Mental Tools for Triathlon Success
“Yeah, that’s the thing about mental training and mental things you know, whether you think you can do something or you can’t, you are probably right, and I did believe I could do it. I trained for it, and I visualized it probably a hundred thousand of times…”
– Jan Frodeno on his mindset leading into his 2nd Ironman World Championship victory
You did it. You signed up! Now you are starting the journey for your race. You won’t be able to finish the race or keep up with the competition if you find yourself staying up late, sleeping through your alarm, or binge watching your favorite show on Netflix instead of your evening run. What if we could train mentally to continue that drive when times get tough during our training? You put all that time and effort into training, so don’t leave your race to chance by hoping for an excellent performance. Train your mind to set yourself up for success!
Your Garmin does a great job at showing you all the data you need, but the most powerful training tool you have is the one between your eyes. This can be your greatest weapon or your biggest enemy. Research has shown that the four primary mental skills used by triathletes to enhance their performance are: Goal setting, Self-Talk, Breathing/Relaxation, and Visualization (Greenless & Thelwell, 2001, 2003).
Goal Setting: Your stairway to success to win more often
Triathletes race for different reasons and often finish disappointed for not reaching certain accomplishments. By creating goals during training, we can “win” more often by finding targets to hit along the journey to boost our confidence, focus, and energy to be more successful, more often.
For example, SMART goals (Specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-based) like “Completing my first Olympic distance in 3 months” or “Do the run course without stopping” can help direct your focus and energy in your training. However, races are different based on a level of difficulty, environment (weather, terrain, etc.), competition, and sometimes poorly marked courses. These are all things outside of your immediate control like “average 20 mph on the bike,” “finish top 10 in my AG,” or “run under 50 minutes for the 10 km.” While having an outcome goal is great, in order to achieve it, you’ll need to set several process and performance goals.
Think about a stair case. Your end goal is the top of the stair case, and you have to take one step at a time to get to the top. This process allows you to shift your focus on the things you need to do in the present moment to perform under pressure, and they are mostly things in your immediate control. “I want to arrive early to the race to set up”, “I want to keep my nutrition and hydration schedule consistent during the bike,” “I want to focus on my breathing during the swim to stay on pace and calm myself about being in the open water.”
Try it yourself. Process goals for training can include: Knowing your purpose for each workout, doing core training 3 days per week, or diet adjustments during the work week (fewer sweets, more water, less alcohol, etc.). You can track how these are going by reflecting after key sessions during the week. Put them in your phone, or in the notes section on Training Peaks. By focusing on these process goals, they can help motivate you when you want to give up, and provide a friendly reminder why you’re putting in the long hours of training.
Self-Talk: The Power of Mantras
You’re on the track, running those 200’s. On the bike, during a 10-minute sustained effort. In the pool, doing 100 repeats at 1:30 pace. You’re looking at your watch to hit splits, to see if you’re in the right heart rate zone, or if you’re hitting pace. But what are the things you’re saying to yourself? It’s one thing to be aware of these thoughts, but it’s another to use them to gain a competitive edge on race day. Our confidence is fueled by what we tell ourselves, and ultimately our thoughts have a direct influence on our emotions and actions.
“I suck at climbing”, “I can’t do flip turns at all!” By saying these unproductive thoughts to yourself, you’re essentially creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, and you are more likely to believe those things. It’s time to challenge those beliefs. Time to change those negative thoughts. Practice putting a stop to them and change them to positive statements. Research has shown that motivational self-talk statements have been found to enhance cycling performance by increasing power output, VO2max, and completion times during a 10 km time trial (Barwood, 2015). In addition, these statements have also increased swimming and running performances! (see below for articles).
Even the professional athletes use these statements, often called mantras, during training and racing to catapult their performance to the next level. Jesse Thomas talks about his use of powerful mantras during his training for his 6th Wildflower victory,
“TRUST THE TRAINING. I used this mantra before Wildflower. I’d had some amazing training in the weeks leading in, but was still concerned about racing guys I’d never beaten before. These mantras helped me stay confident when those doubts arose.”
Try it yourself. It’ll take time, and some statements will be more effective than others. Try creating “I am” or “I will” statements. For example, “I am strong” during those hard track intervals. The key is to practice them during training, so you can figure out how to think when things don’t go according to plan.
Breathing/Relaxation: Control your breath, to control your body
Just breathe! Why does this sound so easy, yet so hard when we’re nervous or trying to catch our breath? How important do you think it is to take a good breath? Even more important, how easy is it to breathe when you’re tight? Try to take a deep breath and freak out or yell at the same time. You can’t physically do it! We know we breathe automatically every single day, but learning to breathe on purpose, with purpose can help us relax when we are tight or anxious come race day. Take control. Learn to control your breath, to control your body. This self-control can ultimately help you perform better during hard intervals on the track or in the pool.
When we talk about controlled breathing, we want to breathe using our diaphragm, which is the muscle below our lungs that contracts to allow air to fill our lungs more efficiently. This diaphragmatic breathing can:
Put your focus on the present moment
Enable you to “check in” with yourself to see if you are in control
Decrease negative emotions and stress
Increase sustained attention
Energize you when you are feeling sluggish
Help you shift from conscious thinking to “unconscious” trusting
Help establish a sense of rhythm in your performance
When pressure builds we usually start feeling nervous. What happens to your breathing? Most people begin taking short, shallow breaths. When you start breathing from your chest instead of your diaphragm, you’re not getting enough oxygen to your lungs, muscles, or brain. This change in oxygen in your brain causes adrenaline to release and your brain’s warning alarm goes off causing, even more, adrenaline to release, and the vicious cycle starts all over. Below are some steps to practice deep diaphragmatic breathing. Just like anything else; the more you train this skill, the more likely you’ll be able to use it when you need it most.
Sit straight in a chair w/o arm rests, feet flat on the floor. Put hands comfortably on your lap.
Inhale through the nose and feel your abdomen expand. Some people find it helpful to imagine a balloon expanding as they fill their lungs.
Picture your lungs filling with air as you inhale and count slowly from one to four. Make sure your shoulders and neck are relaxed during the inhale.
Exhale slowly through your nose so that it takes to the count of six seconds to exhale completely.
Continue this process slowly from anywhere from one to three minutes.
Focus your thoughts on your breathing. If your thoughts start to wander, continuously shift your focus back to your breath. This part is typically the most difficult, so be patient.
Mental Rehearsal: You don’t have to race just on race day!
The body achieves what the mind believes. If I told you to think of a pink elephant riding a motorcycle. BOOM! You’re probably thinking about a large pink elephant riding that little tiny motorcycle. Weird, right? Why is it that our brain is so powerful like that? Our brain does a terrible job at determining what is real versus imaginary. So, you can use mental rehearsal to create an image of what you want to happen or feel. Often, the term mental rehearsal gets confused with visualization. While visualization is focused on seeing things in our minds-eye, mental rehearsal involves us using as many senses of our senses that are appropriate to make our image as real as possible.
Imagine your transitions so that you can plan “what-if” scenarios in your mind (i.e., where’s the exit for the bike and run in transition, they could be different spots). Run through changing a flat on the bike, so if it happens, you can manage your frustration (aka freak out moment) and emotions better because you know what it feels like. When imagining these scenarios, the athlete can repeat them over and over again, enhancing your skill through repetition that is very similar to practice, so your mind and body make the connection to mimic physical practice.
The coolest part is that we don’t have to wait for our whole training block to race! You can practice using this skill to imagine your race happening the way you want it to, so you don’t leave anything to chance. However, it won’t guarantee success, but it can increase confidence, motivation, and reduce stress. These skills are supplements, not a substitute for real training. If you can incorporate them into your daily training, just like your workouts or recovery, you’ll be on your way to triathlon success!
Barwood, M. J., Corbett, J., Wagstaff, C., McVeigh, D., & Thelwell, R. C. (2015). Motivational self-talk improves 10 km time trial cycling compared to neutral self-talk. International Journal of Sports Physiology Performance, 10(2), 166-71.
Hamilton, R. A., Scott, D., & MacDougall, M. P. (2007). Assessing the effectiveness of self-talk interventions on endurance performance. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 19, 226-239. doi: 10.1080/10413200701230613
Thelwell, R. C., & Greenlees, I. A. (2001). The effects of a mental skills training package of gymnasium triathlon performance. Sport Psychologist, 15(2), 127-141.
Thelwell, R. C., & Greenlees, I. A. (2003). Developing competitive endurance performance using mental skills training. Sport Psychologist, 17(3), 318-337.
Weinberg, R., Miller, A., & Horn, T. (2012). The influence of a self-talk intervention on collegiate cross-country runners. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 10(2), 123-134.