It’s All In Your Head
Fine tuning the body ready for race day is an accepted and essential part of any triathlete’s build up to an event. But what about the organ charged with controlling all of those muscles that is sometimes left unprepared and unable to cope when the going gets really tough?
Here, GoGoRace brings you some expert advice to ensure your brain is in the right mindset when you line-up on the start line.
We’ve all seen friends, rival competitors and even the professionals lose their cool and hit the self destruct button during competition, often leaving their hopes of a victory laying in tatters. The most talented, physically fit or generally superior competitor does not always come out on top, with some people falling foul of the mental demons which, at times, can affect us all.
In triathlon, if you’re not fit, you’re not in the race. As people train harder, longer and smarter, the physical differences between a field of triathletes can become nominal, meaning the mental aspect could separate the best from the rest.
Embrace the race
Training your mind and heeding some expert advice may just extract that extra juice that gets you over the finishing line first. But how do we unlock that extra brain power? Well, according to Alan Rapley, a neuro-linguistic programmer who specialises in personal development and psychotherapy, the training starts long before you pin the entry number onto your vest.
“I tell athletes that if they’ve done everything in their control to compete the best they can, there’s no reason to be nervous,” he says, indicating that mental preparation is as simplistic as packing your bag the night before or repeating a familiar warm-up. And Rapley is well versed in the affects that the brain can have on performance, having worked with a psychologist for six years prior to captaining the Great Britain Swimming Team at the 1996 Olympics.
The individual nature of triathlon leaves you with nowhere to hide, no one to call on and no one to pick up the pieces if you make a mistake. But far from being fearful that you’re out there on your own, it’s important to embrace the situation that you’re in, according to James Lambdon.
“All the preparation, motivation and determination fall to the individual. The athlete needs to appraise the upcoming race as a challenge rather than a threat, which is easier if feelings of control, confidence and focus are high,” says Lambdon, a sports psychologist who works with elite athletes at St Mary’s University.
The process of visualising what the race may have in store and how you’re going to deal with any set-backs that occur – a technique used by three-time Iron Man world champion Mirinda Carfrae – can also help. “I picture myself warming up, how it feels and even what it smells like,” she said. “When I get to race day I feel as if I’m on autopilot. Over-thinking wastes energy. I welcome the nerves, it means I’m ready.”
Face your demons
Every triathlete, from amateurs to pros, will have dreamt about winning their next race, but reenacting the worst case scenario – one where you trip, have a bad swim or fall off your bike – could put you in a better place to succeed. “I don’t picture the perfect start to the swim, I picture being pummelled,” says Carfrae. “Visualisation puts me in the best position to handle any positive or negative eventualities.”
When your back’s against the wall, when the leading pack is getting further and further away, and when your legs feel like failing you, this is the moment that you can use what Lambdon calls “ingrained coping strategies” to turn things around.
These techniques include localising pain to a specific area of the body, mentally locking it away, shouting at it internally, or rating it out of ten; i.e this is only a seven; I’ve got three notches to go. “Understand that pain means you’re going fast and pushing your body,” says Rapley. “We used a technique called ‘black box’ when I swam. We asked: ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen? I might throw up. Can I live with that? Yes.’ It taps into neanderthal instincts. ‘Is it going to kill me? If not then I can go with it’.”
The finishing line may sometimes feel like it’s never going to arrive on the final leg of a triathlon, and thinking about your favourite song may not be a strong enough distraction from the pain. Instead, focussing on performance-based thoughts, such as your stride length and assessing your heart rate, helps you focus on regulating pace to ensure a strong finish.
Believe to achieve
Of course, it’s not an easy thing to do to put pain to the back of your mind and find another gear when you don’t think there is one. Doubts creep into even the most mentally tough athlete’s mind, and dealing with them, even using them as a spur, can act as the catalyst for an upturn in fortunes.
Carfrae had two Iron Man world titles to her name as she battled for a third at last year’s championships in Kona, but even she was not immune to self doubt. “For the first five miles I didn’t believe I could win. Being the defending champ, anything other than winning feels like failure, but once I released the pressure and switched focus to finish in the top five those negative feelings completely flipped,” she said.
Talking to yourself is often seen as the first sign of madness, but that’s not the case in triathlon. Positive self-talk, either out loud or internally, has been proven to increase performance, allowing you to interpret your feelings, give instruction to your body and receive feedback.
While your average triathlete can only dream of having the bundles of experience available to Carfrae to call upon in times of need, there are certain tactics that every triathlete, regardless of level, can employ. “If triathletes are aware of what’s going on around them, enjoying the scenery or simply trying to catch the competitor in front, it takes the shift from an internal ‘How am I feeling?’ to something more dissociative,” Lambdon says. “This can lead to euphoria of what you’re actually doing.”
Recalling thoughts of previous races and triumphs can also act as a source of self belief to help keep your legs pumping. Knowing that you’ve been in the same position before and come through the other side can be enough to help push you through.
Control the controllable
This is the most obvious tip we can give, but one which is often ignored: control only what is in your power to do so. “Look at what is in your control,” Rapley says. “You cannot control debris on the road, so it’s not worth getting worked up about. But you can practice changing a tyre. Break races into segments and label them ‘control’, ‘cannot control’ and ‘influence’, then apply it to your training methodology to take the worry away.”
Getting worked up and frustrated during an event can not only impact on your performance but also detract from your enjoyment of the race. And that’s what triathlon should be about – enjoying competing in one of the most physically demanding sports in the world.
Specifically on the bike, a happy rider is a faster rider. As proved by professor Samuele Marcora’s research group at Kent University. Thirteen cyclists were shown happy and sad faces as they rode to perceived exhaustion in the lab. Those staring at smiles rode 13% longer than those left looking at the moody faces. Enjoy the ride, people!