Periodize Your Brain Training for Big Gains

“By creating a mental periodization plan for yourself, you’ll start working on that aspect early on in the season."

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The concept of periodization, or applying progressively larger training loads, then backing off to let the body adapt, has been a triathlete’s best friend for decades. It primes the muscular and cardiovascular systems for a top race–day performance—and it can do wonders for your mental game.

“By creating a mental periodization plan for yourself, you’ll start working on that aspect early on in the season—whether it’s using visualization prior to a certain workout or practicing positive self-talk during long rides and runs,” says Larry Judge, a professor in the Department of Physical Education, Sport, and Exercise Science at Ball State University. “So by performance time, the work has already been put in and both your mind and body are ready.”

Your seasonal plan should be broken down into three separate phases, or mesocycles, lasting four to 12 weeks each. Here’s how to plot your path to mental domination.

1. Establish Your Base (12 Weeks)

This initial phase is designed to get you into a good mindset as you start your training. Create a clear plan and goals, and become aware of what helps you get in the zone while you work out, like listening to music, practicing positive self-talk, or checking your day at the door. “This is a time to gather feedback on your technique,” Judge says. Sign up for different types of competitive events, and approach them as opportunities to evaluate your mental progress. Track what works and what doesn’t, and then tweak your routine accordingly.

2. Build Your Skills (Four Weeks)

Now is the time to hone your pre-race routine. “So many things change from triathlon to triathlon, based on the location, course, weather, and more,” Judge says. “One of the things that can remain consistent throughout to help keep you mentally focused and confident is your routine—how you warm up, what you do and/or listen to the morning of, and what you think about before and during the race.” Your ultimate goal should be to increase your ability to stay positive and concentrate on the task at hand, so that you’re able to reach a steady state of stoke during your swims, rides, and runs.

3. Sharpen Up, Then Taper (Nine Weeks)

“The big thing now is to believe in your preparation, be confident in your training, and continue to give yourself positive affirmations,” Judge says. “It’s easy for anxiety and doubts to pop up, which just creates mental noise and inevitably affects your focus. To help combat that, remember to look for progress, not perfection.” Review videos of your past performances or read back over your training log to see how far you’ve come. Work on blocking out any distractions by fine-tuning your pre-race routine and anything else within your control. Consider incorporating a relaxation strategy or imagery sessions, in which you visualize what a successful run, bike, and swim will look like and allow both your mind and your body to taper.

Talk it Out

The four mental factors that have the largest effect on your performance–and the mental skills associated with them–are: motivation (self-awareness and goal setting), anxiety (relaxation), confidence (self-talk), and concentration (attention control and imagery), Judge says. Similar to physical therapy, the more you address each of these during your training,
the more likely you’ll be mentally prepared for peak performance. Begin with this positive self-talk exercise:

  • First, identify negative thinking. When does it occur? In what situations, or when practicing what skills?
  • Then challenge your thoughts. “Do I honestly believe these negative statements?”
  • Replace them with accurate, true positive statements, such as “I am mentally tough,” or “I am strong,” or “I can do anything for five minutes.” These pre-planned statements will help you produce positive thoughts and images whenever things start to get negative and you need a boost.
  • You can also plan instructional self-talk to help steer yourself in the right direction when needed, such as “Stay relaxed,” “Just breathe,” or “Keep your head up.”

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