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Look for a new “A Brief Complaint from a Salty Triathlete” from Kelly O’Mara every month in Triathlete magazine.
There it was, right in front of my eyes: “Read Jan Frodeno’s Mental Trick That Helped Him Win Kona.” Yes, I was going to learn the secret! I’d be unstoppable! I clicked on the headline and started reading.
Turns out, Frodo tries not to think about the whole race all at once. He likes to break the day up into sections and bits that are easier to tackle mentally.
That’s not so much a secret or a trick, as a well-established mental race tactic packaged in trick’s clothing. And it’s one I, theoretically, already know. I already know no one should ever think about the entirety of an Ironman stretched out in front of them. I know I’m supposed to focus on one chunk at a time in a race. Yet, clearly, I’m no Jan Frodeno. What am I doing wrong?
The secret is there is no secret. The techniques the best pros use are the same techniques the slowest of the rest of us use. They’re just better at them. And they’re better at them because they practice them more.
You wouldn’t show up on race day never having swum before and expect to just “hang tough” when you hit the water. But that’s exactly what we do with our brains. When we don’t train our minds, they flounder when we suddenly demand they learn how to swim mid-race. (It’s a metaphor—don’t overthink it.)
Many of the basic mental strategies are actually fairly well established and studied. We know reframing works. Visualization in advance can be incredibly helpful, especially if you visualize what you’ll do when something goes wrong. An increasing number of studies have found mindfulness and staying focused in the moment can have astounding performance benefits—even boosting some athletes’ ability to disassociate from pain.
Many athletes have learned to focus on small physical tasks, like their cadence or the feel of the water. They’ve learned to concentrate on one thing at a time and not get ahead of themselves. If you’re planning your post-race meal or podium outfit as you race, odds are you’re getting ahead of yourself and might not wind up using that outfit for the podium after all. (So lay those hot togs out in advance!)
Jan Frodeno learned these things not from reading them online but by practicing them. Not every mental technique works for everyone, so we all have to train our minds to develop our own mental tricks. The only way to do that is to do it, over and over and over.
That’s the real secret. The pros want to quit during races too. They’re miserable just like us. But they can think to themselves: I’ve done this before, I know how to be tough because I’ve practiced it, I can do it now, I’m a world champion (Jan) … in the making (us).