Triathlon Psychology - improve your swim, bike and run performance
Come triathlon race day, your thoughts about your abilities, preparation, readiness, how well you think you've eaten and rested, memories you recall of how previous events have gone, how much you think is riding on this event, what feared scenarios you are thinking, how well you think you have planned and prepped for the event, whether you have clear goals, and more will contribute to how you feel and how well your race will go.
What is going on in your head, will overlap with what your fellow triathletes will be thinking (and feeling). But there will be differences between all of you too. You will have your own version of psychological challenges to face and conquer. Or your performance and satisfaction with your race will be compromised – perhaps to a great degree.
Swimming, biking, running and triathlon each have significant psychological challenges. The best athletes have the most developed and robust psychological skills. The good news is that you don't need to be a pro to develop these skills and to better manage your races. I can help you develop your sports psychology approach to triathlon.
Ten ways Sports Psychology can help your Triathlon performance
Manage pre-event tension, stress and anxiety so you arrive at the race fresh and ready
Focus on the elements that are key for your optimum performance, without getting distracted by what others are doing
Develop routines for the race weekend to minimise worry, remain confident and know that you are ready
Manage the emotions (stress, frustration...) that can develop during a race so they don't derail your performance
Maintain confidence in your ability to hold your performance and bounce-back from any setbacks or unexpected hurdles
Set goals for the year, month and training session to shape what you do, focus your efforts and gain accelerated improvement
Re-visit why you train and compete, what motivates you, and set-up training so you increase motivation
Develop images and visualise your performance, to speed-up learning and increase confidence
Process race or training experiences that hold you back so you can get back to performing well
Manage injuries so they don’t cause more of an impact than necessary to your mood, time-off and confidence
Why I am the Triathlon Psychologist for you
But before I explain more, why should you trust the triathlon psychology help that I have to offer?
This is why.
I’ve been competing in triathlon for over 20 years – with my first race in 1996. Over this time, I have developed a fair amount of insight into the psychology of triathlon, as well as the individual sports of swimming, cycling and running. I have competed at several National, European and World Age-Group Triathlon Championships, and completed an Ironman. I regularly write articles for and answer questions posed by readers of the 220 Triathlon Magazine, Triathlete's World, Triathlon Plus and Runner's World magazines (read some of my triathlon psychology articles here).
I've worked successfully with triathletes, plus single discipline swimmers, cyclists (road and track) and runners. These events can range from a handful of seconds to over ten hours, or multi-day stage races; requiring all-out explosiveness or careful strategic pacing; mostly a solitary experience or a mass-start with thousands, individual or team; very safe or with significant risk...
So, I’m skilled and experienced as a Sports Psychologist and as a triathlete.
My professional training allows me to help in other ways too. For instance, I can help you to understand and better manage your reactions to injury: the frustration, anger and dip in mood. The fear and worry about the rehab progress – or lack of - concerns about how quickly you will return to proper training and racing, and worries about whether you will ever return to your previous level of triathlon performance. Then there are fears about reinjuring the same area again, and so on.
As a Sports Psychologist with Clinical Psychology skills, I help triathletes to navigate life events and stresses. These are the kinds of events that happen to all of us (relationship difficulties, bereavements, family illnesses…), whatever level we compete at. These types of outside sport stresses can really negatively impact on wellbeing and performance.
I offer help at all levels of triathlon. I’ve helped plenty of amateurs, age-groupers, right up to those who have won European or World titles at the elite level. I have junior triathletes and junior squads to develop further and to overcome challenges that are experienced at a relatively early stage of their careers.
I can also help coaches to better understand the psychology of the sport, how they coach, the athletes they coach, and to cope with the pressures that they are under as a coach.
As you can see, I can help you with much more than simply thinking more positively!
Free Triathlon Psychology tips
Here are some tips to help improve your triathlon performance and to illustrate the types of practical help I offer. The first section provides a series of quick tips, then below you'll find a fuller section on setting effective goals for triathlon.
Quick Sports Psychology tips for triathletes:
To boost your motivation for triathlon
To increase your confidence for triathlon
To manage triathlon-related nerves (e.g., for open-water swim starts)
Develop powerful imagery and visualisation skills to help your race
Develop better concentration and focus for tris
1. Boost motivation for triathlon training and racing
A. List the factors which motivate you to train and compete. It may also be useful to think about:
What do you gain from training and competing? (e.g., personal challenge, competitive outlet, a break from work or family…)
What do you want to achieve or what are your goals?
If you didn't train or compete, what would you miss?
Why did you take up triathlon in the first place?
Why do you race?
B. During training and competition think about and observe what you like and do not like about what you are doing. Write these down.
Review and read your notes from A and B, these notes should give your motivation a boost.
2. Increase confidence in your triathlon performance
In the situations where you are lacking confidence, allow yourself to become more aware of your thoughts (i.e., self-talk), of those words or that chatter going through your mind. Ask yourself:
Is what I’m thinking accurate?
Is what I’m thinking helping me?
Can I see things in a more helpful and accurate way?
What would a more helpful thought be?
Can I express my thought in a way that includes more of what I want, rather than what I do not want (e.g., “I can..” or “I will…” rather than “I won’t…” “Don’t…”)?
3. Manage triathlon race nerves and stress
When you notice physical tension in the lead-up to the race start (and perhaps even training sessions), try the following:
Take a series of short inhalations, about one per second, until your chest is filled
Hold this breath for about 5 seconds
Then exhale slowly for about 10 seconds, while thinking to yourself the word relax, calm, easy, or simply the word one
Notice your body becoming progressively more relaxed, as tension leaves your body
Repeat this inhalation and exhalation at least 5 times, each time allowing the sense of relaxation to deepen, and confidence to rise
If triathlon-related stress, anxiety, nerves, tension or panic is a problem for you, the you won’t want to miss-out on listening to my Stress Management programme - available as an audio download straight-away.
You may also want to read more about managing triathlon stress in my article here.
4. Develop powerful imagery and visualisation skills for triathlon racing
The following can help increase your ability to create and store powerful images which can improve your race performance:
Part A: Imagine you are home in your living room. Look around and take in all the details. What do you see? Notice the shape and texture of the furniture. If you are sitting, what does the chair feel like? Where do you feel pressure on your body? What sounds do you hear? What is the temperature like? Is there any movement in the air? What do you smell? Use all your senses and take it all in.
Part B: Later when you are at home in your living room go to the place you had imagined in Part A above. What do you see, smell, hear and feel? What details do you now notice that you didn't call to mind when you imagined the scene?
Repeat A (and B again if you like) and see how your ability to generate vivid and detailed images improves.
Later, you can use your enhanced imagery skills to imagine various race scenarios.
5. Develop better concentration for triathlon
Here's just one of the many tips for improving focus: Develop cue words that trigger the correct focus when you need it.
List the key aspects of your performance that you want to maintain. Next, write down the individual words or short phrases that capture the essence of this ideal movement, plus your level of relaxation or arousal, or perhaps what you want to be thinking or feeling. Here are some examples: "smooth stroke," "relaxed arms," "nice rotation," "smooth pedalling," "fast feet," "relax" or "do it."
Try-out a word or phrase at each training or racing, to see which one(s) evoke the best focus and help set up the movement and performance you want. Find one or two of these for that section of your race.
Next, identify something that will act as trigger or reminder for these words. For instance, you might place a mark on your handlebar stem. Then, when you see this mark on your bars, it will trigger you to think the words that you know can help. Not only does this help your focus, it will boost your confidence too which will have a beneficial impact on your triathlon performance.
If you want more tailored help for any of these areas then get in touch for your Triathlon Sports Psychology Assessment – in London, by Skype or telephone.
Conquer your triathlon stress, anxiety, panic and tension
In triathlon, stress, anxiety, fear and panic are common and understandable experiences. This is especially true when it comes to doing a race with a mass open water swim start. It is the most common reason that triathletes get in touch with me for help.
Your frame of mind has a large bearing on how you perform and the outcome of your race (your times, position in the field and your enjoyment). Much of this depends on how stressed you are before and during the race. By stressed, I mean:
How much tension you hold in your muscles. Muscular tension impairs your movements and biomechanics – how efficient you swim, cycle and run.
How much adrenaline is coursing through your veins: some can be helpful, but too much can put you out of your comfort zone, distracting you from your performance, swim stroke, swim navigation ... as you wonder what on earth is going on with your body.
How negative you are: even before the triathlon starts if you are expecting things to go badly, with a poor start in the swim, going behind, making other mistakes, thinking that you have let yourself or others down, make a fool of yourself… none of this will help.
Pre-race tension builds in the hours and days before an important (to you) event. The more important you view the triathlon, the more stress you experience. Your mind, diet and sleep are all affected by your rising levels of stress. How you manage your mind in the lead-up and during the race will have a big impact on the two most important areas:
Your triathlon performance
Your enjoyment of the race and satisfaction afterwards
If you wait for race day to start managing your stress, you will almost certainly be too late to do anything significant about it. I have developed an audio-based Stress Management Programme on audio CD to teach you about stress and to give you the skills to tackle your stress, anxiety, panic, tension…
My stress management programme tackles the three important areas:
Physical tension: with not just one, but three proven physical relaxation techniques. Plus, there are rapid versions for you to apply right when you need it (e.g. a few moments before the swim start)
Unhelpful stress-related behaviour (what you do or don’t do)
You can order this from my Programs page for an instant download – how great would it be to feel less stressed and more in control of your race nerves?
Set effective goals for your triathlon season and performance
Setting triathlon goals will make your training more effective and competition more successful. Here are some of my thoughts on and tips for setting goals for your triathlon season.
It’s easy to be motivated when an important race is two weeks away. It’s more difficult when it’s six months away. At these times you might think:
“Does it matter what I do today? I’ve done a run and a swim already this week. It’s still early in the year. I can take today off and do some tomorrow, if the weather is good.”
What will help get you out the door when your enthusiasm dips? Or even better, what can you do so you’re bursting to get out the door in the first place? (Like a puppy excited to get out for a run around.)
Goals for triathlon
The single most important thing you can do to improve performance and become more motivated is to set goals. Why is this? This is because goals, when set properly, provide appropriate targets and focus to your training, practice and racing, so you work on the right things, in the right way, and get results.
Most competitors know that goal setting is important, but many don’t do it, or do so ineffectively. Many set the same ‘woolly’ or vague goals each year. We often hear them expressed like these:
“I’m going to have a better race season”
“I’m going work on my swimming”
"I'm going to run better"
“I’m going to get in better shape”
These statements alone aren’t enough, because:
How will you know that you have reached your target, as these goals don’t have a clear ‘finish line’?
When will these goals be achieved by – they have no deadline?
Also, there are no review dates to check progress towards the goal.
You have likely heard of SMART goal-setting principles. They are a useful starting point.
Even better, are SMARTER goal-setting principles:
S – Specific: your goal is clearly defined, so you know exactly what your goal is
M – Measurable: you can measure progress towards it, so you know when you have reached it
A – Achievable: you can achieve it, with proper effort and application
R – Realistic: it’s doable, not some pie in the sky, fantasy, dream
T – Timely: your goal has a deadline
E – Exciting: your goal really gets you motivated and excited about pursuing it
R – Reviewed: you set regular dates review progress, to monitor whether your goal should be lowered or raised, or if your strategy (e.g. training) needs to be modified to reach it
When setting goals, consider how well they stack up against SMARTER goal-setting principles. If they don’t stack up that well, edit them to improve them further.
Next, I would like to explain three types of goals that are good to factor in, in order to improve you triathlon performance even more.
Three types of goals to improve your triathlon performance
Outcome goals relate to your final position or result (e.g., to win, qualify or beat someone). Outcome goals can be motivating but achieving them is often determined to a large extent by factors outside your control (e.g., who else turns up, their equipment) and therefore often are not achieved, leading to disappointment.
Performance goals are based on your own performance and are unaffected (or affected only a little) by other people. Therefore, these are more useful.
Process goals concern what you are doing at that particular moment. These may include physical aspects (e.g., level of tension), your behaviour (e.g., level of effort, smoothness of movement, cadence, foot strike), your thoughts (e.g., positive, focussed on relevant factors), and your emotions (e.g., helpful ones such as excitement and enjoyment). These are really helpful.
Most triathletes focus too much on outcome goals, not enough on performance goals, and rarely, if ever, on process goals. This is the reverse of how it ought to be. By focusing on process goals – what you are doing moment-to-moment – you will have your greatest chance of achieving your performance goal, and consequently your outcome goal (depending on who else is racing, of course!). This applies both to training and competition.
So, make sure you set and focus mostly on process goals.
Set short, medium and long-term goals for your triathlon training
It’s best to have goals that have a range of deadlines. Most commonly, athletes will set a goal for the year, then 3-4 sub-goals for different times of the year, which when achieved, will put them on the road to their big goal for the year. Then they work back again to set performance goals for each 3-4 week block. These goals inform what the triathlete will work on during practice sessions (performance and process goals), acting as steppingstones to the monthly goals.
By chunking your season into these time periods, you will find your motivation rise, with training sessions becoming more focused, valuable and productive.
If you would like further help with generating your key goals and on setting up training to accelerate your improvement, then get in touch for an appointment.
Hungry for more triathlon psychology material? If so, you can find some of the articles that I have written for the triathlon magazines here.