Sports Psychologist, Ph.D., ABPP
Preparing for a triathlon is a science, an art, and a fantastic achievement. Days, weeks, months and maybe a year of training have prepared you for this single event. The worst thing you could do is let your nerves get the better of you. Pre-race nerves know just the right buttons to push and sound off the inner critic in your head —
“I’m not ready for this.”
“What am I do here?”
You have given hours of dedicated training and steady determination to properly prepare for this triathlon, but what’s equally as important are the moments before the race. So much of your physical output can be affected by your overall mental well-being, making it essential to consciously care for the mental aspects as much as the physical. As race day approaches, it’s critical to be aware of the unordinary details and mental challenges that could greet you and how to navigate around them.
Here are 7 tips and tools to help ensure your pre-race nerves don’t get in the way of a great, efficient race.
Trust Your Training
You’ve put in an unbelievable amount of physical effort and time into your training. It’s easy to forget this and get caught up in the high, buzzing energy of the morning of your triathlon. Negative thoughts will creep into your mind. You know, the woulda, shoulda, coulda’s, and why you’re not prepared for this race. Our mind can be an evil place and if you let it, the negative talk can entirely eclipse all the work you’ve put into your training.
Center yourself. Take a deep breath, get back to the elements you can control and remind yourself that you are very much prepared and this is exactly where you want to be. Go back to your why. Why are you racing? What do you hope to achieve? Finding your motivation will fuel your excitement.
In the days leading up to your race, go back to your training log and review all the hard workouts you completed leading up to now. Seeing clearly just how much work you committed to being prepared will help build your confidence in your ability to perform well.
Train For Adversity
As much as we would all love a perfect race, some things get in the way. Hopefully, all will flow seamlessly and just as you planned, but it’s best to have a plan in place for dealing with unexpected challenges. It’s a good idea to assume you’ll run into a surprise and prepare for it.
Incorporate adversity training into your training program. Do things like change a bike tube when you’re exhausted even if you don’t have a flat, get comfortable swimming without goggles in case your goggles break or get kicked off your face mid-swim, or pretend your running shoe lace broke and re-lace your sneaker midway through your long run.
Preparing physically and practically can set you up for success. Well before the event, familiarize yourself with everything you can about the event – map, location, staging areas, transition zones, weather, etc. It’s also a good idea to incorporate race-specific elements into your training, do brick workouts, practice transitions, and test your race nutrition out during training. The more comfortable you are with the logistics the less unwanted setbacks will get in the way of your success.
Trust Your Equipment
Once you set up your gear in the staging area, leave it alone! Sometimes your nerves will urge you to fidget and tinker with your equipment – being overly concerned with tire pressure, checking your power meter, second-guessing your hydration and nutrition – this is where mistakes happen. You may find yourself putting too much air in your tire and it pops or you’re attempting to dial in your aero bars or seat height and something breaks.
The last thing you want is your equipment to crash on you 10 minutes before the race or worse, mid-race. Take a deep breath and know you are ready to go. Your equipment setup has worked for you in training, don’t try to make changes on race day.
My favorite breathing exercise to help keep you focused and away from your equipment is Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing technique, inhale 4 seconds, hold 7 seconds, and exhale 8 seconds.
Visualize How Your Race Will Unfold
You’ve made it. All your training has led up to today! The biggest mental tool you can give yourself today is visualizing what it’ll be like when you cross the finish line. Take some time to go to the finish line and paint a mental picture of what it will look and feel like. Take a moment to read through the following exercise to walk yourself through your finish:
See your self running toward the finish line, you feel the pain of the race and the adrenaline of the crowd, you take it all in, the cheers of the crowd, the multitude of homemade signs you see bobbing up and down, you see and hear your family and friends waving to you, you high five strangers in the crowd as you come closer to the finish line, you hear the announcer rattling off names of those finishing ahead of you and now you hear your name as you cross the line, smiling and exhausted your race day medal gets placed around your neck and you are greeted by hugs from your team who just watched you kick ass and accomplish your goal.
Focus on your inner-strength. Fill your head with abundant positivity. Stress and anxiety are energy wasted, so put it all to good use and imagine what it will be like when you’ve accomplished what you set out to do.
Have A Relaxed Focus
Keep your cool. Now, I recognize how loaded this is to ask but letting your nervous energy and stress get to you is more energy than it’s worth. In the staging area, remain focused on your personal exertion. Be alert but not impulsive. Be focused but not single-minded.
Take note of all the worrying and nervous chatter around you but do your best to remain zen and go through your pre-race checklist. If music helps, put on your favorite playlist and tune out. Your pre-race warm up is a great way to not only prime your body for the task ahead but is also a great method to focus your mind and reduce anxiety ahead of your start.
Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
We’re human and pre-race jitters are often unavoidable. Guess what, it’s okay! Instead of trying to completely block out the nerves, why not reframe them into excited, positive energy entirely within your control? Some level of pre-race nerves is a good sign your emotionally invested in the race and your body is in a heightened state, ready to perform at its best.
Take this time to fuel your motivation with affirmations, mantras, prayers, breathing, whatever your used to doing many times before. Consider picking some power words or phrases to help focus (and re-focus) your mind and bring in the confidence you know you have. Some of my favorites “I belong here”, “I’ve got this,” “I’ve done the training,” “winners win”, “gratitude,” or “what will I learn about myself today?”
Compete for those who can’t and acknowledge the opportunity you have to be able to participate in this race. One of my favorite triathlons was held in Pacific Grove in the ’90s. One year, professional triathlete Dave Scott gave a brief talk to attendees before the race and gave some excellent advice. The one thing he said that has stuck with me to this day was, “No matter how you are feeling at the end of your race be sure to smile as you cross the finish line. Smile for the hard work you put in, smile for your team, smile for your family, and smile for those who couldn’t race today.”
Reflect over how far you’ve come to get to this point and the milestones already achieved in your training. Celebrate in all you’ve done and leave all the rest out on the race course.
Dr. David McIntyre is a high-performance sports psychologist with over 25 years of experience working with athletes of all abilities, including professional athletes in the MLB, NFL, NBA, and more. He is also the founder of Untapped Potential Sports Psychology where he works with athletes to develop the mental skills and practices to achieve breakthrough performances.