Kona Week: Combat Negative Pre-Race Thoughts

Tricks to re-frame your thinking so you go into the world championship with a strong mental focus.

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Tricks to re-frame your thinking so you go into the world championship with a strong mental focus.

For tips on how to cope with potential race-week kinks, we turned to psychiatrist, coach and soon-to-be five-time Kona finisher Mimi Winsberg for advice.

Negative thought: Pre-race week didn’t go as planned—the time zone change means you barely slept, you didn’t get your staple night-before meal and you’re fighting a calf twinge. You head into the race feeling set back and discouraged.

Combat it: “If you think about a lot of the good workouts you’ve banked, or even the really good races you’ve had, they weren’t always preceded by perfect circumstances either,” Winsberg says. “You try to control the factors you can control, and it is certainly helpful to think through and carefully plan the week, but ultimately a good race is about the months of preparation leading up to the race, and not the details of race week.”

“Tell yourself there’s room for error.  Once you’ve raced a lot you  realize that something always goes wrong during race week—and it’s sort of interesting to see what goes wrong. You have to roll with it and be ready for anything.  Working through those experiences builds confidence,” she says.

If you don’t already, make checklists of things you want to do race week, Winsberg advises. Pencil in downtime or schedule a massage, and make a list of what should go in your bags—anything to keep your mind calm.

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Negative thought: You can’t shake your nerves on race morning.

Combat it: “Translate your nervousness into ‘arousal,’” Winsberg says. “Everyone gets nervous. Joe Montana used to get nervous before every game—the best athletes still get nervous. It’s a part of competing and you have to reframe it as arousal.  You need some nervousness to race well. Being too blazé is not a good way to start a race. Just think of it as getting fired up.”

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Negative thought: Your swim goes much slower than expected and you feel like your day is ruined by a bad start.

Combat it: “Wouldn’t it be nice if a good swim meant that your race was in the bag?” Winsberg says. “The same way that a good swim is no guarantee of a good race, a bad one doesn’t predict anything either.  Good racers know that you keep racing until the very last step.  People can fall apart in the last three miles of the marathon. You just don’t know what’s going to happen‑it’s a long day, and there is plenty of time to correct for mistakes.”

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Negative thought: Mechanical! You flat on the Queen K and frustratingly watch your competitors fly by as you count every minute you lose.

Combat it: “If you haven’t thought through these scenarios, they can be very troubling on race day,” Winsberg says. “This is a tough one because we don’t get mechanicals often. Stay focused on what you can control—not about how much time you have lost, or who is going by you. Focus on fixing it and then get back into race mode by bringing your mind back to your body. Focus on breathing, relaxing your shoulders, smooth pedal stokes, steady power.”

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Negative thought: It’s mile 17 of the marathon. The pavement burns as much as your fatiguing hip flexors, and your brain keeps telling you to give in and walk already.

Combat it: “When you’re out of reach of the finish, in no-man’s land, you really have to find what motivates you,” she says. “This is something that has to get practiced in training. Remind yourself why you are racing. Some people are motivated by the crowds or family members or a mentor, but other people can be motivated by darker things in those moments. It can be helpful to think about an unresolved issue and the feeling of confidence you’ll gain from overcoming that. I’ve had some good races on anger.”

“Draw on whatever motivates you, whether it’s positive or negative. Think of the song that motivates you, your kids, your mentor, the sacrifices you have made—whatever it is, but it will be personal. By practicing this in training, it will come naturally on race day.”

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