In triathlon there’s a plethora of problems that can unsettle your racing harmony: the darkness of open water, dangerous descents on the bike and blowing up on the run, to name but three.
That’s why we’ve gathered together three masterful multisport performers to offer you mental strategies and techniques for faster racing and better training. Representing the coaching brethren is Australian Darren Smith, who delivered five women to the 2012 Olympic start line, including silver medallist Lisa Norden; Tamsin Lewis is one of the UK’s finest 70.3 athletes who recently retired from the professional ranks. One of her greatest triumphs, however, came at longer distance, Lewis romping to the Ironman UK 2014 title.
She also leads a double-life as a doctor, specialising in psychiatry – making her the ideal protagonist to uncover the power of the mind. Finally we have Dr Victor Thompson, a London-based sports psychologist and triathlete who’s regularly raced for his country.
All three will help you to refine your racing performance by providing solutions to common triathlon problems. But please note: what follows can transform your racing but it’s not a miracle cure. You still need to train – and train consistently
Training goes well – in fact, better than ever – but, come race morning, you’re an absolute wreck. Nerves are firing all over the place and you feel like you’ve consumed a gallon of espresso. By the time you enter the water you’re mentally exhausted.
Victor Thompson: This is normal and happens to most of us, so it’s not something to avoid or a signifier of impending doom. You have hopes and fears. That means one thing: the race is important to you.
Focus your attention on something more productive, like quality training sessions that you conquered and relevant races. If you haven’t raced triathlon before, no worries – recall similar positive races like 5km runs or swimming galas. If you’re an experienced triathlete, focus on cracking swims you’ve had, removing yourself from the stress and turning it round to a positive.
You place far too much focus on how confident you are on the morning of a race. Consequently, it dictates your end performance far too much.
Darren Smith: When I coached in Scotland [Darren was head coach between 2000 and 2005] so many athletes told me they lacked confidence. ‘Give me some confidence,’ they’d ask me.
I’d say that’s rubbish – you can either do it or you can’t. Mostly they weren’t competent about one aspect or another of their performance. But rather than working on a weakness, they’d try and instil this false confidence that’s shallow
and came to the fore at race time. It’s stupid. The fact is they weren’t very good. So I improved their competence.
Athletes need to demonstrate to themselves that they can do it. Normally training is the best opportunity for this – maybe a key session with a regular group of training partners. Maybe have a few more people watching, too, as it’s a great place to showcase what you’ve been practising.
Ultimately, we’re talking about an anxiety relative to your skillset. We can quantify how fast you need to ride and how fast you need to swim. But people have anxieties about how well prepared they are; it’s really quite a subjective issue.
So anxiety is the difference between the outcome goal – what level you need to run – and what you perceive your current level to be. And some negative b*stards see their current level as being low. They’re the ones who are really nervous, anxious and the like. Sometimes subjectivity gets in the way of objectivity, and that creates anxiety. But if you’ve done it before in training, what’s the big deal in a race?
You arrive at race HQ and waves are forging through the body of water. This isn’t what you expected and you’re thrown. Big time.
VT: You’ve got a problem if you’re trying to predict how you want it to be. You can’t control the weather. So yes, you may think about how you want it to be, but it’s also good to think how it might be and how you’ll handle that. You might want a millpond, but, if the waves are high, turn it round to a challenge. It adds variety and can easily be overcome if you can pencil in some sea swims throughout the season.
The horn blows and you’re off. Sadly, so is your mind, searching out fear and loathing in this strange aquatic land. There are flailing arms everywhere. And then pure panic sets in…
Tamsin Lewis: Firstly, accept it. Everyone is being bashed around. It doesn’t last. The first 200m are the worst, so just keep your arms turning over and breathing as much as you can. If you start to really panic, stop and breaststroke or doggy paddle for a few strokes… then go again, knowing that it will improve. If you can, get onto the feet of someone and try to stay with them. Drafting conserves energy in the swim as well as drafting-legal bike legs. Or, if you need a breather from the frenetic environment of the pack, you can always swim towards the right (if the buoys are on your right) and then come back into the buoy, otherwise you’ll be swimming a ton of extra distance.
Picture yourself with a good arm turnover and strong tricep push at the back-end of your stroke, and imagine being out on the bike enjoying yourself. Let go of the negative thoughts… find a path and stick to your plan.
One minute you’re focusing on a new person best, the next you can’t see a thing…
VT: If your goggles are kicked off, try and retrieve them straight away. If you can’t, don’t become overly stressed or angry about the situation. Keep focused on moving forward. Don’t think you’re going to drown or seek revenge, as that’ll panic you. Just accept the situation as it is, move out of the pack for some space, and live and learn. Maybe next time you’ll place the goggles beneath your cap.
You exit the swim, but being horizontal for so long has completely disorientated you. Where is your bike?
VT: As you’re approaching the end of the swim, start thinking where you’ll head once on land. Clearly see your path, which you should have meticulously planned out before the swim: where is your bike? Correct way out of T1? Are there any markers/posts you can look at so you don’t end up in the wrong rack…?
Remember: it’s not just what you see; it’s what you feel and hear. Practise making it real beforehand. It’s not a silent movie; you’re watching a surround-sound experience, so it’s a lot more live and feels more real. So when it comes to the race, it seems more familiar.
Swim went well, smooth mount and away you go. But the heavens open, you feel ill-equipped and your speed plummets…
DS: Over the four years prior to the 2012 Olympics, we were based in Davos [Switzerland]. Now, not only did I choose that town for its altitude [around 1,600m above sea level], but the weather could be pretty iffy, too. London’s hardly sunshine all the time and I wanted my athletes to have experience of a wide range of conditions. There’s no point preparing in the south of France if you could be confronted with cornering in the wet. I wanted athletes that were bulletproof for all conditions. So use training to prepare for all eventualities, meaning don’t simply fall back on the turbo trainer when the rain falls. Make it specific to what you could face and your experience will deliver benefits come the race.
It’s a hilly bike. Sadly, mental scars of a past descending crash run deep.
VT: If you have experience that’s rattled you, you need to address it so it’s less of a limiter in the future. So, if it’s a descent, make sure your bike’s roadworthy and, in training, ride with someone you trust who you know is a
Then do repeats of different hills and follow that person, building up the speed slowly until you’re happy with how fast you’re going. Then, when it’s race time, you can draw on relevant training experiences where you’ve practised tricky corners or steep descents.
You’re fatigued, come across a hill and confidence disappears. Help!
TL: “What goes up has to come down” – the words of my father and former Tour De France cyclist Colin Lewis when I used to moan on rides as a youngster on Dartmoor.
Alternating your rhythm will help. Sit back on your saddle and use your bum and hamstrings to power you, do some out of the saddle and then sit again. Focus on keeping straight on the road and not swerving. Picture scenes from the Tour De France where climbers effortlessly ascend the mountains.
Smile to yourself: it worked for me when I was in the hurt locker at the 2011 Alpe D’Huez Triathlon. Tell yourself, ‘This is hard, but I’m doing it, look how far I’ve come.’ You know you’ll have a break soon. Give your body that feeling; the feeling that it’ll soon have some respite. Your downhill break is near.
Racing middle-distance and, well, you simply become bored on the bike.
VT: You just need to break it into chunks. If it’s a multi-lap course, that’s good, but you’ll still want to break it into smaller chunks. I like chunks of about 20mins and then work through a strategic process: do I need to drink anything, eat anything? How’s my pacing? What’s my heart rate? Are there any tensions in my body…? And then you can go back to daydreaming as you would in a race.
You might want to set an alarm for every 15-20mins to remind you to eat or drink. And to work through your checklist. Don’t leave it up to memory. Your mind will drift and become confused, especially when racing. That audible reminder will stop small problems becoming big ones.
You’re looking for one of the fastest bike splits but, despite digging deep, you’re continually beaten by your contemporaries. It’s getting you down.
DS: Look, you can’t control what anyone else does. That’s the bottom line. Even in the sprint finish between Norden and [Nicola] Spirig at the 2012 Olympics, Norden wasn’t thinking about guts and glory; she was thinking of how she could squeeze that extra 1 or 2cm out of every step. Over 50m that’d give you an extra metre. Don’t look back and say you gave it everything – what does that mean? What actually did you do? ‘Ahhh, I tried real hard coach.’ But no, what did you actually do? ‘I gave it everything.’ But how? ‘I kind of dug deep.’ Bullshit – what does that mean? Could you have done better?
In Norden’s case, I said, “Have a look at the video and see how sloppy your arms and legs were, how your head went back. Now compare that to training last week when you held it together. You were very specific about what you wanted to do, which was to go a little bit quicker.” It’s all about the application of yourself and your technique over time, and the ability to develop.
Your world is caving in and you’re in extreme discomfort. You want to stop…
DS Sometimes you don’t experience as much pain when you race well compared to when you don’t. Jodie [Stimpson] used to pace her race badly. She’d win for 2km but then would plummet and be in pain for 8km. Now she manages herself better, so she’s stronger for longer. Sure, she’s in discomfort. But not as much pain for so long. Not that brutal, I’m-going-to-fall-apart pain.
If there are phases in the race and you’re in deep pain, there are two ways psychologists would argue you can overcome this – dissociative and associative. Dissociative is when you’re imagining, for example, lying on a beach in Barbados, taking your mind away from the moment. The other option is to associate and do things like breaking the race up into sections. 10km is a long way so break it up into 5 x 2km. You know you can do 2km. Or even smaller, like to the next corner.
Hit the run in fifth, have to hit third to qualify for the Worlds, but mind is hazy and can’t catch the leaders.
DS In my group we never approach it from an outcome point of view. I’ve never had a discussion with anybody saying we need to win this, like they seem to in soccer. Blood, guts and glory! That gets in the way. And what I’ve noticed in a lot of countries, particularly the UK, is that there’s a fear of failure. Athletes are often judged on the outcome rather than the effort they put in. Which is totally screwed up.
My approach is, even if you have a crap race, look at how you delivered your current skillset. You’ve got to measure yourself with the tools you’ve got and how you delivered those skills. If you didn’t have the tools polished but you gave it everything, then you’ve done a pretty decent job. But you know you can improve it down the line and receive an A for effort.
If someone has polished their tools equally well for an extra three or four years, and they put in the same effort, they’re likely to beat you. There’s not much you can do about that. Of course, we want to win. But we never talk
about results. Ever.
Once again, all is good until the second half when your pace drops dramatically…
TL: Preparing for any event means planning ahead and knowing what pace you can sustain. This could include using a GPS monitor or noting your times for each 1km or 5km marker in the race. I don’t recommend heart rate monitors in racing because the stress of the event and caffeine often gives skewed figures.
In training for an Olympic distance, a good race-pace set would be a 45-60min bike session. After a 15min warm-up, do 2 x 20min (plus 3mins easy) at race pace, before running 5mins easy, building to 2 x 10mins at goal race pace. You should also run on tired legs in training – for example, the day after a hard bike or brick session – to replicate the feeling you’ll have in the race. And when it comes to the big day, concentrate on run form.
Mantras that work for me include: relaxed shoulders, arms moving alongside the rib cage; run tall, core tight, no slouching, looking eight feet ahead of you; quick feet, quick feet, good turnover.