Learn from the mental strategies of triathlon’s experts and pros to reach your own peak performance on race day.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2013 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
Last August, in the women’s triathlon final at the London Olympic Games, American Sarah Groff had just fallen off the pace of the lead pack during the four-lap 10K run in Hyde Park. She had been with 21 other women out of T2, and when the pack, which had whittled down to six women by the second lap, surged again, Groff couldn’t keep up.
But just when Groff had been written off, running the third lap by herself, she—incredibly—clawed her way back and rejoined the lead group, which was now five women including her, at the start of the final lap. At one point, Groff even moved into second place while British favorite Helen Jenkins fell off the pace. The four remaining women jockeyed for position all the way to the finish chute, and, with just a couple hundred yards to go, Groff couldn’t keep up with their blistering kick. She finished 10 seconds behind the bronze medalist.
“In order to contend for a medal,” Groff says, reflecting on her Olympic race, “you have to think of yourself as a medal contender a long ways out, and train and race every day with that mind-set. Because I didn’t, and it changed the race.”
Leading into the Games, even the triathlon world didn’t talk about Groff as a medal contender. When debating the best hopes for a U.S. triathlon medal, the discussion usually centered around Gwen Jorgensen, the running phenom who had placed second at the London test event a year before the real thing, and Laura Bennett, the fourth-place finisher at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Yet Groff was the only one who found herself in the mix in the final stretch.
“The biggest mistake I made was that I didn’t set the bar high enough for myself—I didn’t put myself in a position to race and train to win that medal, and that’s how it played out,” Groff says. “The difference between me getting a medal and me not getting a medal was completely mind-set.”
The point of Groff’s story is not just that you should race confidently (see “Confidence is Key” to find out what role self-belief plays). It’s that the thing standing between you and achieving the race results you want could be entirely mental. After talking to top pros, coaches and sports psychologists, it’s evident that, while there’s no one-size-fits-all mental approach, pro triathletes do have certain habits in common—and these traits can help you take your own racing to the next level.