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This past week in the Team Triathlete community, Dr. Cory Nyamora, a licensed psychologist and endurance sports coach, answered questions about everything that takes place between the ears—and we mean everything. As the founder and director of Endurance – A Sports & Psychology Center, Inc., Nyamora knows the unique concerns of triathletes, from performance anxiety to finding a healthy balance between home, work, and triathlon training.
Below is a roundup of the best questions from Dr. Nyamora’s AMA. Want to see more and ask your questions, too? Join Team Triathlete now! Any Triathlete or Outside+ member can access Team Triathlete for all the giveaways, swag, community, and expert Q&As, but to get all the benefits you’ll need to be a full Outside+ member.
Dr. Cory Nyamora Answers Your Sport Psychology Questions
I recently learned that the night before the race doesn’t matter as much (in terms of sleep) as the previous day and the days leading up to it. Since now I know that, I struggle with sleep for the whole week. Once I’m in the race or high-stress thing, I’m cool as a cucumber. The gun goes off and I feel great psychologically, but physically not great. Any advice here? Thanks for doing this! – Paul
Nyamora: The mind can be so challenging. What I’d recommend is:
- First trying to figure out what is at stake for you. How come you’re feeling so pressured? There may be a part of your mind that’s putting up some roadblocks to performance – so maybe I’d try to figure out what that’s about and if there are ways to respond to whatever that anxiety is. For example, if you are fully rested and don’t perform your best, you may be harder on yourself than if you felt like the performance wasn’t great but you had a reason (e.g., no sleep).
- If you figure out whatever is driving the anxiety, then I’d just recommend having some soothing dialogue with the part of your mind that’s anxious and really maybe lower the pressure by focusing on the fun of the race, the excitement about racing and that you’ll have many chances to get better. Writing all this stuff out can be helpful, because you can revisit it to calm nerves even at night.
As far as practices go, one thing that you want to focus on is soothing the part of your mind that is anxious and now worried about not sleeping all week. Meditation or just simply relaxing (even if you aren’t sleeping well) has been found to have some similar benefits to sleep so that’s something you can focus on at high-pressure times. Breathing exercises, visualizations, grounding exercises, listening to calming music, thinking about pleasant relaxing places if you are up at night can all help.
Remember, that if you sleep well in general, you shouldn’t have problems with the race (maybe try and remove the focus on the week before, or the day before, or any other information you get that may drive up the anxiety). So I would just focus that last week before the race or performance on doing things that are relaxing or meditative and trying to lower the pressure to sleep. Practice some of those tools above during your training so you don’t feel pressure as the race gets closer.
I wanted to see if you have any tips on eating before a race. Specifically, my pre-race nerves leave me completely food averse. I manage to force myself to eat a little, because I know I have to. But it is a struggle and I don’t manage to eat as much as I’d ideally consume. Any tips would be appreciated! – Tom
Nyamora: It’s a common concern for many athletes. A few things to experiment with:
- Begin building a breathing practice early in your training to help with any anxiety/nerves way before you get to your race. I know you may not feel your nerves as much during training, but it may be a good practice early on and something that you could implement on race day.
- I’d also wonder if there are foods that could work for race day a little bit better (or if it’s an aversion to everything). Maybe experimenting with this during training would help.
- I know we are usually up so early for races, but maybe getting up even earlier may allow you more time to prepare, eat, not feel as much pressure right before the race.
- Finally, I’d focus a little on trying to figure out what’s behind the pre-race nerves or what ways you may be pressuring yourself (even around the eating issues). Anxiety can build on itself so I’d suggest trying to find ways to respond to the thoughts behind the nerves and just give yourself ample time during training, during race week and pre-race.
I’d also suggest talking to a sports dietitian who can help look at what you eat and if your nutrition is actually good throughout training and throughout race week, then maybe there’s a way to work with someone who can help plan what may work best or reassure you that what you are able to tolerate race morning works for you (even if it may seem less than ideal). I wonder if the pressure to eat enough is also adding to the food aversion on race morning.
I’ve been paying a lot of attention the last two years to some of the research around mental/emotional fatigue & how it relates to performance. And it seems like it affects some people A LOT. Given how emotionally strained the last two years have been for a lot of people, something I’ve been trying to figure out is: How do you mentally deal with or cope with that, when you can’t control the world or stress, in order to perform at your best? – Kelly
Nyamora: Such an important question, especially right now. The main suggestion I have for athletes is to really focus on what’s in your control. Figuring out what aspects of the things that are causing stress are in one’s control and which things aren’t (same as we’d do in any sporting context – listing controllable and uncontrollable situations) and then working concretely to let go of the ones that aren’t in our control and focusing on the controllable stuff.
So, for example, many people get stressed out by the news – it’s more productive to turn the news off and focus instead on an active way to make your life, your family or your community better in small actionable steps. Same with pandemic stuff and everything going on – I’d just suggest listing what you can actually do to make change (even if it feels small) and realizing that your mental and physical well-being and actually enjoying your sports performance and life can help you do better things in the world. Focusing on your day to day activities is also helpful – What can I do today to cope well, train well and support those that I love? Having a meditation or mindfulness practice can be helpful, or using your endurance sport in a meditative way.