By Paul Ruggiero
CTS Triathlon Coach
Summer is in full swing and that means many triathletes are in peak form. Olympic and Sprint races are happening just about every weekend, and the fall Ironman races loom in the near future. Hopefully all the hours you’re logging are paying off and fitness is good, so it’s time to start thinking about ways add to your bag of race day tools.
Work on what you don’t like
Athletes like to feel good and remain confident while training. As triathletes we often focus our training on our strengths and on the activities we enjoy. It’s more fun and you’re faster, right? If you’ve been building base and now have turned that into race form, now is the time to shore up your weakness. Your form on what you’re good at isn’t going anywhere. For one thing, it takes weeks to detrain. For another, you’re using the same energy systems, and there will be enough stimulus to keep the fitness you already have. So set the bike aside for a few days a week and add extra swim workouts. Or drop the track session and get another day on the bike trainer under your belt. Make that extra effort count and be very specific. Simply adding an arbitrary session doesn’t help; it needs to have the focus. This means a power based interval set, or 400 meter time trials in the pool that are focused on keeping splits consistent from set to set. Get comfortable with training what you’re uncomfortable with.
Work on your mental game
Imagine being able to record the dialogue and noise running through your head when you’re training or racing. Think about it. There are always voices or thoughts moving around inside the hamster wheel upstairs. And that inner dialogue isn’t always helpful. While you train, you have a great opportunity to plan for the mental challenges that arise during races. More importantly, plan for how you are going to deal with all those thoughts running through your head.
The mental aspect of training is vastly underemphasized for many athletes, but here’s a simple trick to keep you present and positive. Realize and accept that thoughts will come and go. Acknowledge each thought as it filters into your head. Take a look at it, observe it, then put it into a little balloon and let it drift back off into the sky. Then go back to looking at the road in front of you. And then another thought will appear. Label it … “Oh wow, I’m daydreaming about my dog again.” “Did I leave the stove on?” “Man, this next hill is going to hurt.” Now put the thought into a little balloon, actually see the words or an image inside the little balloon, then cut the string, see it drift off, then go back to focusing on the task at hand. That moment when you can actually see the words or image in the balloon, you’ve won. You’re back to being present and mindful, instead of letting those distractions or negative thoughts control you. Control your racing thoughts, don’t let them control you. When you can’t see or acknowledge them, then they are in control. And they will mess you up. Practicing mindfulness and staying in the present will make the crazy, negative thoughts that might arise on race day more manageable.
Pick some fun little local races! Don’t wear the timing chip! Cover the power meter on rides!
This one freaks athletes out. The resistance to this from the athletes I coach is always HUGE. “Why spend money on a race and not wear a timing chip? What about Strava? I want my data and times so I can see where I stack up! How can I ride without seeing my power?!”
I’ve heard all those. Look, triathlon is a simple sport. Swim, bike and run. We’ve been doing these things since we were 8 years old. As adults, we tend to complicate things. Even swimming, biking and running. Every once in a while, go out and train and race without a computer or even a timing chip. Unplug from the data and just experience the sport unfiltered.
Practice Self Empathy
Give yourself a break. Part of the benefit of training or even racing without data is that data leads to self-criticism. In many cases that’s good. It’s part of the data analysis you use to evaluate and adjust training. But athletes can also be their harshest critics, and during a long training period that constant criticism is exhausting.
Athletes focus on a goal race, circle it on the calendar and work with steadfast determination toward that goal. That’s awesome, but also constricting. Be flexible! You’ve been training to have optimal fitness, but remember that fitness isn’t some fragile heirloom. Don’t be afraid to go have fun with it!
Listen to The Beatles
You should pretty much always listen to The Beatles.
Plan for “The Cycle”
I coach the athletes I work with to be ready for “The Cycle”. As in life, a triathlon can be the best of times and the worst of times (very Dickens, I know). There will be times in a race when everything is going perfectly. The effort seems easy. There is a current/tailwind/downhill. Enjoy it, but remember that it won’t last forever. And when things go bad and you lose your goggles, get a flat, or cramp at mile 1 of the run, remember that the bad times won’t last forever, either. We tend to focus on what is going wrong at our races, not what goes right. Flip that. Spend time celebrating the what’s going right part of racing as it’s happening.
Prepare for the worst
Change a flat tire… in your living room… as fast as you can. Do it again, and again. Just in case. Swim laps without your goggles. Just in case. Run in the hottest part of the day, and in the rain. Just in case.
You never know what curve race day will throw at you. Weather and mechanicals can’t be controlled, but your response can be practiced. Throw a couple worst-case scenarios into your training this summer so you have it covered when something goes south on race day.
Now, go forth and have a great rest of the summer. Just remember to get out of your comfort zone!