Exploring the Emotional Side of Triathlon

Learning to recognize all our emotions can help us use them as tools.


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Emotions play a vital, yet often underappreciated, role in triathlon. Of course, emotions aren’t just important in triathlon, but in our lives in general. They give our lives (and our triathlon participation) texture, depth, and richness. Often without realizing it, emotions are what propel you forward.

Ask yourself why you participate in triathlon? Common responses include: fun, excitement, joy, satisfaction, pride, and inspiration. What do all of these responses have in common? They’re all emotions. I would also add that the reasons you do triathlon don’t have to be so-called good emotions. You may also participate in triathlon because of the disappointment, frustration, and stress. No, those emotions aren’t pleasant, but when you experience them, they trigger reactions—such as determination, drive, resilience, and perseverance—that can lead to even stronger positive emotions because of the challenges you overcome. As a result, emotions are an essential piece of the Prime Triathlon puzzle. (What is Prime Triathlon? I define it as “performing at a consistently high level under the most challenging conditions,” which is the goal toward which triathletes should strive.)

RELATED: Forget Peak Performance; Prime Triathlon is the Goal

This article is the first of four in which I’ll be plumbing the depth and breadth of the role that emotions play in your triathlon life and beyond. My goal is to educate you on how emotions impact your triathlon life, both positively and negatively, and to provide you with the insights, information, and tools you need to nourish the positive emotions and minimize the negative emotions.

Emotions: Weapons or Tools

Unfortunately, you can’t just feel only positive emotions, like happiness, excitement, and joy. Think of emotions as two sides of the same coin; you can’t feel the emotions that feel good without also being willing to experience the emotions that don’t feel good. So, it’s not really a question of whether emotions feel good or bad, but rather the effect they have on the way you think and react. Too often, the so-called negative emotions act as weapons against people. These emotions are typically experienced as:

  • Negative (e.g., fear, worry, despair)
  • Unpleasant
  • Seemingly uncontrollable
  • Often overwhelming
  • Hurt your psychology (e.g., reduce motivation, confidence, and focus) and physiology (e.g., create anxiety or apathy)
  • Interfere with training and competitive performances
  • Most basically, just plain feel bad

But emotions are also not just phenomena that you experience in reaction to your triathlon participation. Rather, they can also be used as tools that promote triathlon enjoyment and success. In this case, emotions can be experienced as:

  • Positive
  • Pleasant
  • Controllable
  • Moderated
  • Bolster psychology and physiology
  • Drive performance
  • Feel good

From this perspective, you have several goals as you gain experience with using your emotions as tools for triathlon success.

First, to experience the broad range of emotions that are common in triathlon. You can’t cherry-pick your emotions—meaning you can’t just feel the good emotions such as happiness, excitement, and inspiration, and remove the so-called bad emotions such as anger, exasperation, and sadness. You have to be willing to experience and accept the entire range of emotions in your triathlon life.

Second, you want to recognize those situations that most commonly trigger the bad emotions and then understand where they are coming from (e.g., overinvestment, fear of failure, expectations). In this process of recognition and understanding, you can learn to let go of their impact and no longer become a victim to them.

Third, rather than keeping your emotions bottled up inside of you, you can learn to express them, particularly the unpleasant ones, in healthy ways. For example, instead of giving up after a poor bike segment, you can channel your disappointment into attacking the run and finishing your race on a high note. In making this shift, you are turning those emotions from weapons that hurt you into tools that help you.

“Mentally tough triathletes are not emotionless: they are just skilled in subordinating emotions to the greater requirements of winning competitions.” – Ellis Cashmore, author of Making Sense of Triathlon

Understanding Your Emotional Life

Of all the mental areas that impact your triathlon life, emotions are perhaps the most difficult to understand. We, of course, experience emotions all the time, yet we don’t often know what causes them or how to deal with them effectively. To increase your understanding of your emotions, there are four aspects you should know about.

Emotionality involves how strongly you feel emotions. Some people don’t seem to feel emotions very strongly. We think of them as rather stoic or made of Teflon (life just slides off of them). Others feel their emotions deeply, whether incredibly intense highs or debilitating lows. Still others lie somewhere between the two extremes. Emotionality has been shown to be largely genetic; you are born somewhere along the continuum.

Expressiveness is related to how much you express your emotions outwardly. Many people confuse expressiveness with emotionality. Yet, some people can be very emotional, yet turn their emotions inward and not express them at all so others can’t tell what they are feeling. As with all of these qualities of emotions, you lie somewhere on a continuum from “Wear your heart on your sleeve” (openly and intensely expressive) to “Hold your emotions close to the vest” (hide emotions from others).

Direction involves how positive or negative your emotions usually are related to your triathlon life. Do you mostly experience pride, fun, inspiration, and joy in training and races? Or, do you mostly feel anger, frustration worry, and fear? Obviously, if you tend toward the negative side of the continuum, you’ll want to take a close look at what is causing such negative feelings and either figure out how to make a shift in the positive direction or perhaps consider whether triathlon participation, which is causing such an unpleasant emotional experience, is the right thing for you.

Control means how well you are able to consciously regulate your emotions in a way that not only feels good to you, but also helps you perform your best in your triathlon life. In other words, the degree to which you are able to control whether your emotions act as weapons against you or tools for you. An essential part of achieving Prime Triathlon involves learning to exert control of your emotions in a way that fosters performing your best and feeling good about your efforts.

In the next article in my series on emotions in triathlon, I’ll introduce you to the “negative emotional chain” that can result when you become frustrated with your training or competitive efforts. I’ll also show you how to break the negative emotional chain so you can continue to get the most out of your training and enjoy and maximize your race experiences.

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Do you want to take the next step in training your mind to perform your best in training and on race day? Here are five options for you: