Updated: Dec 24, 2019
A good triathlete is not made of strong legs alone. The elites in this sport also have strong minds and that’s because triathlon is as much a mental challenge as it is physical.
In a series of new blogs we are going to look at how critical the mind is in your performance.
Triathlon is a constant negotiation with yourself.
Whether it’s a motivational “Push a little harder for the next mile!” or a defeatist “I’m so tired, I should probably slow down,” the loop that plays between our ears while we run can make or break us, encouraging us to push ourselves just a little bit more or telling ourselves to throw in the towel when the going gets tough.
The catch: using said mental techniques to improve your performance is more nuanced than simply telling yourself to “go faster.”
Lets break this down:
1. Visualise Your Success
Taking the time to mentally walk through a tough workout before you actually tackle it can help you handle the real deal with more confidence and ease. Before starting, close your eyes and use all five of your senses to understand what those especially hard moments will be like and then envision yourself pushing through them. Imagine your muscles burning, the sound of your breath, the road or track stretching on in front of you, the air against your skin, the smell of sweat, and so on.
Just by visualising an experience like this, you can activate the same motor neurons that fire in the real-life moment. And because of this, when you do experience said real-life moment, it doesn’t feel as foreign.
Visualising is about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable… People get nervous about the uncomfortableness of an anticipated situation. But if you intentionally visualise yourself being uncomfortable, you’ll be better prepared to calmly and confidently handle that discomfort when it does happen.
The one caveat with visualisation: it should be limited to things that you can control. You can’t control the weather, for example, so don’t spend your time visualising yourself racing on a sunny, cloudless day. But you can control how you react to the most challenge portion of a workout, like the repeated hard sets of an interval coming up in that turbo session, or the last 10 minutes of your tempo run and that’s exactly what you should concentrate on.
2. Check Your Progress
Getting live feedback on your progress, whether it’s in the form of mile splits, distance, elevation, or minutes can be an incredible motivation tool.
For instance, you may feel like utter rubbish, but looking at your watch and seeing that you only have 1k to go? Instant energy boost. Or, you may realise that even though you feel like awful and your power or pace is way off, you’ve still managed to nail that final interval section.
The most valuable and motivating data will come from your technology like a power meter or gps watch. It gives you accurate pace, power, distance, and heartbeat metrics to gauge and adjust your effort.
The right technology can be like having your coach on your wrist. It can help you stay motivated and on track. What’s more, having the data later on can provide an extra sense of satisfaction when you realise exactly how much you actually achieved. It can provide a confidence boost that can spill-over into your next session.
3. Reframe Your Pain
Going hard isn’t exactly an enjoyable experience. When your lungs are burning, your quads are on fire, and your body is screaming at you to stop, it’s only natural to connect these unpleasant sensations with equally unpleasant thoughts, like “I’m out of shape” or “this hurts too much,”
Attribute the pain to positive outcomes
But this type of negative self-talk isn’t productive and focusing on the pain in this way will likely just make it seem that much worse.
Instead, attribute the pain to positive gains like my quads are burning because my legs are getting stronger; or I’m breathing heavy because I’m building my cardio. This simple mental shift provides much needed purpose to your pain. “It’s the difference between saying to yourself, 'This is me working so hard,' versus 'This is me so fatigued.
4. Break it Down
Divide your session or race into smaller chunks. Instead of stressing over the fact that you still have eight k’s left in your long run and your quads are already shaking, think of it as four two k’s runs, or even eight one 1000m runs, Just run the Kilometer that you’re in. This means focusing on holding your pace and form together for one micro-chunk at a time.
These mini goals make it easier and they transform an overwhelming session into an I nailed this experience.
You can also do this with visual landmarks. If you feel like calling it quits early, pick a not-so-distant landmark, like a lamppost or tree, and tell yourself that you just need to get to that point. If you’re still feeling really crappy once you get there, you can stop. But more often than not, you will be able to just keep going, and landmark by landmark, “you’ll get out of your funk.”
5. Repeat a Mantra
Have an inspirational cue word or phrase on hand to repeat yourself during the especially brutal moments. Something as simple as “push” or “I am strong” or “I can do hard things” can provide potent motivation when you need to dig deep. The point of these cues is to “induce a certain state and cue you into action. Repeating the mantra over and over in your head can also drown out the doubts that tend to creep in during times of trial.
6. Recall Prior Wins
Looking back at your past triumphs can give you the confidence boost you need to keep going. Whether it was an especially grueling hill set that you tackled with ease or that time you powered through a tempo turbo session despite serious cramps, “look at the things you have already hit and remind yourself that you can and will overcome this too.
Sisu Racing Triathlon Endurance Coach