How to Overcome Common Race-Day Mental Hurdles

Mental fitness to get you through tough race-day scenarios

The mind is as trainable as your sport,” says Dr. Justin Ross, a Denver-based sports psychologist. If you struggle with negative self-talk, you’ve built a superhighway in your brain to that downbeat chatter. You can pave new thought patterns and stop the cascade of negative thoughts that can derail a race by identifying triggers and reframing your opinions, he says. “You have to actively practice skills during training so they are accessible in a race situation.”

Carrie Cheadle, mental skills coach and author of On Top of Your Game: Mental Skills to Maximize Your Athletic Performance, agrees. “If you haven’t thought through the mental aspect, you show up at the starting line and leave your performance up to chance,” Cheadle says.

Here’s a look at how to overcome common race-day mental hurdles.

Pre-race anxiety

While it’s natural to feel the jitters before the swim start, this anticipatory anxiety can feel overwhelming and burn a lot of unnecessary energy, Ross says. To settle your nerves, he recommends a pre-race meditation to shift the focus away from your mind’s frenetic energy and self-doubt.

Stand tall with one hand on your belly, and take deep breaths while noticing your surroundings. Then, connect to your community—the energy of the triathletes around you, your coach and family. Review your race strategy using crisp, positive statements like “I am going to manage my pace” or “I am going to breathe evenly on the swim.”

Unexpected snafu

Whether your goggles get kicked off or you get a flat, don’t let a hiccup ruin your race. USAT-certified coach Becky Bryant tells her athletes to imagine everything that could go wrong, and write down how they’ll handle the situation. “It resets the tone and reduces anxiety. Even in the worst-case scenario, they know what to do,” she says. And in a race situation when your adrenaline is pumping, “it gives you a way to keep moving forward. You have a plan,” she says.

Bumpy start

If your swim or bike didn’t go smoothly, transition is your time to refocus and say, “Yes, and …” Cheadle recommends this classic improv technique where you accept any situation thrown at you and add to it. For example: Yes, you exited the swim farther back than planned and you still have two legs left to make up for it. “It shifts the emotional state and provides levity too,” she says.

When it hurts

Denying the pain can create panic, according to Ross. Instead, change your perception of discomfort, and shift your thinking to how much you’re willing to take on in this moment. “Are you willing to be uncomfortable for another step or mile? Or are you wiling to take the psychological hit later that you didn’t step into the moment?” he asks.

Distraction techniques work too. “Your brain can only process one piece of information at a time. If you fill the information processing, there’s no room for the anxiety,” Cheadle says. Focus on the spectators or imagine stories about your fellow racers—what they had for breakfast or what they do for a living.

The last push

With the finish line in sight, you’re likely pushing the edge of your physical capacity. “Your brain doesn’t have the energy to distract yourself from the pain,” Cheadle says. Instead, count your steps or repeat your personal mantra. Cheadle notes the repetition and rhythm will help you move forward and cross the finish line.