Mental preparation

You have done a fine buildup, perhaps with a few hiccups along the way, but that is to be expected. Race day is looming, you are physically prepared, but what about the mind? They say that it is the ‘top 10% that separates the greats’ – meaning that the difference between a good performance and a great performance is the mental ability of the athlete.

Planning your race.

Particularly in a triathlon, you need to plan your race. What you are going to do and how you are going to do it? You need to plan in both a physical and mental sense. Not only what are you actually going to do, and what are you going to think about while you are doing it.

Your race plan should evolve as you do more races, and learn what works and what does not work, for you. After each event you can analyze what worked well, and what did not, then update your race plan checklist. When things go well, try to recall what you thought about, as well as what you did. You may have key words or phases that help you along, such as “breathe deeply”, “relax”, or “if I am hurting – so is everyone else”. You may also use physical cues to help, such as shacking your arms and shoulders while running to help relax you.

When the going gets tough – there are two ways you can deal with it mentally. You can try and avoid the present situation, and take your mind to a “happy place”. You may choose to think about lying on the beach on a nice sunny day, rather than dealing with the pain that your legs are in! Alternatively you can take a more introspective view, and concentrate on the job at hand. This may mean going through a body checklist, such as analyzing breathing, pace, technique etc, to ensure you are doing everything correctly. Both techniques work, for different people, but the top athletes tend to use the second method.

You will build up an ‘ideal’ race plan, but you also want a couple of contingency plans. There maybe several possible race scenarios, and you need to account for them all (in some way). What are you going to do in extreme weather conditions? What are you going to do if you miss your special needs pick up? In a drafting situation, are you going ‘sit in’ for a free ride, work positively, or attack the bunch?

The most important aspect while in an event is to remain positive, and to do all you can at the present moment to help your cause. If you get to the finish line and feel that you did everything you could have – you can’t ask for more than that. If something goes wrong during the event (or not quite according to ‘the plan’), do the best you can in that situation – at that moment. Getting upset or concentrating on the negative is NOT going to help your cause. Always look for opportunities, rather than negative results. A puncture maybe a chance to get off the seat and stretch the lower back!

Here is an example of how I would plan my swim in a triathlon;

Before the start: determine the direction of any tides or currents (a straight line may not be the quickest!). Sort out landmarks to sight off (the turn buoys are often of little use!). Swim start: Start to the left of swimmers that are slightly better than me – so I can see what is happening when I breathe to the right, and try and stay with the others. Make sure you are near the front at the countdown, and well away from anyone who looks like they may ’cause trouble’. When the gun goes, (or anyone else!), swim as fast as I can for 200-300m, sighting every 4-5 strokes. After the first 200-300m, check what is happening as far as bunches forming, and try to get on some feet that look like they know where they are going. If you get on some feet check they are going straight, and not being dropped by any group that has formed. If they do get dropped, try to bridge the gap to the next group.

If I don’t get in a group, or on some feet, swim 4-5 strokes and look up to check I am swimming straight. Concentrate on a long relaxed stroke, with deep breaths. If swimming straight, look up every 6-7 strokes, if not every 3-4 strokes. Breathe both sides semi-regularly to check on what is going on around me.

Toward the end of the swim, go through in my mind what I am going to do on the way to transition, and in transition. Start to kick a little harder at the end to get more blood into the legs. As soon as the hand hits the bottom, stand up, dolphin dive to shore if necessary.

Visualize your race.

Now that you have a race plan, it is time to practice it a little – in your mind. You have spent perhaps hundreds of hours training your body to perform on race day, how about a few hours training the mind? Visualize yourself actually doing the race, each step of the way. From getting ready at the start, to crossing the finish line. If you go through the race several times in your mind, on the big day you will know exactly what you have to do and how you are going to do it. You won’t arrive at transition running around wonder what to do next.

Of course races don’t always go as expected, and you need to prepare for that as well. As in your race plan, it would be sensible to prepare for a few different race scenarios in your mind. This is of course far more important in tactical races, where the outcome of the race can depend on the actions of others. Drafting races fit into this category well. If you are in a good position after the swim, your plan maybe to take advantage of that on the bike. Conversely, a less than ideal swim may mean sitting in and waiting for the run.

I still find it incredible how many athletes are able to race so very close to they way they have dreamed of. If you have prepared the mind and body well, the race is then relatively easy. It is just putting all that training into practice. It is time to race your dream race!