Picture yourself in one of these two scenarios.
You’ve completed the training as planned, you’re in the best shape of your life, and you’re at the starting line of your race. As you get set for your wave start, you remind yourself of how swimming is the weakest of your skills and open water swim starts make you nervous.
The gun goes off and the water starts churning as the pack moves forward in the water. You start to swim but after about 200 yards you are consumed with a panic attack and have to stop at a support kayak to catch your breath. Beat yourself up and tell yourself what a poor swimmer you are, and what a failure you are, and your race is over then and there. You tell the lifeguard you are not continuing, and exit the water. You DNF (did not finish).
You’ve completed the training as planned, you’re in the best shape of your life, and you’re at the starting line of your race. As you get set for your wave start, you remind yourself of all that you’ve accomplished the past three months and that you are feeling strong! The gun goes off and the water starts churning as the pack moves forward in the water.
You get bumped in the head by the person next to you, but you shake it off and keep repeating the phrase you’ve used during every swim workout: “I am a strong swimmer!” You exit the water, go through transition and get on the bike. Throughout the bike, you ride steadily, slowly picking off the riders in front of you as you sing in your head your favorite pump up song. You hop off the bike, go through T2, and start your run.
All through the run, you focus on counting breaths and at the finish line you high-five the spectators, and give your family a big hug. It may not be a personal record time, but they are so excited to see that huge smile on your face, because they know that means you’ve had an awesome race!
These are two very different scenarios. In both cases, you’ve done the training, and are in peak physical condition. But the outcomes are very different because of your mental state. It’s critical to have the right mindset for successful training and racing, so here are few techniques to train your brain to help you rather than hurt you.
Engage your brain in positive self-talk
Positive self-talk means telling yourself “I can do this” and “I am stronger every day.” In contrast, negative self-talk focuses on shortcomings, such as “I’m such a slow swimmer”. Or by recalling past performances that did not go well.
Practice positive self-talk in both training and racing, and learn to redirect negative self-talk. When you start to hear yourself being negative, say the word “Stop!” (or visualize a stop sign) and then redirect into something more positive.
For example, let’s say the bike course is very windy and it is a tough ride, and your mind is telling you: “I’m going to have a slow time because of this awful wind!” Respond with: “Stop! — Everyone in the race is facing this same wind. I’m a strong cyclist and I’ve trained in these conditions many times. Just keep spinning!”
Visualize your race
Visualization is another technique to prepare yourself mentally. It helps to be prepared for contingencies by considering the “what-ifs” in advance. Think about how you will handle a flat tire on the bike, for example (and of course, practice fixing flats).
If you are prepared for such contingencies, you will not be as adversely affected mentally when they happen. Also visualize yourself using positive scenarios, much like positive self-talk. For example, picture yourself swimming powerfully through the open water, and passing other athletes on the bike and on the run.
Use a focal point
A focal point can be your mental bridge to the finish line, providing a way to center the mind. Examples of focal points are mantras (or affirmations), counting, or music. Mantra, which means “instrument of thought” in Sanskrit, is a word used for concentration or meditation. Historically employed in Hindu and Buddhist spiritual practice.
In training and racing, we can use mantras, or more broadly speaking, positive affirmations. In a similar manner to keep focused on the task at hand. For example, you might repeat to yourself with each swim stroke one of these phrases: “Better – Stronger – Faster” or “I am a strong swimmer!” (Repeat one word per stroke in a rhythmic fashion.)
Counting can also be useful to focus the mind. For example, count to 50 with each stroke in the swim or with each step during your run. Or count breaths on the run. Count to three as you breathe in through your nose and use two counts breathing out through your mouth (1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2).
Finally, music is very powerful in controlling the mood in your mind. While you cannot use headphones in a triathlon, it doesn’t matter, because your own brain is the biggest “hard drive” you own. Filled with a huge catalog of music.
Simply think of a song that pumps you up, and hum away. “Old school” (or perhaps “cheesy”) classics include the following: 1) The Rocky theme or Eye of the Tiger; 2) Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”; or 3) Queen’s “We are the Champions.”
For you, it may be Led Zeppelin, Taylor Swift, NWA, or Jagwar Ma. Whatever it is, you surely have your own favorites. It doesn’t matter whether it is Beethoven or Eminem — it only matters that it works for you.
Start using these techniques in training and see which ones work best for you
For many people, the biggest limiter to success is only in the mind. Focusing on the positive leads to more positive results. You can do all the swimming, biking and running to have a successful race day. But if your brain is not trained as well, it can result in a terrible race rather than a great one!
Your brain is an endless source of positive pump-you-up positive thoughts. Or slow-you-down negative thoughts — it’s really up to you to choose which ones you will allow to guide you in your training and racing.