For access to all of our training, gear, and race coverage, plus exclusive training plans, FinisherPix photos, event discounts, and GPS apps, sign up for Outside+.
Despite the best-laid plans, we’ve all had races where we’ve arrived to the start line in less than ideal physical condition. Maybe we’ve been sick or struggled with injury, or maybe we just haven’t been able to log as much training as we would like. Personally, I’ve had this experience in the past by accident (when I’ve been injured and unable to train thoroughly) and I’ll have it on Saturday by design (when I’ll tackle the full Challenge Taiwan, after deciding to do so on a whim just a few weeks ago). But we’ve all been there—or we surely will someday—so I reached out to several of the professional athletes headlining Challenge Taiwan to learn their tips for staying mentally tough when the body lags behind.
“When I’m struggling in a race I try not to think about the training I haven’t done, but instead I think about the training I have done—and not just in the preparation for this one race, but for all my races. I try and draw strength from all the work I have done over the years.”
“I always tell myself: It is just one day! (Or four, eight or twelve hours.) One day in my life where I have to be better and tougher than on any other day. When you look at the big picture it is really quite an insignificant amount of time, so make the most of hurting yourself!”
“On a rough day, one of the things I always draw upon is some hard-earned history. I have a ‘No DNF’ rule and in 63 iron-distance races, while I’ve certainly had my share of rough days, I’ve never DNF-ed and I’ve never walked. No matter how bad I’m feeling, I always think about this and how hard it was to keep those rules intact on certain occasions. I tell myself: We are not about to ruin this streak now! I guess in another sense it’s like, while I still have days or moments where I have no idea how I’m going to get to that finish line, I always know deep down that I will get there one way or another.”
“I try to remind myself that the discomfort is temporary, and if I slow down it will just take me a longer time before I reach the finish line.”
“I try to have positive thoughts, and I try to smile even if the pain is there. I also get energy from having a friendly attitude towards my competitors. I get energy from that and it does not affect my competitiveness.”
“If I feel tired and have a bad patch during the race, I use previous race experience to know that this is not the end of the day and I will get over it. For example, in some of my iron-distance races I have been completely out of energy at around 150-km into the bike, but I learned to handle it, recover and finish strong.”
“I don´t have any specific mantras and I am not the type for monster training sessions to build mental readiness and confidence. But with my racing history (138 Ironman-distance finishes and almost every time in the top 10) I always rely on my past results to help me through subpar readiness for an upcoming race. My confidence is very strong thanks to that. I just know I will be there at the end of the long race, if I keep digging deep and keep my concentration on all the important aspects of the race-pace, fueling and hydrating. There were so many races where I was close to calling it a day in the first few hours of the race and in the end it turned out to be a close to perfect result. That builds my confidence even deeper towards the future races and any mishaps in the final race preparation.”
“In Ironman races it is inevitable there will be moments of doubt and times you want to quit and just give up. We all have them! No matter how much training you do leading up to event, there is always that little voice that says, ‘I could have done more!’ But come race day, you have done the best with what you have physically—the rest will come down to your mental approach. I definitely remind myself of those hard, long training days that I didn’t think I could get through, that were designed exactly for that moment during the race when I would doubt myself and my abilities–those days that I stayed strong, concentrated on my technique or nutrition and got the job done. The same will happen during the race. Stay focused on you, and only you. Don’t get caught up in what is going on around you. Concentrate on your own goals–in the end that is all that matters!”
“I am constantly making deals with myself, especially if I know I am a little ‘underdone’ leading into a race. For example, at Ironman New Zealand I knew I had a very short build leading into the race after a good break over Christmas. Was I ready to race an Ironman? No! I knew I could get through it though, and I decided it was a good stepping stone for the rest of the year. The run was three laps and I made a deal with myself: No walking at all for the first two laps, and then if I was slowing down considerably I could have a quick walk through the aid stations. I held out until 31-km! Yah for me!”
“I also remember the time I was out of the sport for nearly 18 months with a string of stress fractures. All I wanted to do was race again. Now every time I am on the start line of any event I just appreciate the fact I am there, doing what I love. Whether it’s a good day or a bad day, there are people who could never take part in such an event for various reasons. That’s something that should never be taken for granted!”
“I think that a weak body is a better problem in long distance race then a weak mind. If you put yourself under too much pressure, nothing will happen. Your body and even more, your mind need to be really rested and ready. That means don’t trouble yourself with too many tasks the weeks before the race. Get your gear ready early enough and arrange the things that need to be done–don’t wait for the last few days. I do my best races when I am relaxed and focused, but not stressed. For me, the best way to get to this point is to do a short or half distance race two weeks prior to the big race as a confidence builder. Traveling with good friends to the race also gives me the confidence I need. And since I have become a father I can get over the weak points much easier just by thinking about my family and how important it is to pay them something back and try to bring back home as much money as I can!”
“If you are not sure about your real ability on race day, it’s better to race conservative. That means do not over pace and don’t try to make miracles happen. But be confident that you can at least do what you could do in training. Trust your power and do your own thing!”
“One thing I can recall from my best races is that I always raced well when I had a reason to do well—like being told I had to finish in the top 10 to get my airfare reimbursed or racing my ass off to beat all my ex-teammates. That’s immense satisfaction!”