Five Mental Steps to Achieving a Breakthrough Triathlon Performance

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Thinking inside the triathlon box

How much to train, how far to swim bike, run, what carbon aero widget to buy and much more…the triathlon space has no end of guidance on these topics, much of it confusing and contradictory, but comparatively little about how to actually execute on race day. What little there is focuses on what pace, heart rate, watts to swim, bike, or run at, how much to eat and drink, and much more.

But in our experience, success on race day is much more about what goes on between your ears. We’d like to share with you the steps we use to prepare our athletes to achieve breakthrough performances on race day.

Step 1: Forget Your Fitness

Understand that all you’ve done in training for 3, 6, 9 or more months is build a fitness vehicle. Race day is about how you drive that vehicle the race distance and across the finishline. All the fitness in the world can’t help you if you don’t know how to drive it properly!

This becomes more true as race distance increases. Simply put, you can’t fake the funk in the long course game, as evidenced by the hundreds of very, very fit athletes under-performing because they don’t know how to drive their fitness vehicle properly.

Step 2: Separate Yourself from the Outcome

Once the race starts…forget the outcome. Forget goal times, placings, everything. In our experience, chasing the outcome will often force you to make decisions in the short term that will eventually prove to be counter to your long term, outcome goals.


Step 3: Identify Critical Junctions of the Race

Where are opportunities on the course to gain time? To lose time? Where is my competition most likely to make mistakes that I will avoid and achieve a better outcome?

A few examples:

  • Short course racing: Swim placement and seeding to take advantage of faster swimmers, currents, avoid navigation mistakes, etc. Critical parts of the bike course where you can gain time — hills, descents, corners, tailwinds and other places where you can apply your focus to gain time on your competition. The same on the run course — where is that downhill that you can bomb? The hills at the end that I can attack if I hold back a bit in the first couple miles?
  • Long course racing: While the notes above apply to the long course swim, energy conservation becomes more important. On the bike, the longer the ride the more it becomes about not making mistakes — too hard up hills and into headwinds, coasting too much, letting off the gas in tailwinds, etc — rather than actively trying to make something happen, to gain time. This is true because, as race distance increases, the chance of failure on the run increases dramatically.You only need to stand at mile 20 of the Ironman® run to see the consequences of short term, outcome focused thinking, as poorly executing athletes are forced to slow down dramatically, giving up any time, and much, much more, they may have gained earlier in the day. Therefore the critical junction of the long course run is the last quarter to third of the distance, as this is when early pacing and other mistakes will begin to express themselves.

Step 4: Focus on Executing the Processes That Sets Up Success at These Critical Junctions

Your job then is to manage the process, now, in real time, that sets you up for success at these critical junctions above. We call this “Racing in the Box:” put your head in a Box and make the best decisions you can within that Box.

The Box:

  • Is only as big as what you can control, right now.
  • Forget goals, expectations, the Outcome. Put your head in the Box, execute as best you can in the Box, and let the Outcome come to you, as a result of excellent process management and good decisions.
  • Good decisions made within the Box are those that set you up for success at the critical junctions above. For example, ask yourself “Self, is this decision I’m about to make consistent with my critical goal to set up the last quarter to one third of the run, or am I chasing that non-existant KOM at the top of this hill?” If the answer is “inconsistent,” make the right decision, sit down, shut up, execute and let the Outcome come to you. Don’t chase it!

Step 5: Never Give Up!

So you’re in your Box, have pushed the Outcome out of the Box, and are making the best decisions you can within the Box that set you up for success at the Critical Junctions of the race. But the numbers aren’t what you expected — splits, watts, pace, whatever.

You expected temperatures, winds, hills, conditions X but you’re getting a very different set of Y’s which, as you make decisions within your Box, begin to make it appear that your Outcome isn’t going to happen. DO NOT GIVE UP! Why?

  • If conditions are hard for you, they are likely hard for everyone else. As a smart, well-disciplined, well-executing triathlete, you want winds, hills, heat, cold, rain and much more because they force you and your competition to make decisions. You make good ones, they make bad ones, they and your desired Outcome come back to you!
  • To do otherwise is to disrespect your training self. That is, Training Self put up hundreds of hours and swam, biked, and ran thousands of miles to put Racing Self on the starting line. Racing Self owes Training Self his/her best effort. Period, full stop.
  • Finally, you never know what is going on in the race up the road. Hard for you is hard for everyone else, don’t give up! The guys that hammered by you on the bike course? They could still come back to you as those mistakes express themselves, don’t give up!! The guy that passed you at mile 12 of the run? He could be in a portajohn, walking, or under a bush at mile 24…don’t give up!!!

In Summary

Separate your race into Outcomes. Critical Junctions of the race that will enable these Outcomes, and know the Processes that set up success at these Critical Junctions. Then, forget the Outcome, put your head in the Box, and focus on the Process of making good decisions. Let the Outcomes come to you, as the natural result of good, consistent decision-making.

Finally, don’t give up! You’re smart…you want hard! Don’t disrespect your Training Self by not giving it your best effort, because you never know what is going on in the race up the road!




Coach P

All stories by: Coach P

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