends on race day.

Gwen Jorgensen

As world champion Gwen Jorgensen recently told 220, “My coach Jamie always says you can’t let feelings dictate outcome, and the chances of you feeling great during a race, especially one that you target, are slim and it is something you work on in training to push through the pain.”

(Images: Mariano Kamp / Frankie Fouganthin / Getty Images)

What mental techniques do you find most helpful for race day? Let us know in the comments!


 
 

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