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Have you ever had a dream that you showed up to the swim start naked? Or maybe you woke up in a panic after dreaming you forgot all your nutrition and had to stop at McDonald’s on the bike course. Or perhaps you’ve had the classic nightmare: running in slow motion, yet the finish line never gets any closer.
Triathletes are known for having wild and wacky dreams in the days leading up to a big race. They can range from being completely ridiculous to utterly terrifying, and you’re probably wondering what they mean and why you have them. Dream analysis expert Layne Dalfen has been studying stories from the sleep world for over 50 years. She’s the in-house dream catcher for Oprah Magazine and writes a monthly column for Psychology Today. She explains that a dream is an interior conversation that happens between the conscious and unconscious mind.
“Every dream is triggered by something that may have happened to you, or a situation you might be worried about,” she says. “It’s a method of problem solving that helps to point us at a solution.”
Dalfen has developed a six-point system anyone can use to uncover the meaning of their dreams. It consists of recognizing feelings, actions, puns and play on words, symbols or metaphors, repetition, and plot. By identifying these characteristics of a dream, we can discover the surface meaning as well as its deeper significance.
“A triathlon dream isn’t necessarily about triathlon,” she explains. “It could be, but it might also be about something else going on in your life. We might all speak English, but triathletes speak triathlete. To teach the language of the metaphor is to understand the language of dreams.”
Analyzing Your Weirdest Tri-Related Dreams
Dalfen explains that the specific words and language we use to describe our dreams can provide incredible insight. Here, she analyzes the dreams of seven triathletes and hypothesizes about their meaning.
Dream 1: The Worst Race EVER
Elizabeth: “I was at a race. While running, I fell down a really, steep ravine and broke my legs. The rescuers refused to carry me back up the slope, so they brought in a giant freight helicopter. They stuffed me in a harness and flew me out while I was hanging from the bottom like a rhinoceros in a nature documentary. As we flew over transition, I was really upset about not being able to get my bike. Then, we flew over the ocean, and I realized they were taking me out to sea to dump me. I woke up when they cut the rope.”
What it means
“The dreamer says she fell down a steep ravine and broke her legs, so I would ask her to think about something in her life that really brought her down and made her feel bad,” Dalfen says. “For example, if I had a fight with my husband, and he isn’t willing to discuss it, that would be like a rescuer refusing to carry me back up the hill. That other person, whether it’s a partner or a child, isn’t willing to work with me. That’s why this feels like an argument.”
Dalfen points out that the dreamer is upset because she can’t go back to transition to get her bike. “She wants to go back and change something, but doesn’t have the means to do so. In the whole dream, we haven’t seen any element of protest. For example, she doesn’t yell out when she’s being taken out to sea. This likely has to do with a relationship of some kind, with a mate, one of her kids, or even a coach, and not speaking up for herself.”
Overall, Dalfen concludes this is a very healthy dream, because it succeeded in grabbing the dreamer’s attention. “Your unconscious mind has one goal: Take the internal conversation outside to your waking life where brainstorming can happen,” she says.
Dream 2: Cutoff Crisis
Lisa: “The day before Augusta 70.3, I dreamt that I finished in my goal time and was so excited. Then, the race director told me that I had only biked 43 miles. I had to run 1.5 miles back to transition to get back on my bike and find the 13 miles of the bike course that I missed!”
What it means
“The dreamer thought she did everything she needed to do to accomplish her goal, and was even excited about how she handled herself, but then apparently she didn’t do as well as she thought she did,” Dalfen says.
This scenario is one that many athletes can relate to. We might fantasize about receiving kudos or accolades, and if they don’t come, we’re disappointed. “I wonder if this dream is trying to encourage her to be ok with her own kudos and feel good about what she accomplishes,” Dalfen says.
“There’s a goal time achieved, and she’s excited, but then there’s negativity from an outside source. On a surface level, maybe someone in her sphere was being negative about something she accomplished. On a deeper level, maybe the race director is an aspect of the dreamer’s personality- the part of her that puts herself down and doesn’t give herself enough credit.”
Georgia Miller, a Mental Performance Coach with Peak Performance Sports, explains that athletes can limit negative feedback by being mindful of their social media use and by surrounding themselves with a support system that values them for who they are as people and not just athletes.
“We can’t control what others think, but we can control whose opinions we care about,” Miller says. “The ones closest to you in your support system will not change their opinion of you based on the outcome of your performance.”
Dream 3: Transition Blunders
Craig: “I was training for an Ironman. It was around winter in Southern California, so we slept with our windows open. I had this dream where I was stuck in transition trying to get out of my wetsuit. I was kicking my feet and pulling the suit. All my buddies were laughing at me as they ran by with their bikes. Then, my foot came out from under the covers. The wind was blowing in our bedroom and the cold air hit my toes. I sprang up out of bed, and my underwear was wrapped around my feet.”
What it means
“He brought his waking life experience into the dream experience,” Dalfen says. “On the surface, it seems like an easy analysis except for the fact that his buddies go by laughing. That tells us something else.”
Obviously, the dreamer feels some frustration because he was stuck in transition trying to get out of his wetsuit. Dalfen brings attention to the possible play on words of being “stuck in transition.” This might signify a deeper meaning that relates to a transitional time in the dreamer’s life.
“I would ask him to think about something that’s going on in his life that he’s trying to accomplish, but he’s feeling frustrated about.” Dalfen says. “I would ask him what it feels like when his buddies go by laughing. It has a feeling of humiliation, being judged, or even comparison to other athletes.”
Making comparisons to others can be a confidence killer for athletes because they’re highlighting another’s strengths and disregarding their own unique abilities, Miller explains. “Athletes should focus on their own strengths before a race by making a list,” she says. “For example, think about past accomplishments and all the training they have put in the last few months.”
While athletes can learn from their peers, resist to the urge to place others on a pedestal, because nobody is perfect and everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses.
Dream 4: The Race Before the Race
Cristina: “I had a really weird dream the night before Ironman Mont Tremblant. To get to the swim start, I had to go through some weird escape room that ended up being a gunfight.”
What it means
“What she created is absolute polarity that goes from a team building experience to a battle,” Dalfen says. “If a dream has polarity, you’re unconsciously trying to pull yourself back to somewhere in the middle. Perhaps this dreamer is way too connected to the team building part of her personality and needs to get closer to the part of herself that might be under exercised, like her fight to go into a triathlon with guns blazing!”
Dalfen suspects this athlete might be more comfortable being part of a team, instead of having the focus be solely on her own performance. “She might be the type of person who’s a big team player, always looking out for everyone else. But when you’re doing a triathlon, you need to be in there for yourself,” Dalfen says.
Miller says thinking about the benefits of an individual sport, like triathlon, might help this athlete have a more positive perspective. “For example, thinking ‘I’m in complete control and don’t have to rely on others’ is a much more beneficial perspective than ‘All the pressure is on me and I’m alone out here.’”
For athletes who look to others for validation and reassurance, Miller encourages them to reflect on past experiences to build confidence. “Athletes should trust their training and all the work they’ve put in and not doubt their abilities or place so much emphasis on a mistake or poor start. A poor start at the beginning of a performance doesn’t determine the outcome of a race.”
Dream 5: Underwater Adventure
Ruth: “When I was a new USAT official, I had the weirdest dream the night before the first race I was going to referee. You have to understand that I’m terrified of motorcycles. So of course I do a job that not only requires riding on the back of a motorcycle, but letting go and writing stuff down while the motorcycle is moving. The night before the race, I finally fell asleep only to have a dream that my head referee decided to use an amphibious motorcycle to referee the swim course. This bike rode along the bottom of the ocean. I was supposed to look for rule breakers by looking up from underneath the swimmers, without any sort of gear to be able to breathe. But somehow I could breathe underwater, so it was all ok.”
What it means
Dalfen says this dreamer recognizes that in order to embark on this new journey, she needs to “let go” of her fear (the motorcycle). The dream is very positive, because she realizes that she has all the skills she needs.
“In the dream, she puts herself in an impossible situation, with no ability to breathe underwater, and yet she can. How encouraging is that? She’s giving herself wonderful encouragement reminding herself how capable she is,” Dalfen says.
Dalfen explains this dream falls into the category of “been there, done that” wherein a dream provides a safe place for the dreamer to rehearse anxiety. This might be why many triathletes dream about events that happen during a race.
“Your dreams will exaggerate things in such a way that when the situation happens in waking life, you’ve already been there and done that. You’ve been scaring the heck out of yourself for so long that when the actual event happens, you’ve been completely desensitized. It’s very healthy.”
Another way athletes can reduce anxiety is by using visualization to mentally prepare for situations that might arise during a race. “For example, they can run through different responses if their goggles start to fill up with water. This way, they don’t have to waste any time thinking about what to do because they already have a plan,” Miller says.
Dream 6: Chaos in Abundance
Laura: “I was doing a race and all the events were in different places and there were no real directions on where to do. My husband left my toddler with me, so I was yelling for him to take our son so I could go to my next event. As part of the race, we had to drink this gross drink that had a bunch of rusted metal in it. I was thinking that I would not be drinking that. I finally got to where they were keeping our bikes, and they were calling out ticket numbers. After waiting forever, I realized they had lost my bike.”
What it means
“There’s something going on in her life where she feels like she doesn’t know where to go or what to do next, because all the events are in different places and there’s no real direction,” Dalfen says.
Twice in this dream, the dreamer says “No” to a request. The use of repetition can tell us a lot about a dream’s meaning. “She says no to looking after her son during the race and no to drinking the gross drink. She knows there’s too much going on in her waking life right now to focus on the task at hand.”
This theme continues in transition when she discovers that her bike is lost. “She’s asking, ‘Where do I need to go and how will I get there?’ She’s doing a great job of presenting one situation after another where she forces herself to make a decision. My guess is it’s a career thing. It’s a very positive and healthy dream, because she’s absolutely asserting herself.”
Dream 7: Ironman-turned-Obstacle-Race
Brittany: “I was doing my first full Ironman. I didn’t seem to have anything I needed like my wetsuit, goggles, race shoes, or the right nutrition. During the run, all I had to wear was a pair of platform sandals, but my coach told me it was ok and I should just start running. The course directions weren’t very clear, but I kept running fast, hoping I hadn’t gone in the wrong direction. Then, I saw my mom and friends having a picnic on a boardwalk. They tried to get me to sit down and eat lunch, but I was adamant that I was racing and had to keep going. Then, I had to climb up these precarious platforms made of rusted metal that were sticking out the side of a mountain. Finally, there was a section where I had to squeeze through an obstacle course, like for kids, with large, plastic walls filled with air, but there was a giant komodo dragon inside. I squeezed by him and didn’t feel scared.”
What it means
First, the dreamer has shoes, but not the right shoes for the situation. I would ask her to think about a situation in her life where she feels like she’s not equipped with what she needs. There’s also something to be said about her need to be on firm footing.”
The dreamer references a platform twice- with the sandals and the mountain. “Does she need to give herself a platform to speak about something in her life?” Dalfen muses. “She was trying to run fast, but the directions weren’t there. She’s addressing someone, perhaps her coach, wishing she could get more direction. She says she doesn’t want a picnic. She knows it won’t be easy, but she wants to be driven.”
Finally, in the dragon, she’s facing a scary fear, but it’s ultimately not as bad as she thought, and she’s able to get past it.
“Creating a plan for how athletes are going to go through a race can help them feel prepared as their coaches won’t be there throughout to help encourage and guide them,” Miller says. “For example, have a plan for what they want to think going into the swim, what pace they want to start out in the run, and have a few positive self-talk statements ready to go when any doubts or tiredness creep in.”
A great way to combat doubts is by listing them on a piece of paper and finding evidence to prove them wrong. “For example, if a triathlete is thinking ‘I’m not sure if I will be able to keep my pace the entire time,’ they can look for evidence to prove themselves wrong. Think about all the times they have consistently kept their pace during training and know they will become more focused as race time starts. Athletes should always think in a way that allows their mind to work in their favor, not against.”
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