One of the main motivators for sport is that it makes us feel good. But triathlon is also tough, both physically and mentally, and every triathlete can benefit from tips to help us be happier competitors. We’ve compiled psychological and practical tools from top pros and coaches, as well as our own experience, to enhance the experience of each triathlon discipline and to avoid the stressors that can spell disaster.
Some of the most important tricks for a happy swim can be taken care of even before you hit the water.
1. A well-cared-for wetsuit makes for a comfortable swim, so keep your suit in pristine shape by avoiding fingernail nicks and tears that can lead to leakage. Wear gloves (thin fabric or latex) when pulling on your suit to protect the neoprene.
2. Toss an old pair of throwaway socks in your transition bag. They’ll allow you to slip your feet into your wetsuit with ease, plus they’ll provide added warmth until the moment you enter the water at a chilly morning race start.
3. PRO TIP: Guy Crawford, a pro triathlete who works for wetsuit maker Blueseventy, stresses the importance of getting your suit on just right. Be sure to pull the sleeves high enough onto your shoulders; if they’re too low, the neoprene can form “batwings” under your arms, adding extra drag to every stroke.
4. PRO TIP: The shock of cold water can cause you to hyperventilate in the swim, so warm up properly before the gun goes off. When water temps are especially low, your best bet is to acclimate to the liquid chill in advance of the frenzied start, advises Ironman champion Mary Beth Ellis (who has firsthand experience diving into 59-degree water at the legendary Alpe d’Huez Triathlon). Get in and swim to warm up. If a pre-race swim isn’t an option, consider buying some stretch cords for
5. Nearly every triathlete has had a panic attack at some point during a triathlon swim, often triggered by claustrophobia in a mass start or the intense rush of going out too hard. If anxiety hits, rely on your mental strength to see you through. First, take a break and breaststroke or dog paddle to get your breathing under control. Then, talk yourself calm. Remind yourself of all the swims you’ve accomplished successfully—you have the tools and training to finish this one, too. Get moving again, swimming only as hard as you’re comfortable—a few minutes give or take out of the water is unlikely to make or break your race.
6. Avoid putting too much pressure on your split times, especially in the swim, where courses can really vary. If you exit an Ironman swim 10 minutes later than expected and feel let down, you’ll carry that disappointment all day. Instead, allow your swim to be a starting point, no matter the time elapsed, upon which you build the rest of your race.
Equipment is especially critical in the bike leg of triathlon.
7. Learn basic bike maintenance; avoid the stress of not knowing how to help yourself in case of a race-day mechanical. At the very least, every triathlete should be able to confidently and quickly change a flat and make minor derailleur adjustments. Your local bike shop (or at least a simple YouTube search) can show you how.
8. PRO TIP: Joanna Lawn, seven-time champion on Ironman New Zealand’s rough roads, often practices fast changes of self-inflicted flats at the end of long rides—a mental and physical rehearsal for race-day emergencies.
9. Always schedule a pre-race tune-up, and check that your tires are in top condition prior to a key race.
10. A happy bum means a happy cyclist, and a few essential items will keep you riding in comfort. Choose a race kit that not only looks good, but feels good—pay special attention to any seams in the chamois area that might chafe. The wrong saddle can crush your love of cycling (along with critical parts of your anatomy), so do some trial-and-error testing during a longer ride to determine which one is right for you. And of course there’s chamois cream—significantly soothing to your “seat spot.”
11. Along with a bike and all the appropriate gear and accessories, invest in a professional bike fit to be sure everything is properly in place. Retül (Retul.com) wrote the book on proper bike fit—a certified Retül specialist can help you dial in the perfect trifecta of comfort, power and aerodynamic positioning.
12. PRO TIP:Little comforts can make a big difference in a longer race. Ironman champion Meredith Kessler stashes mint gum at strategic spots throughout her iron-distance events (e.g., in her XLAB Rocket Pocket on her bike, in her special needs bag on the run). It cleans the palate and performs a subtle “refresh” function for body and mind.
13. You can usually stomach solids on the bike more than on the run, so treats like energy bars or gummy candy will help avoid the monotony of gels.
Sure, the run requires the right shoes and healthy feet, but beyond those basics, the keys to a positive final race push are all about maintaining your form—and your mental mettle.
14. Many athletes—pros and age-groupers alike—paste photos of loved ones on their bike stems or write meaningful names, acronyms or motivational words on their hands or forearms.
15. For 99 percent of triathletes, redlining the ride in anything longer than an Olympic-distance race means you’re going too hard. Focus on your own practiced pace, and don’t get so caught up in the competition that you forgo fueling and hydrating—you’ll need the energy and electrolytes on the run.
16. Runners’ toes are notoriously nasty. Try our do-it-yourself footbath (see the recipe here) and keep your toenails regularly trimmed. Avoid pedicures in the immediate lead-up to a race, however; the smallest nick can become a nagging nightmare on race day.
17. PRO TIP: Form-wise, your arms actually propel your run more than you might think. Ironman champion and coach Michael Lovato stressed this point at a bilingual RaceQuest Tri Camp in Costa Rica, reminding athletes that the run is “todo en los brazos!” Add this “all in the arms” mantra to your running toolbox as a reminder to drive your elbows back and use the quick turnover momentum of your arms to coax your legs to follow suit.
18. No matter how exhausted you feel, turn that frown upside down. Success on the run can be as simple as a smile. Practice reverse psychology on yourself by smiling as if you feel good. Not only will this immediately give your body a noticeable lift, spectators will respond in kind with positive cheers, helping you “fake it till you make it” back to your happy place.
19. PRO TIP: Rough moments can’t be avoided entirely, especially toward the end of the run. Ironman champion Julie Dibens recommends counting to yourself when the going gets tough—a means of distracting yourself from the pain and finding something absolutely elementary to focus on. Stick with repeat refrains of one through 10, rather than more complex countdowns, if things are feeling especially ugly.
20. Catching a rival gives an automatic energy boost. Improve your chances of conquering the competition with this simple psychological trick: Aim for the person ahead of the person you’re trying to pass. (Then aim again, pass and repeat.)
Recovery goes beyond compression boots and refueling within a 30-minute window. The mental game post-race can be just as important as it is on race day.
21. Practice a 24-hour rule if you’re less than thrilled with your race performance; wallow for a short while, then move on!
22. PRO TIP: Ironman world champion and Olympic silver medalist Michellie Jones recommends to the athletes she coaches that they always have a next event planned, especially following a key race. Even if it’s far down the road, the knowledge of a future start line helps immensely in battling the post-race blues—a very real phenomenon, even after a champion performance.
23. Blog, journal, phone a friend or contribute to a race chat forum. You’re going to want to talk about your race experience, so tap into any of these avenues for downloading and self-analysis. Reward your race strengths and constructively criticize your weaker moments.
24. Be sure to reward your efforts, too. French fries, ice cream or a couple cold beers are perfectly acceptable post-race pleasures.
One Man’s Happy (Tri) Place
Age-group triathlete Bill Ng, a former investment bank trader and American expat living in Hong Kong, recently made an about-face in the pursuit of happiness and balance in his own life, and sought bigger-picture goals. “I had become a well-paid paper shuffler and rubber-stamper,” says Ng, who was inspired to action by a TEDx talk about the “why” rather than the “what” that motivates and defines people.
“My ‘why’ is an overwhelming desire to stand at the intersection of great passion and great need—to connect those who have with those less fortunate,” Ng says. To that end, he’s taking at least a year off from his former job to intertwine three areas of focus: strategic development as part of Ironman champion Chris Lieto’s nonprofit organization More Than Sport; concentrated family time (Bill and wife Shannon welcomed baby Ethan in 2013); and triathlon training as a means of passion put into practice.
“As Ethan grows, I’ve been thinking more and more about what example I’m setting for him,” Ng says. “Where does integrity as a father and husband lie? In doing a 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. job that I had grown frustrated with, but go back to because it’s safe for me and my family? Or in trying something new and taking a risk—and maybe failing, but at least for a brief moment feeling like I soared?”
Run Happier Playlist
Upbeat jams we’re training to
“Best Day of My Life” by American Authors
“Sunshine” by Matisyahu
“We Come Running” by Youngblood Hawke
“Hello” by Martin Solveig & Dragonette
“Good Feeling” by Flo Rida
“Pumpin Blood” by NONONO
“Move Your Feet” by Junior Senior
“Unbelievers” by Vampire Weekend
“Play Hard” by David Guetta
“The Spark” by Afrojack
“Raise Your Glass” by PINK
“Dreaming” by Smallpools
“Happy” by Pharrell Williams
Happy Feet Footbath
Fill a basin with warm water. Stir in 1 cup Epsom salt (available at grocery and drug stores, and excellent for soothing achy feet and reducing inflammation), plus 4–5 drops of your favorite essential oil. Try tea tree oil (an antifungal that helps prevent athlete’s foot), lavender (a natural stress reliever), peppermint (for its invigorating qualities) or eucalyptus (to control foot odor). Soak away!
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 2014 issue of Triathlete magazine.