April 2007, Adirondack Sports & Fitness

Mental Training for Multisport Athletes

by Aubrey Schulz

Take a look around the lake before the start of a triathlon. You’ll see folks who are fidgeting with their bike, frantically rushing into transition to set up their gear. I once heard an exchange between an athlete and a supporter, “Remember this is the fun part of your life”. That’s right, you want to be here. 

You paid the entry fee, trained and now it’s your chance to show off your fitness. You've done your homework. Time has been spent swimming, biking and running. A nutritional plan has been fine tuned. You've practiced your transitions. But its race day and you’re still nervous and anxious. How have you trained mentally? Mental preparation doesn't require you to spend more money on go-fast-toys. Your hill repeats and interval workouts trained your muscles, heart and lungs. Now it’s time to train your mind. That muscle between your ears.

It’s a given you will be thinking something before and during the race. So program your thoughts towards something positive that will help you have a successful event. Remove the mental barriers so they absent on race day. Get rid of the chatter that sounds like “I hate hills. I am not a good hill runner”. These thoughts will determine how you perform on race day. Just like you set aside time to go the gym to strengthen your quads and hip flexors, you need to set aside some time to prepare yourself mentally. When and where you choose to do this is your choice, but I recommend you find somewhere quiet and relaxing where you won’t be disturbed.

I think creating a motivational motto is a great place to start. Think about a single word that invokes feelings of success and creates a powerful visual image. The acronym DARTS, highlights areas of mental training and conjures up an image of a dart slicing through the air to its target. In our case, it’s the finish line…the bulls-eye.

D: Deal with discomfort. Strong efforts are going to result in discomfort. Trying not to think about it will only result in your mind exaggerating the feelings and derailing your concentration. Try an opposite approach; place your attention on the nature and source of the discomfort. Evaluate it. Are you safe? If so, then look into yourself and negotiate, “I will arrive at the mailbox with a powerful turnover.” When you make it there, renegotiate new terms and kick it up a notch.

A: Affirm. Positive affirmations rehearsed during training and frequently repeated out loud are a powerful strategy. Create a multitude of statements that provide cues for various obstacles and challenges you may face throughout race day. “Your legs are strong to power you up over the climbs” “You eat hills”. “Run strong”. Negative comments won’t help you perform your best. Banish your “this hill is endless” thoughts. Replace it with “you can dance on the pedals”.

R: Relax. Before a race there is an optimal level of relaxation and anxiety. Have a pre-race routine in place that minimizes the possibility that something will be forgotten and overlooked. Methodically set up your transition area. Race day is not the time to try something new. Take comfort in this habit. Give yourself plenty of time to get to the race site and park. Avoid any additional stressors, like getting lost driving to the race site. Find a quiet, isolated spot where you don’t need to make small talk. Breathe. Look at the lake and settle that heart rate down. I find that a few long, slow inhales in and out through the nose are very calming.

T: Tune in. Visualize yourself as the central character in a movie. You’re the star of this triathlon movie. Picture how you move through the course during a perfect race. The more details you can add the better. See yourself powering up hills in your race day tri suit. It certainly helps if you've been on the course, either in last year’s race or during a training day. Think about the run up the beach into transition. Feel the movements of peeling your wet-suit off your shoulders. Play out the entire race. On race day as you move through transition you’ll know what needs to be done. You've played out the scenario.

S: Spotlight. Don’t take your mind off the race. You are in a race. You’re racing. Think about what you need to be doing at that very moment to succeed. I like to visualize a large red and white bulls-eye and target in on areas that might be hindering my success. While swimming, I’ll visualize the target on my bellybutton. “Am I strong through my core?” Then I’ll scan the rest of my body to assess if my positioning needs to be adjusted. “How’s my head placement?”

Spend some time thinking about your races. Where do you fall apart? Be observant during your training. What are your weaknesses? Maybe there is a word that invokes feelings of speed or stress reduction. Think about it. Put pencil to paper and create something and use those skills in training. The details of your training plan are written down. Hours swam, biked, ran and slept have been recorded.

Put a plan in place for how you will mentally handle race day. Practice it in training. And then unleash your talents, both physical and mental, on race day. Race day is opening night. You've rehearsed and prepared. You've done the training. Put on your game face, and remember this is a fun part of your life as you dart towards the finish line.