Sport Psychology Tips for Triathlon

By Dr. Mitchell Greene, Mental Health Editor

Sports Psych Tips for Tri

1. If you have a nasty habit of being unkind to yourself, race day is probably the best day to give yourself a break. Make a promise now to try to be as kind to yourself as you would be to others on race day. Let me remind you that your only competition is with yourself.

2. It can be helpful to remember that you always have choices. Obviously, you chose to sign up for the race and train for it. Now you get to choose how fast to swim and what stroke to use. You may choose to speed up while biking or slow down to a walk during the run portion of the race. You may even choose to stop altogether. So what? In this race, you get to make all the choices as you go along. Remember, nothing and nobody is propelling you to do this in a particular way or for one spectacular goal. I think you will agree that you don’t need that kind of pressure.

3. You might think that your race-day fears are unique. You are not the only one who worries about being able to swim the distance, whether an injury will reoccur while you bike, or that you’re the runner everyone will pity cheer. Fear is an ever-present companion at every level of the sport: novice through professional. Fear always precedes courageous action.

4. Don’t overcompensate for anxious and negative thoughts by propping yourself up with overly positive affirmations. Recent research has shown that trying to make yourself feel good when you really feel worried will backfire and make you feel worse. Too much positive self-talk to combat anxiety is like trying to throw yourself a surprise party. It just doesn’t work.

5. Paradoxically, acknowledging your fears can be the best way to cut through the tension. Allow those anxious thoughts to come. Stop fighting with them and gradually they will go. It’s best not to ignore negative thinking or give it more attention than it deserves. The roller coaster of emotions is the predictable fallout of moving out of your comfort zone. This is also a good time to focus on your breathing. Breathe in through your nose for a count of three, and then out through your mouth for a count of five, and repeat. You can do this breathing as you set up transition and/or wait to enter the water at the race.

6. Athletes have found that the best first step to embracing exertion pain is to expect it. Thus, once it arrives it can be greeted as a guest rather than an intruder. In order to improve your pain tolerance, you need to practice using your most demanding workouts as your guide. For example, prior to your interval or tempo sessions you should develop a plan to welcome the pain as you get closer to your threshold. Some athletes use a mantra like “stay curious” or “be courageous” that help them persevere when the pain of maximum effort kicks in. Besides the physical gains achieved in those workouts, athletes learn to use their exertion pain as fuel for tenacity on race day.

7. A great way to build confidence is to draft a mental blueprint of the course. As race day gets closer, visualize yourself smoothly moving through tough sections and taking advantage of easier sections on the course. You can also incorporate difficult situations that could occur in your race. For example, how will you mentally handle feeling more tired than expected in the first half of your swim, or having much heavier than expected legs as you set out on your run? Of course you can’t plan for everything, but with mental preparation beforehand, you will be better equipped to handle anxiety during the race.

8. For those perfectionists out there, consider the 90 percent law: When athletes overly focus on feeling and giving 100 percent, they push for perfection. This paradoxically leads to more tension and poorer performance. It is better to concentrate on giving 90 percent. Incorporating the 90 percent law into your triathlon mental game-plan can allow you to be more relaxed. It may also help prevent self-defeating frustration and possible injury.

9. A rule of thumb in endurance events is that breaking the race down into sections can help you set small, achievable goals that motivate you. Focusing on the race distance in its entirety gives you nothing in return except anxiety. As you become more fatigued, even focusing on something just 20 feet in front of you can help you stay on track. Keep your thinking small and remember that how you feel can and will change as the terrain changes, as you take in calories, and as you let yourself slow down a bit to relax the muscles in your face and shoulders.

10. Finally, take time to recall your mindset when you clicked on the “Register” button for your triathlon race. At that moment, you were probably thinking less about splits and final chip times than you were with creating an opportunity for yourself to get fitter, train harder, race smarter, and cross the finish line smiling as a half-ironman finisher. It’s important not to let your reasons for racing be overshadowed by ego-dominated pressure to finish in a certain time that proves how wonderful and terrific you are. You are already wonderful and terrific so why not just race for the fun of it?

Dr. Mitchell Greene is a leading licensed clinical and sport psychologist, whose success over the past 15 plus years is his ability to tailor personalized solutions to his client’s problems. The breadth of Dr. Greene’s clinical expertise with young adults and families and the energy and focus he brings to his relationships with athletes, coaches and teams makes Dr. Greene perfectly suited to advise and support his clients as they strive to reach their personal best.

In addition to office consultations, Dr. Greene writes articles and delivers workshops and presentations to numerous schools and organizations, such as US Squash, USA Triathlon, The Episcopal Academy, Down the Line and Beyond Foundation, Delmo Sports Elite Events, The Hill School, The Psychotherapy Networker, and SpeakUp! He is the sport psychology consultant to several high school athletic departments, and is an Adjunct Instructor in Temple University’s College of Public Health.

Dr. Greene is married with three children, and received his undergraduate degree in psychology and human resources management from Boston College, and his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Temple University. He also spent an additional fellowship year at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, specializing in family therapy. Dr. Greene is very active in endurance sports, such as marathon running, triathlons and adventure racing.

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