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Race day is finally here. You’ve done all the work in training, and now it’s time to celebrate with a swim, a bike, and a run. Of course, at some point during the race, you’re likely going to hit some resistance: Pain or discomfort will creep in, self-doubts will arise, and you might swear never to put your body through something like this again. Luckily, when this happens, there are some science-backed ways to make racing feel easier.
It’s usually not a good idea to tell someone to smile. In fact, it’s frowned upon (I couldn’t resist). But, smiling has a beneficial psychological effect. One study found that runners who smiled during a vigorous effort reported decreased perception of effort (hereby referred to as rate of perceived exertion, or RPE) compared with those who frowned. Interestingly, they were also more efficient, exhibiting lower oxygen consumption compared with runners who frowned or were neutral. So, try smiling once or twice per mile, for 30 seconds at a time – anything more than that would be difficult to maintain, and look a bit weird.
Shift your attention
Between the first swim stroke and the last stride across the finish line, there are a lot of places where your attention can drift. While it’s impossible to remain focused throughout an entire race, it’s beneficial to maintain some level of awareness, so that when things get hard (and you know they will), you can shift your attention in a way that will provide some mental relief.
Think about your most recent race or challenging training session. When fatigue, discomfort, or pain set in, where did your mind go? Did you focus on internal elements, like your breath or the physical sensations in your body? Or did you zoom out and focus on a tree in the distance or the sounds around you? Data suggest that internal and external foci are equally as effective, so it really doesn’t matter which type you choose. The key is to first recognize when things feel hard. Then, shift your attention to any internal or external focal point that provides an ounce of confidence, knowing that you can keep going.
Talk to yourself
It should come as no surprise that the way we speak to ourselves matters. After all, from the brain’s perspective, there is little difference between hearing feedback from an outside source, like a coach, or from an inside source, like yourself.
Imagine you’re climbing a gnarly hill on the back half of the bike. What words would motivate you to keep grinding? Perhaps it’s a first-person narrative like, “I’m doing this, I’ve got this.” Or perhaps second-person phrasing shifts you into another mental gear: “Go, push, go, push.” Research indicates that the pronouns you use (e.g. first-person vs second-person) don’t have an effect on RPE. However, second-person self-talk did produce greater power output in a cycling time-trial, so you might want to use “you” more than “I” for that reason.
One factor you definitely want to be mindful of is the valence of your words. A study with runners found that negative self-talk increased RPE, as well as other stress markers, such as cortisol and breathing frequency. So, if you want to experience greater ease, give yourself some sweet talk on the course.
Curse (but just a little bit)
We’ve all done it – shouted an expletive (or several) in a moment of physical or emotional anguish. No judgment. In fact, this may be a good science-backed tool for helping you get through a tough race. Research findings suggest that swearing increases pain threshold (the point at which you start to feel pain) and pain tolerance (the length of time you can handle a painful stimulus) by 32% and 33%, respectively. Pretty impressive.
Unfortunately, making up your own curse words won’t have the same effect. While words like “fouch” and “twizpipe” elicited both emotion and humor, they didn’t affect pain threshold or tolerance.
One thing to keep in mind when employing this tool: Don’t overdo it. If you curse like a sailor, your brain becomes habituated and the words lose their effectiveness. So, be judicious in your usage.
Hydration is critically important when we race, but we usually think about it supporting heart function and regulating body temperature. Since the brain also requires water to function, it stands to reason that our psychological state might also be influenced by our hydration status. This very question – specifically the relationship between dehydration and RPE – has been studied most extensively in cyclists. Interestingly, higher levels of dehydration correlated with higher RPE values. The biggest effect occurred when mean body mass loss was greater than 3%. But even a small shift in how hard an effort feels can most definitely affect our enjoyment.
In triathlon, discomfort is the name of the game. But our relationship with it determines our enjoyment. Taking a page from traditional psychology, cognitive reappraisal is a re-framing strategy that can help racing feel easier. It’s a type of emotional regulation where you view any pain or discomfort with apathy. In a study with endurance runners, cognitive reappraisal techniques resulted in less emotional arousal and less physical exertion than distraction techniques or no strategies at all. Next time you feel your body talking to you in a race, try detaching yourself slightly. Adopt a neutral attitude, don’t get swept up in the physical sensations, and your effort may feel easier.
Even though all of these tricks are rooted in science, it’s your responsibility to figure out what works for you. Try experimenting with these tricks before race day because as is always the case, mental tools are only effective if you sharpen them while training and then remember to use them while racing.
Daya Grant, Ph.D. is a certified mental performance consultant (CMPC), neuroscientist, and yoga teacher who empowers athletes to get out of their own way and tap into their greatness. She swims, bikes, and runs in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and their young son.