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Triathlife With Jesse Thomas: Ritual Reality

Pro Jesse Thomas on the importance of the pre-race routine.

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Pro Jesse Thomas on the importance of the pre-race routine.

I’m terrible at remembering most things, like names, my ATM pin, where my keys are and what I went back upstairs to grab. But after nearly 20 years, I still remember every single detail of my high school pre-race routine.

Back in high school my pre-race routine started with a Thursday afternoon Costco run—literally. My buddies and I would run to Costco, eat all the free samples, then run back to school. Bam. On Friday, I’d do an easy run and some strides, then watch “The Simpsons” reruns and eat 2000 calories of spaghetti to make sure I was fully carbo-loaded for my 5K.

Race day was wake up, eat plain oatmeal with no sugar or raisins or milk or anything that makes it taste better because that makes you tough. After a 1- to 3-hour bus ride, I’d lie down somewhere with my feet up, overhydrate and listen to Boyz II Men “Cooleyhighharmony” on my Sony Discman. Then 90 minutes before the gun, I’d eat a Vanilla Crisp PowerBar (we didn’t have Picky Bars back then) and listen to the “Chariots of Fire” theme song on repeat while I visualized every stride of my race.

Warm-up was a 2–3-mile jog, stretch, strides, that final bathroom stop, strip down to my uni and shorts, and put on my spikes. I’d jog over to the start line, get my teammates together and arms-in-the-middle-cheer “spread the butter!” On the line I’d jump 4–6 times as high as I could, take 5–10 deep breaths, and find Zen moments before the gun. 3-2-1, POW!

And that’s how I did it. Every. Single. Time. Just typing that out gives me butterflies and makes me feel a little like Uncle Rico from “Napoleon Dynamite” yearning for the glory days.

Of course, I still have many pre-race rituals, and it’s interesting to see what things have changed (no more Costco run or PowerBar) and what’s stayed the same (oatmeal, visualization, Cooleyhighharmony).

I’m no expert on the human brain or body or “science” or “facts,” but I’m pretty sure I heard somewhere sometime that having a pre-race routine is super important and good. And my experience is that having regular pre-race habits keeps the doubt, pressure and nervousness from exploding my face.

So in an effort to keep your face intact, I’ve included some of the top pre-race rituals from both my readers and me. If anything, it should help you remember the 1,098 things you have to do before the triathlon starts.

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Plan it out, like, for real, with a planner and stuff. About three days before the race I sit down at my computer and go to town Google Calendaring every hour for the final 36–48 hours into the race. This painful 30 minutes saves me two days of stress and worry that elevates my cortisol levels and makes me slower. I start by working backward—race start, swim warm-up, wetsuit on, run warm-up, set up transition, drive to course, breakfast, sleep, you get it. I schedule everything including workouts, meal times, naps, check-in, race briefings, time with dude (my son), etc.

Take it easy. Two days before is my easiest day, usually a 30-minute spin on the bike. If I can check in, great—I’ll do that and likely spend way too much time getting my bike ready. But I always schedule a nap in the middle of the day to make sure I have time when I’m off my feet, relaxing as much as possible and not getting my bike ready. The day before is always busy no matter how you swing it, so it’s important to rest up as much as you can.

Get a book. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good TV binge, but LED screens keep you awake. So nowadays a race-week fiction book is how I roll—typically dystopian-future-prodigy novels like The Hunger Games, Wool, Maze Runner, Ready Player One, etc. All these books do NOT remind me of triathlon, work or anything else important besides the general future of humanity. Because of that, they are basically tools I use to help me fall asleep, or at least relax.

Visualize your race. This is something I fortunately learned at a very young age that I’ve kept with me since. Up to 36 hours before the race, I find a quiet place or listen to music and visualize my race in as much detail as possible. I go through my race plan, imagine myself reacting to scenarios and course features, how I feel, etc. This practice has a documented impact on performance success, somewhere.

Eat the same thing. Tried and true advice from many of my readers. While I’m definitely not as strict as I used to be, I avoid doing anything crazy the last 48 hours. I eat from a realm of the same, super simple things: rice, potatoes, peanut butter and jelly, chicken, oatmeal, eggs, avocado, more peanut butter and jelly, and of course Picky Bars. Go with what you know!

Do a “practice” transition. I’m not talking about full scale and speed run-through, jump on your bike agro-style, but once you get things set, do a little baby mini practice. Jog up, imagine stripping off your wetsuit, put your helmet on, what will you grab first, second, third? Is it all there? I always do this and always find that I forgot or need to change something before I head to the start.

Wait in the Porta-Potty line while you put on your wetsuit. Without fail, I always have to make another stop as soon as I pull that wetsuit on.

Talk to your family. A few readers said this and it definitely struck a chord with me. When I’m my most nervous, and just before I head to the start line, I try to see or talk to or at least think about my family. It always takes my mind back to more important things and puts my race in perspective. Plus, nothing pumps you up more than a “Go Daddy go!”

Don’t freak out if it doesn’t go how you planned. When I look back at my high school rituals, the biggest thing that’s changed is that I’m not as strict or as worried about getting everything exactly the same as I used to be. I was very particular about very specific foods, times, songs, you name it. And if something got messed up, the impact on my confidence was far bigger than any potential physical impact. There was a time in college where I actually practiced doing things differently going into races and workouts—“I’m just going to eat a big burrito an hour before practice today!”—to build the confidence that if something happened out of my control on race day, I could handle it. Having a routine is great only if it helps you alleviate stress. If it’s causing the stress, then it’s defeating its own purpose.

So go out there and find the right routine and rituals for you! Just make sure to include a ’90s boy band if possible.

Jesse Thomas (@jessemthomas) is a six-time Wildflower Long Course champion, two-time Ironman champion and the CEO of Picky Bars (Pickybars.com).

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