Mental toughness in triathlon is an important skill to acquire along the way.
Though everyone is trying to out swim, out bike and out run each other, the FASTEST way to success is to do what others do NOT do.
As I often talk about- there are many more disciplines in triathlon than just swim, bike and run.
However most triathletes, just focus on these three elements. (Maybe they are confused by the word tri- in triathlon!)
You can’t blame them but this just means most athletes ignore the other disciplines which go into creating massive success in sport.
This leaves great opportunities for you and I, if we decide to pursue all the elements of successful triathlon training:
Many triathletes know about developing mental toughness in triathlon- but not many athletes use it to their advantage.
I am sure what may be going through your mind is something like “But I barely have time to fit in three sports as it is- where can I find time to do anything else?”
It is a fair point- however if we ignore the mental toughness game we will be falling far short of our potential.
Mental toughness, rehearsal and practice does not take long. It IS worth it and will make your current physical training so much more effective.
Make massive gains-quickly!
In a world where we spend thousands of dollars on a bike to get a 30gram weight advantage over our competitors, why would we not grab every advantage possible?
Mental toughness in sport is so important that all elite athletes employ a mind coach
Because it works!
Sports psychology and mental toughness can help an athlete achieve results far beyond what they ever-dreamed possible.
It can also help them get rid of the obstacles holding them back (which is usually themselves!)
I bet you have seen many athletes in different sports fail or choke on race day/game day because of nerves, getting overwhelmed, tightening up and pressure to succeed.
What will mental toughness training do for me?
Mental toughness will build mental strength to enable you
• train harder during sessions
• to focus on the task at hand and not think about random things that distract your focus
• to manage your self talk (very important!)
• to manage your emotions
• to manage and enhance your motivation
• to sharpen your skills and technique- giving you better times
• to overcome race day stress
Lack of mental toughness and focus is the number #1 reason for poor performance
Mental toughness not only sets us up for a great race day but also will help you get more out of every training session.
Mental practice DURING triathlon training
Train your mind during your existing training sessions to FOCUS on the goal, not the pain and to never give up. When you perform at your highest level WHEN you are tired-you will be able to do it when it counts! In the race.
Mark Divine has written an awesome book if you want to dive deeper into this.
Unbeatable Mind written by Navy Seal Mark Divine
What you are thinking, feeling and focusing on during physical training is very important.
If you are distracted, when you are training, thinking about work, or thinking about how tired you are- what are the chances your muscles will be fully engaged?
Bad posture creeps in, poor technique starts to win and poor effort levels result.
You will be reinforcing bad habits that you will need time to undo later on.
Probably better not go out at all!
Instead, before you start to train, breathe deeply, focus on what you are about to do.
Remind yourself what you want to get out of the session.
Clear your mind of clutter.
Train the discipline of every time you place your foot to the ground it should be in the right place, every time your hand enters the water in the pool it should be in the right spot.
Your core should be engaged all the time, your neck relaxed, your eyes focused on where you want to go.
Remember at all times- practice does not make perfect:
perfect practice makes perfect.
Your mind will be chattering away as it always does in the background. Override the negative stuff with floods of positive images and positive self-talk.
Mental toughness needs to be practised
You are not just born with it. Sometimes it might feel natural to run along thinking “I hate running!” and I’m sure many people do this.
If you are running along focusing on how hard it is and how painful this is- your body will tend to feel more pain, more fatigue.
Instead, practice getting your mind off these sensations and onto positive emotions and feelings.
Develop your own powerful mantras like:
“I am improving all the time”
“Running is one of my greatest strengths”
“I am an achiever”
“I love swimming, I glide through the water”
“I love racing”
“Every day I get better and better”
“I love hills on the bike, I am an awesome climber”
Feel confident, happy and in control.
Do mental toughness rehearsal as a specific session
Find some time in your week to do specific mental rehearsal.
You only need to do 10 minutes a day though many athletes start to do more as they see the benefits in their training.
Sit down somewhere comfortable, where you will not be disturbed. Set your alarm for 10 or 15 minutes so you will not be clock watching.
Start doing some nice, deep, relaxed breaths.
Shallow breathing in itself destroys performance and leads to increased stress and anxiety.
When you are settled, start rehearsing.
Try to clear your mind of all other distractions.
Then start to zero in on what you want to achieve this session.
Is it having a good race overall?
Is it to enter the water on a cold day and having an amazing swim?
Is it improved running technique?
Imagine the scene as vividly as you can.
What can you see?
What can you hear?
What can you smell, feel and taste?
Maybe you have picked running to focus on and you pretend you are running in the forest. Maybe the leaves are slightly wet and have a lovely fresh smell. You have a running cap on and are wearing your sports watch.
Visualise yourself running perfectly.
Think about how you want to look and focus on that-picture it exactly.
Think about the components of successful running one at a time:
Think about your high knee lift
Think about lifting your heel up at the back
Think about having a strong, stable torso
Think about landing on your forefoot.
Think about your elbows by your side, helping your legs drive you forward.
Think about relaxed breathing and maintaining a relaxed neck and shoulders even when it gets tough and you are getting tired.
Think about engaging your core and having a stable strong mid section.
Scan through the body as you are picturing yourself running perfectly, fix this image in your mind.
Remember to feel positive emotions as you do this.
Focus on it like you are there, like you are actually running.
When you have finished come out of this state slowly.
Feel good about it and congratulate yourself for getting this done.
This will very quickly translate into much better running performances.
To get specific guidance by an expert in the triathlon world on mental toughness training, check out Renegade Triathlon Psychology. It is the best one I have come across and is also recommended by sub 10 hr Ironman Ben Greenfield! (He knows a thing or two about controlling races nerves and building super confidence)
The path to success is straightforward.
Find someone you are aspiring to be.
Find out what they are doing then do that!
Athletes from all sports talk about how important mental toughness training is.
Muhammad Ali and Tiger Woods attribute much of their success to mental toughness training. They both spent many hours doing mental rehearsals, self-affirmations and positive self-talk.
Seasoned athletes practice daily highly detailed images and “run throughs” of their entire performance, engaging all their senses in their mental rehearsal.
It works as it stimulates the same areas of the brain and lays down the same neural pathways as physical practice.
Even better, in your mind you can execute the perfect shot, the perfect transition, the perfect swim stroke without any mistakes, without any pain(lactate burn) or suffering.
When we do physical practice however- we often practise bad habits- and reinforce bad motor patterns. This is made worse if we are fatigued or distracted by other thoughts.
When you vividly think about something in the mind, the mind cannot distinguish between imagination and reality.
The same neural/learning pathways will be laid down.
Do not wait for race day, or until you become a sponsored athlete- start this practice now and you will get better results along the way.
Natural ability is no guarantee of success!
The Power of Positive Self talk
In triathlon there are many challenges.
Thirst, fatigue, pain, injury, heat, hunger, crowds, transitions.
The list is endless.
How do you react to these?
Do they put you off your game?
There are always two voices competing for your attention in your head.
The negative one filling your mind with doubt, with hatred, with resentment and the positive one- which can be a little shy!
Use mental training to quieten down the negative voice and make the positive one shout more loudly.
The negative one is destructive and dangerous.
It is simply evil.
Most of us are very good at this!
Remember 90% of the things we worry about- never happen.
We tend to spend a lot of time thinking “what if this happens? What if that happens?”
90% of the time none of it happens!
Do not waste energy worrying about things that have not happened!
We must practice positive thinking.
This does not come naturally- we must practice it consciously.
We must try to become aware of all the times we have a negative script running through our head with the same destructive thoughts.
The negative voice is ALWAYS there.
So get used to it- and ignore it!
It is talking utter rubbish.
Imagine if you tell yourself 100 times a day that you are a terrible swimmer- your brain will start to believe it- and every time you go to the pool- it will be a struggle. You will not get much better either!
These are some of the phrases triathletes have told me they have flying through their brain on race day:
Nasty destructive things like:
“ Everyone else is more prepared than you”
“ You should not really be here”
“ Everyone is laughing at you”
“ Everyone has a better bike than you”
“ You look really fat in that wetsuit”
“ You should slow down- you are so tired”
Most of this chatter is complete drivel!
And a very bad habit!
The same scripts go through our mind again and again and again.
Part of your mental toughness training is to input a powerful new script!
This is very important.
Do this in your mental toughness training each day in your dedicated 10minute sessions.
Think about positive phrases and words that make you feel great!
Say them over and over in your head and actually feel it.
Also do it during active training sessions. Tell yourself you feel strong, happy, in control as you are swimming, biking and running.
You will actually train harder and faster if you tell yourself this as you are training.
Work out the phrases that work for you and say them again and again and again.
Aim to feel stronger, feel positive as you are training.
Here are some ideas:
“ This is so much fun”
“ I’m so glad to be out here”
“ I am feeling great, getting closer to the line”
“ My training is going great”
“ I am overtaking lots of people”
“ It does not matter whether I win or lose- I am beating everyone sitting on the couch!”
You must let all negative thoughts go. They will not serve you. Do not listen to this negative voice. It will interfere with your performance.
Replace them with positive thoughts.
Focus on the fact that the pain is temporary and every step or stroke takes you closer to the finish line and that glorious feeling of achievement.
Great achievements never come with ease.
We have to strive, to push through comfort zones, to make our mind and body do that which they do not want to do.
Remind yourself that everyone is training or racing on their edge.
It is just a matter of how much pain you can take.
It depends on whether you listen to the negative evil voice telling you to slow down or the positive voice telling you to keep going, you are doing great!
It does not matter whether you run a 5 km in 35 minutes or sub15 minutes- it still hurts if you are doing your best!
Part of your training is understanding that the pain will be there but you can keep going anyway.
Develop a pre race ritual
This is a very important mental toughness strategy.
It will help you mentally get “in the zone”.
It will help you deal with stress and calm down.
In this ritual, you should plan to do the same things each time, in the same order to give you confidence.
Some people develop a trigger or a cue to switch them on mentally to their “race ready” state.
It might be a fist pump, or wearing your favourite green running socks or a quick routine of 3 power movements.
Before the race, clear your mind of clutter. Think about
the ability to focus on right here, right now.
Use your breath; say your mantras. Fill your mind with positive self-talk, with images of strength, success and control.
This needs to be practiced well in advance.
Do not wait until race day then wonder why you can’t control your mind.
On race day if you are not mentally prepared- it is easy to feel out of place, scared, small, weak, fearful and a little pathetic!
Do not let this happen.
Remember everyone is feeling the same.
Focus on your race mantras you have practiced over and over again.
“I deserve to be here”
“I am feeling stronger”
“I can’t wait to start”
“I have done all the hard work”
“I will execute my race plan perfectly”
What do most people do?
Most triathletes think about bad things happening and failure obsessively.
They engage in negative self talk with themselves and others about how they are a terrible swimmer, how they will get an asthma attack, how they don’t have enough time to train and will probably have to pull out and guess what happens?
Inevitably, a terrible swim and a poor race.
Do your mental toughness practice. You will notice incredible results.
Engage mental toughness training as much as you can during your day
Do at least 10 minutes once a day. Better to do little and often than save it all up for a 1 hour session once a week.
Some triathletes find mental toughness training helps them so much they start doing 30 minute-60 minute sessions.
Remember to use “dead: time to do extra sessions where possible.
If I commute to work- I use that time, if I am in a lift, I do it there. If I am waiting in a queue, I do it there.
I try to flood my brain with positive self talk, with positive images of the race, with correct images of my swim technique, with relaxed images about how I am feeling about the race.)
So, remember, for your dedicated session:
Pick what you will focus on for this session- for example the swim:
Visualise the perfect swim vividly. Think of all the senses, what does it feel like, smell like, and taste like. Practice feeling strong and feeling in control.
In the beginning, you will lose focus easily and get distracted. Just keep bringing your mind back to the picture of success you are focusing on. Fill your mind with positive mantras.
Visualise your perfect technique, visualise it feeling effortless, visualise your hand entry, high elbow, pull through, regular strong kick.
Do NOT allow any negative thought or any negative feeling to enter your mind. Practice the feeling of enjoying it, feeling confident.
Visualise yourself swimming past other swimmers and feeling strong. Say some powerful mantras about how great you are at swimming, how much you love it.
Visualise the race itself. Hear the gun go in your head. Visualise yourself setting off with everyone, you are in the perfect position, you get into your rhythm quickly, you swim well, your breathing is easy. You keep repeating, “I love this, I love swimming, I love this race so far”
Remember your mind controls your body.
It’s power is limitless.
We are not even close to unlocking it powers but we do know that visualisation has amazing results in sport.
At the elite level, everyone has mind coaching and does structured mental rehearsal. Remember all these athletes have roughly the same body shape, have roughly done the same physical training, they have the same nutrition, the main difference becomes how tough they are mentally, how consistent, how focused and how they deal with the stress of the day.
As Bruce Lee famously said “the successful warrior is the average one with the laser like focus…”
Visualisation and mental toughness practice will help you
1) Control muscle tension. It will allow you to relax before and during an event and save your burst of power for when you need it.
2) Control your heart rate and nervous energy so not burn it up on stupid things like worrying about stuff, which will never happen-this is so draining!
3) Cope easily with things that happen out of the ordinary and get back on track quickly without flying into a rage
4) Enjoy the process, enjoy most of the training experiences along the way. (Remove the phrases “I hate this, this is so hard, I wish I was at home, why did I come here, my life is over” from your head and replace with positive self-talk)
5) Rise to big occasions, feel excitement but no pressure.
6) Reduce anger or disappointment at your self if you did not have a good day
7) Recover faster from training
8) Outlast your competition when things get tough
9) Get greater physical improvements from training by controlling your focus
You can be sure that most of your competitors will NOT be doing this! (I love a secret weapon!)
This is great for you and me- Try it, enter it in a triathlon training journal and see what happens.
Comment below and let me know your results.
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