Triathlon Psychology articles
Here are extracts from some of the sports psychology articles that I've written on the psychology of triathlon and running. They have appeared in the 220 Triathlon Magazine, Triathlete's World, Triathlon Plus and Runner's World magazines. Click on the title to jump to the relevant piece:
How do I develop race day confidence?
How do I squash race day nerves?
How can I stay motivated for the next 10 months?
How can I conquer hill running?
Will running help me overcome depression?
My first (or key) race is coming up and I'm getting worried. What can I do?
I get stressed and panic when I have to do an open water swim. Help!
I've had a bike crash and need help getting my biking confidence back
4 quick psychological tips for the Ironman run
How do I develop race day confidence for triathlons?
Tip one: Prepare by going through race simulations. Set up training to practice for the event(s) you’ve entered. Make your training physically and practically similar to the event. This means that you at least once swim, bike and run:
At the same speeds as you expect to in the race
Over the same distance (or close to the distance if it is a long triathlon)
On the same terrain (open-water swim, hilly or flat bike and run courses)
With the same equipment as you expect to use in the race
Tip 2: Use your imagery skills to visualise yourself completing the swim, bike and run with things going well, or when presented with challenges (e.g. puncture on the bike, torrential downpour etc) you see yourself cope well with these challenges and finish feeling proud with how you reacted.
Tip 3: Generate a race day plan: This will include what will you do when and the pace (speed or heart rate) you plan to hold.
How do I squash race day nerves?
Tip 1: Think about why you have chosen to do the race. Is it for fun, camaraderie with your friends, to beat your friends, a challenge or something else? Keep this in mind on race day.
Tip 2: Catch the wild horses’ thoughts. When nervous our thoughts often try to run amok. We think in more extreme and catastrophic ways. For example, we may think: “Something must be wrong,” “Something must be about to go wrong,” “Something bad will happen,” and so on. Then you predict what these nightmare situations may be: a dunking in the swim, going off course, crashing on the bike… Recognise that your thoughts may become more extreme, negative and unhelpful. Reframe them if they appear as simply a feature of being up for the race and wanting to do well for yourself. Refocus on what you are there to do, your plans for the event and goals. Remind yourself that you are there to do your best, that’s all. Then go out there and try to enjoy it.
How can I stay motivated?
"After watching the Great North Run on TV, I’ve decided to enter next year’s race. How can I make sure I stay motivated for the next 10 months?"
Great. Finding a reason to run and choosing your first event is the biggest hurdle to overcome. Now you've got a reason to run, train, get fit...
What is it you want again? Think about what you want out of the event: to finish, to run/jog/walk it, to enjoy it or something else. This is important because it will help to keep you motivated and focused during training if you not only know what you are training for (the race) but also know what you want out of it (so you'll know how to run the event). It will also help to tell you what you need to do between now and then to reach your goal.
Variety is the spice! Keep motivation high by keeping your runs varied and fun (or at least interesting). So, do runs of different lengths or durations, do some flat and hilly runs, runs with faster bits, road and off-road runs - variety will be good for keeping your interest high and give a good training effect on the body too.
Try to run with other runners. See if you can get some of your non-running friends to run or join a running club. Knowing that there is someone expecting you at certain place and time will help get you out the door when otherwise you might talk yourself out of the run.
Go racing! Enter some races that will act like stepping-stones to your main event. For instance, if you have entered a half-marathon you could enter a couple of 5K and 10K races to keep your motivation high and give you a target to aim for. Then, you can learn from your experience to help you manage your main event (e.g., how fast should I start off, how do I drink during the event). Also, completing these events successfully will give you great confidence that you are on route to being well prepared for the big day.
How can I conquer hill running?
"I regularly run hill reps at 85 per cent of my maximum heart rate (MHR) but when I’m halfway through the session, I feel like giving up. What should I concentrate on to get me through the repetitions?"
Training in the 85 per cent MHR zone – threshold pace – is very demanding, and isn’t for beginners. Your body can’t work this close to its maximum every time you ask it to: there may be limiting factors such as dehydration, or not having recovered properly from your previous training sessions. Assuming these factors are not a problem, try these mental tricks to get you up the hill.
Before the session: Think about why you’re doing this session. What do you want to achieve from it? Why is it important to do the session? Identifying one or two key reasons should help to boost your motivation, persistence and effort.
Think about the session you are going to do: when, where, with whom, how many repetitions. Add to this what it will be like to experience the session – what will it really feel like, what will you see. “See” yourself running well, with good form, being heavily taxed, but being fine with it. This will help to prepare you for the session and give you the confidence to complete it.
During the session: Don’t concentrate on your watch as you run up the hill – perhaps look at it when you reach the top and later to determine your heart rate at the end of your recovery. Instead, ensure you maintain good form, such as high knees or driving off the balls of your feet, and not tension or forced movements that raise your heart rate, but actually reduce your efficiency and speed.
Give yourself encouragement during (and credit for completing) the session. High-heart-rate sessions are tough, don’t make them tougher by giving yourself a hard time for not hitting your maximum every time.
Will running help me overcome depression?
"I love running but two years ago my motivation started to slip and I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I am recovering well, and would like to start running again. My therapist says the same amount of activity every day will help stabilise my mood. As I shouldn’t run every day – at least to start with – how can I maintain this important balance of activity and rest every day?"
To successfully return to running, recognise that your fitness will have dropped. Ward off any negative thoughts by being realistic and positive about how long it will take to get back to your previous condition. Keep the amount of activity you do consistent day-to-day by coming up with a couple of alternatives to running. You could run for 30 minutes on day one, walk for 30 minutes on day two and stretch for 30 minutes on day three. Try to do the activity at the same time every day: you’re more likely to stick with it.
Run in a pleasant environment and focus on enjoying what you see and hear and not on your times or heart rate. The run will be stimulating and you’ll feel a sense of achievement when you finish because you will have done something for yourself. Only increase the time you spend running and the number of days you run after consulting your therapist – you don’t want to overdo it, or risk an injury, because coping with setbacks will be more of a challenge if you are depressed.
Recognise your improvements. Keep your goals modest. Reward yourself for just going out and running and sticking to your new fitness routine. This will help you have a successful reintroduction to running, minimise injury risk, and provide you with a greater sense of enjoyment.
"My first (or key) race is coming up and I'm getting worried.
What can I do?"
Feeling intimidated or nervous before your first triathlon is common. Even seasoned competitors get anxious before the first race of the year or important events. Here are a few tips that should help you feel ready for your first event:
Think about why you have chosen to do the race. Is it for fun, camaraderie with your friends, to beat your friends, a challenge or something else? Keep this in mind when you prepare.
Prepare physically and practically for the event. You mention using the gym – get on the exercise bike and treadmill. Then start going to the pool, riding and running outside. Later, go to the pool at busier times to get used to crowded swimming, ride and run with others too (most triathlon clubs are friendly places where you can achieve this). Swim in open water (never alone). Finally, try out all the gear you plan to use on race day.
Reframe the event in more helpful ways. For instance, instead of seeing it as a race, you could think of the triathlon as a ‘fun run’ type of event, that you want to simply complete and have a bit of fun along the way. This would reduce the pressure. Also, keep in mind that the other competitors are people - not some other scary breed - simply focused and going after their goals of challenging themselves. Don’t let yourself become intimidated by them.
Use your imagery skills to visualise yourself completing the swim, bike and run with things going well, or when presented with challenges (e.g. puncture on the bike, torrential downpour etc), but see yourself cope well with the event either way.
On race day allow yourself to (1) start at the back or side of the swim to give yourself more space, (2) back off on the bike, and (3) jog or walk the run.
By following the tips above and by keeping hold of your excitement about getting back in sport again, you will feel more confident and less nervous about your first event. Have a good one!
"I get stressed and panic when I have to do an open water swim. Help!"
Feelings of panic are common at the start of a race but then usually reduce 10-15 min after the start. Triathletes are more likely to experience them if there is an open water swim with a mass start. Panic isn’t simply a feeling (fear), but also comes with associated bodily sensations, thoughts and actions. We all can experience panic but sometimes it is triggered at unhelpful times – such as at triathlon.
You asked for advice so here are some suggestions of what you and other people in your situation can do:
Look for the threat(s) that trigger your panic:
Is it tiring out before the end of the swim (no pool wall to hang onto)?
Is it being whacked by other competitors?
Is it not being able to breathe in a tight wetsuit?
Is it turning in a poor performance despite all the training you’ve been doing?
Is it being dumped by a wave or attacked by a swan?
Once you have identified the possible triggers, think about:
How you could cope with the different scenarios? Would you get through it? Would it be really be so terrible?
How you can structure training sessions to practice for these scenarios so you become confident about handling them should they occur?
More specific tips that can help with panic around open water starts include:
Positioning yourself at the start of the swim where you will have some space (e.g., to the side).
Starting the swim at a sustainable and reasonable pace (for you) – don’t let the excitement/fear cause you to swim too fast because you are fuelled by adrenaline – as you will start to pay a price for this within a few minutes.
Focusing on having a relaxed stroke with good form, on taking good normal breaths (not short shallow ones), and on staying relaxed.
If you experience panic again, these suggestions will ensure that it will be less intense, less worrying and have a briefer impact.
"Help, I've had a bike crash and
need help to get my biking confidence back!"
"I¹ve fallen off my bike on an autumnal ride and seem to have lost all my confidence on the bike. Should I just turbo until race season starts or do something to tackle my fears of being on the road?"
A loss of confidence after a bike crash or fall is common. You don’t have to hurt yourself for confidence to be lost. In fact, the amount of confidence lost isn’t directly related to the severity of the accident or the degree of injuries you get. Some people have little spills and get shaken up a lot, whereas others seem to have major crashes and brush it off relatively easily.
So why is confidence lost after a fall? The main reason is that the fall is both unpleasant and unexpected. If so, it shocks and makes you think about what has gone on so you can make sure it won’t happen again. This is why you go over and over the fall in your mind.
There are 3 key elements to being confident on your bike once more:
Recognise that accidents happen – you can’t control what other road users do (I’ve known cyclists at the front of a group to turn left without signalling wiping out several riders behind).
Believe in your ability, in what you can do, your skills.
While riding the turbo all winter can be tempting and good for some elements of fitness, it won’t help you feel more confident in your bike handling ability and in being able to deal with road conditions. Here’s a plan to help build up your confidence once again:
Make some notes about the situation when you crashed: road surface smooth/bumpy/gravel, dry/wet, downhill/flat/uphill, ride alone/group etc.
List 5-10 types of rides from the easiest riding conditions through to the most difficult. E.g., ride with good friend for 30 mins in dry, at quiet time, on flat route through to ride in usual group, 3 hours, showery weather, keep in group on downhills. Ensure that elements that were there on the day of your crash are there in some of the later rides.
Imagine in your mind, how you will be during these rides. See yourself managing the conditions, managing any fear or uneasiness.
Ride your list of rides. Repeat each of rides more than once if you want to. Notice your confidence rise with each ride.
Congratulate yourself for facing your fears. You’ll be better prepared and faster come race season.
Managing race emotion in triathlon
Come race day, your emotions often have a major impact on your race performance. Emotions play a big role in your race psychology. Emotions or feelings include anxiety, fear, anger, frustration, despondency, disgust, elation, joy, love, terror, surprise, sadness and more. They can be thought of as adding colour to your experience. They determine whether you experience what you do (including competitions) positively or negatively, and therefore how much you enjoy your sport. Managing emotional reactions in competition is important for everyone who competes - whether novice or elite. I have successfully used the techniques covered here with athletes in a wide range of sports and during my own preparation for local races, national races and the Triathlon World Championships.
Here are four key points about emotions:
1. Different people will often feel different emotions in similar situations. For example, if two rivals met just before a race, one athlete may feel happy to meet his adversary, whereas the other may feel angry because he thinks that he will probably be beaten again (by his adversary) as his training hasn’t been consistent recently.
2. Emotions can be felt with differing degrees of intensity. For example, we can feel a little fear as we descend as steep hill on our bike, or very fearful if we had crashed 5 minutes ago when we descended the previous hill.
3. Emotions are related to the situation we find ourselves in, but also to our thoughts and actions (i.e., behaviour). Situations lead to certain emotional reactions, along with particular types of thoughts, physical reactions and things that we do, which then impact on the emotion.
Perhaps it is help if I explain this relationship between a situation, our emotional response, thoughts, physical sensations and behaviour by using a hypothetical, but quite common example of pre-race nerves. Sue is in her second year of triathlon. In her first year she completed three triathlons of sprint distance or shorter. As Sue talks to other triathletes after a club training session about her first Olympic distance triathlon (the situation) that is approaching, she feels anxious (the emotion). Sue has images (the thoughts) in her mind of struggling in the swim (her first open-water swim), seeing her swim goggles being kicked off, of being swum over, and breathing in big gulps of water. She thinks: “Will I get through the swim?” “What if I am last to finish the bike leg? “Will I run out of energy on the run?” Her heart starts to race, she feels it pounding in her chest, and she feels a bit jittery and queasy (the physical sensations). Sue excuses herself and heads to the loo (the behaviour). She now feels more anxious than a few moments ago and wonders what’s wrong with her.
We can see in this example that Sue’s thoughts, physical sensations and behaviour are consistent with her emotion – anxiety. Each of these elements caused an increase in her sense of anxiety, partly because they each provided evidence that she was right to feel anxious.
4. Probably most importantly, we have the capacity to influence our emotions. Now that we have an understanding of how emotions influence our thoughts, physical sensations and actions, we can use this knowledge to influence our emotions. Our goal then should become to increase the presence and intensity of positive feelings – those which we like experiencing or those associated with good performances and enjoyment of our races – and decrease the presence and intensity of negative feelings – those associated with a decrease in our performance and enjoyment of triathlon. So, I hear you ask, how do we do this? Well, as it isn’t possible to tackle emotions directly, we will work on the three elements which are products of and which contribute to our emotions: our thoughts, physical sensations and actions.
I believe that the emotions that have the greatest negative impact on triathletes are frustration and anger, anxiety, and despondency. This extract from the two published articles will look at frustration and anger.
Addressing frustration and anger
Frustration and anger are really part of the same emotional response. Anger often develops following a build-up of frustration and can be thought of as a more intense emotion. Many situations in triathlon have the potential to lead to frustration and then anger. For example, in the swim being kicked, punched or having someone constantly hitting your feet, on the bike being drafted (in a non-drafting race), or on the run being barged, cut-off at a turn or dropped by that drafter earlier on the bike.
Let’s take the example of someone drafting you on the bike. If you found yourself in this situation you may have the following thoughts, physical sensations and actions:
Thoughts such as: “It’s not fair.” “They are using me.” “They are taking advantage of me.” These thoughts will lead to stress hormones (e.g., adrenaline) being dumped into your blood stream to prepare you to deal with the threat.
These hormones will cause different physical sensations: Your heart rate increases, blood is diverted away from your digestive system to your muscles so you have more oxygen available, you may feel jittery. Quick-release carbohydrate-rich instant energy is made available to your muscles so you can react to the threat.
In terms of your actions or behaviour, the physical changes and your thoughts will make it almost inevitable that you push too hard, well above any intensity or heart rate you may have been trying to race at. You may try to blast off on the bike so the drafter will drop off your back wheel. Pushing this hard is bad news for your race plan. In a few minutes you will pay for going over the ‘red line’ by having to race at a much lower intensity until your body is able to recover from its extra effort. You will actually lose more time than you had gained through your burst of speed. The extra carbohydrate that you will have burned during the burst will also need to be replaced or you may risk running out of energy – i.e., “hit the wall” or “bonk.” Unfortunately, this loss of speed may cause you to become even more frustrated, especially if you slow so much that the person drafting you passes you and disappears over the horizon. Your behaviour may also include shouting and swearing at the person drafting you.
Your frustration and anger are likely to get worse which will only increase the negative impact on your performance.
Tips on generating more helpful responses
So, what can you do so that situations like these have less of a negative impact on your performance in the future?
The first thing to do is recognise and accept that in races people will use you to their advantage. Sometimes this is fairer than at other times e.g., drafting you on the swim or tucking in behind you on the run, compared with being drafted on the bike without them making any effort to pass you.
Next, decide on how you will react to these situations before a race. Do you want to shout, complain or strike out? While these options may feel satisfying at the time, they will almost certainly impair your race performance – and could even get you disqualified or into a fight. Or would you prefer to react in a different, less detrimental way?
Try to identify the factors which lead to an increasing sense of frustration or anger. Write down the types of situations that have triggered or could trigger frustration and anger on race day. Think about, and then write down, the thoughts that go through your head when you feel frustrated or angry. These thoughts often concern the injustice of things that are happening to you, how what is happening is unfair, and ideas about what you can do to respond or retaliate. Or you may get frustrated because your choice, action or strategy has not worked out for you and you believe you’ve made a mistake. Now note any physical signs that are associated with you being angry (e.g., increased heart rate, tension etc). Finally, write down your likely actions.
The next step is to find ways of countering these factors when they arise, or even to pre-empt them. First generate thoughts that you can use to respond to your anger-inducing thoughts of being used and taken advantage of, with more helpful ones such as: “Well I was expecting this to happen.” “I am going to remain calm and focus on my own race.” It is much better to focus on what you want e.g., “remain calm” than on what you don’t want e.g., “Don’t get angry.” Also, test whether your alternative thought is likely to help you by asking: “Can I really believe this thought when I’m frustrated in a race?” For instance, if your frustrated thought is “I’m so ****ing pissed off at this guy,” you may come up with the not-so-good alternative “I’m not pissed off” or “I’m calm.” You will probably find it difficult to believe either of these alternative thoughts because they will be inconsistent with the physical sensations you are experiencing. If this is the case, it would be better for you to come up with some other thoughts that are easier to believe under race conditions and that don’t contribute to your frustration and anger – e.g., “I’m going to focus on my own race” or “I’m racing so well that others are wanting to be sucked along at my speed. It is their choice if they want to be disqualified.”
You can target the physical sensations associated with anger and frustration by trying to loosen off or release the tension in your body. It is not possible to cover the range of physical relaxation methods here. However, here are a few suggestions of things you can do: take long efficient swim strokes and focus on being relaxed in the swim, check for tension in your neck and shoulders and take long deep breaths when you are biking or running.
Now generate a list of the different ways that you can behave in response to the situations you may face (e.g., shout, swear, lash-out, note the person’s number to have words with later or report them to an official etc.). From this list choose a way or a few ways you will respond to each situation.
If you can, identify whether the first evidence that you are getting frustrated or angry generally comes from your thoughts, physical sensations or your behaviour. Being aware of the first signal that you are getting frustrated or angry helps you to address it before it becomes a real problem.
Putting your plan into action
So now you need to work out how to put it all into practice. You do this by writing a plan of how you will deal with these situations, by using your thoughts, physical sensations and actions to get you more of what you want (i.e., a good race in which you remain in control of your responses). Next commit to using this plan in a race. Practice using your plan in other frustrating and anger-inducing situations in training sessions, so you develop the skills to deal with these situations when the need arises. For example, practice dealing with frustration when you cannot keep up with your training partners on a training ride or run, or when a driver nearly knocks you off your bike on a commute to work. Practicing this cannot be emphasised enough, because just like physical skills, psychological skills need to be developed so they are there for you to use when you need them.
4 quick psychological tips for the Ironman run
Tip 1: Expect a difficult transition into your run
Now this isn’t asking you to be negative. Instead, remain realistic about how it will feel to climb off the bike after 5 hours (yeah, right!) or a good bit longer. You will likely be stiff, achy, and not very smooth. That’s fine, because you expect this, and it is the same for everyone. Accept that it will take some time to move more smoothly, to find your rhythm. Maybe plan to take some smaller, faster strides early on the run, then some longer, stretching strides to help wake-up your legs and get into your running more quickly.
Tip 2: Chunk your run
Break the run down into manageable chunks rather than seeing it as a single 26-mile discipline. 4-6 stages usually work best for people. On a multi-lap course, half a lap could be a stage. On a single lap course, you could use landmarks or mile markers. Focus on the current stage. Once you complete each stage give yourself a reward: tell yourself well done, give yourself an extra couple of jelly babies, promise yourself another week-off from training…. Use whatever works for you.
Tip 3: Review your progress and state
Don’t wait to the finish line (or a DNF) to review how things have gone. Instead as you go through the run go through a progress review. This helps you get onto of many problems before they ruin your run. Aspects to consider are:
1) pacing (too fast, just right, too slow)
2) nutrition (eating and drinking enough?)
3) economy of movement (smooth, ragged, shortened stride), and
4) tension, stiffness or aches in the body (can you deal with the issue now, perhaps by pausing to stretch?)
You may want to conduct these reviews at the end of each stage or chunk (Tip 2).
Tip 4: Take charge on your inner dialogue
When you will be out there running (shuffling, walking) for a few hours, there is lots of time to fill with thoughts. Now, if you don’t guide and shape the thoughts you will have a combination of random thoughts and thoughts to do with your current experiences. For many competitors, this means that the thoughts will be about the discomfort, fatigue, aches, slowness… So take charge of your thoughts and think the things that will be helpful. These are thoughts that help keep your mood up, keep you positive, and concern things that help you keep moving more smoothly and efficiently. Examples include: “I’m doing well.” “Keep moving.” “Relax the shoulders a bit more.” “Try to make less noise when my feet contact the ground.” “I’m going to be so proud of myself when I finish.” “This will be over before I know it.”