The Six Habits Of Highly Effective Triathletes

Learn from the mental strategies of triathlon’s experts and pros to reach your own peak performance on race day.

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This article is from our archives, and was originally published in the July/August 2013 issue of Inside Triathlon.

Last August, in the women’s triathlon final at the London Olympic Games, American Sarah Groff had just fallen off the pace of the lead pack during the four-lap 10K run in Hyde Park. She had been with 21 other women out of T2, and when the pack, which had whittled down to six women by the second lap, surged again, Groff couldn’t keep up.

But just when Groff had been written off, running the third lap by herself, she—incredibly—clawed her way back and rejoined the lead group, which was now five women including her, at the start of the final lap. At one point, Groff even moved into second place while British favorite Helen Jenkins fell off the pace. The four remaining women jockeyed for position all the way to the finish chute, and, with just a couple hundred yards to go, Groff couldn’t keep up with their blistering kick. She finished 10 seconds behind the bronze medalist.

“In order to contend for a medal,” Groff says, reflecting on her Olympic race, “you have to think of yourself as a medal contender a long ways out, and train and race every day with that mind-set. Because I didn’t, and it changed the race.”

Leading into the Games, even the triathlon world didn’t talk about Groff as a medal contender. When debating the best hopes for a U.S. triathlon medal, the discussion usually centered around Gwen Jorgensen, the running phenom who had placed second at the London test event a year before the real thing, and Laura Bennett, the fourth-place finisher at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Yet Groff was the only one who found herself in the mix in the final stretch.

“The biggest mistake I made was that I didn’t set the bar high enough for myself—I didn’t put myself in a position to race and train to win that medal, and that’s how it played out,” Groff says. “The difference between me getting a medal and me not getting a medal was completely mind-set.”

The point of Groff’s story is not just that you should race confidently. It’s that the thing standing between you and achieving the race results you want could be entirely mental. After talking to top pros, coaches and sports psychologists, it’s evident that, while there’s no one-size-fits-all mental approach, pro triathletes do have certain habits in common—and these traits can help you take your own racing to the next level.

1. They turn experiences into tools for racing.

At Ironman 70.3 California this year, Andy Potts earned his fifth title in Oceanside—the third time in a sprint to the finish. In 2008, he narrowly bested Craig Alexander, and in 2011, he outpaced Rasmus Henning after the duo ran shoulder-to-shoulder for 13 miles. This year, former NCAA All-American runner Jesse Thomas tried to break away midway through the run, but Potts kept him in his sights and ran him down in the last 200 meters.

Matt Dixon, who coaches Thomas and other elite long-course athletes through his company Purplepatch Fitness, credits Potts’ racing experience for giving him the edge in Oceanside. “Andy won that race, not necessarily because he was a better athlete, but because he had more tools in his emotional shed from the years of racing,” Dixon says.

Potts, who turned pro a decade ago and has raced everything from the 2004 Olympics to multiple Ironman World Championships, drew on many successful sprint finishes when going head to head with Thomas in Oceanside. Meanwhile, three-time Wildflower champion Thomas is still building up his arsenal of mental tools. “That was the best thing that could have happened to [Thomas] in his career development because he learned a lot of lessons, and he can employ the tools,” Dixon says. “That will never happen to Jesse again. … Not that he’s going to win every race, but when he’s in that [sprint finish] situation again, he’s going to gain a lot of wisdom from that.”

Groff sees that same weakness in her Olympic fourth-place finish. “I wasn’t the athlete racing for the win—ever!” she says. “All those girls, the women who won medals, they had all been in positions where they were racing for wins or podium finishes in major races, and I really had never been in that place. You have to practice winning.”

Racing isn’t the only way to gain some of those tools, however. Pro Meredith Kessler, who’s won long-course races in the brutal heat and wind of St. George, Utah, as well as the blustery cold and rain of New Zealand, relies on memories of training in less-than-ideal conditions to get through races. “You must mentally remind yourself of the toughest days in training where you had to dig yourself out of the ‘well,’” Kessler says. “Not everyone can train in 90-degree heat all the time or likes to go out when it’s raining, but you have to do it on occasion to get used to the sensation. … It could provide useful mental imagery someday during a rainy race.”

2. They focus on the process.

Lists are something pros rely on not only before races but also during races to keep focused on the task at hand. Before races, Potts relies on his warm-up routine to prime his body for a race. “Mentally if you do the same things that you do before a practice, your body starts to anticipate what’s about to happen,” he says. “I just like to go through my checklist—whether it’s warming up with cords, or my breathing techniques, or my stretching—and my body says, ‘OK, we know what’s coming.’”

During the race, a mental checklist is what prevents athletes’ minds from wandering to the finish line that’s hours away—a technique coaches refer to as being “process-oriented.” “Being process-oriented, it’s not about the outcome in terms of the finish; it’s about the outcome in terms of what boxes have I checked?” Groff says. Those boxes are things like thinking about cadence, foot strike, breathing well and fueling appropriately. “You just start thinking about how to run well instead of mentally fast-forwarding to the finish line or [having negative thoughts like], ‘Oh man, I got dropped and I could have been in this group,’” she says. “Instead of thinking about that, and fast-forwarding, which is only going to hurt you, I get caught up in that exact moment, and, ‘How can I run well in this second? What do I need to do for me?’”

Coach Dixon advises his athletes, both pros and amateurs, to race with a process-driven mind-set, which he thinks of as “psychological defense,” to keep them mentally engaged. “If you can teach an athlete to stay process-driven and stay in the moment, it protects them from thinking about [placing] first or second and actually keeps them in the moment—and that’s really important because [in a close race,] many athletes start to panic,” Dixon says. “They start to think about the effort rather than actually thinking about, ‘What is the process that has to occur so that you can get to the outcome you want?’”

To get them in the habit of focusing on the process rather than the outcome, he gives his athletes a mental checklist of recurring, ongoing things that they can use for swim, bike and run: form, fueling and pacing. For example on the bike, an athlete should be asking himself about his form—How’s my cadence? How are my shoulders? Am I relaxed? Then his fueling: How am I feeling? What’s my energy like? How’s my stomach feeling? Do I need to stay off calories for a bit? And finally his pacing: How’s my body feeling? Am I at the right power? Am I working hard enough?

Dixon’s athletes then cycle through those same three topics periodically, say every five or 10 minutes, so that they’re not thinking about things like their bike splits, their finish time or how they’re going to place. “All of those things are outcome-driven, which serve no purpose to get your best performance out of your body,” he says. “I like athletes to be driven by goals, but on race day, you don’t even think about your goals too much or how well you want to do. What you think about is execution.”

Photo: Mario Wagner

3. They race on auto-pilot.

After the close race between Potts and Thomas in Oceanside this year, when Potts was asked what was going through his mind on the course, he answered, “Nothing.”

“When I have good races, the answer is usually ‘nothing,’” Potts says. “When I have races that leave something to be desired … I tend to think a little bit too much. I try to stay out of my own way.”

This automatic mind-set takes a huge amount of preparation, says Danelle Kabush, a pro Xterra triathlete who holds a doctorate in sports psychology and works as a mental performance consultant to athletes. And the biggest gains in your mental preparation come from your toughest days in training. “There are certain training days that are going to be as hard or harder than the race conditions or the race pace that you want to maintain,” she says. “So it’s those days that you have to say, ‘I have to bring my best mental game,’ and then I can be confident when I go to the race I’m going to be able to give myself the same positive reminders automatically. And sometimes it is almost like there’s nothing going through your mind because hopefully you’ve refined it down to just a few positive cues that keep you on track.”

To refine your thoughts down to those positive cues, Kabush uses the analogy of a student studying really hard for an exam—having done tons of research, memorizing and note-taking. With so much information to remember, they break it down to cue cards so that by the time they go to take the exam, one cue card can trigger all the things they were trying to remember. “So it’s mentally preparing for a race like that—you’ve thought about all the different race scenarios, race conditioning, you’re mentally prepared for how it’s going to feel, you’ve thought through exactly what you’re going to eat and drink,” she says. “It’s almost like race day comes, and it’s all business—you just execute everything that you planned to do. And because you’re on such a simple, automatic mind-set, you don’t even have time to be distracted by anything else.”

Potts agrees that achieving that automatic mind-set takes a lot of preparation and planning before races: “I’d say probably one of the biggest differences between a professional, who has the opportunity to train every day and prepare for the task at hand on a daily basis, and an amateur is that our bodies really know what to do—at least one that’s supremely prepared,” he says. “You kind of just let your body take over because it knows what to do.”

4. They know how to find an extra gear.

Kabush says that much of her time spent with athletes as a mental performance consultant is spent helping them become self-aware—helping them determine their motivations, their fears and how they can best focus in a race. Some athletes tend to thrive in a competitive race environment, while others focus best when they’re more relaxed.

For example, Potts says that he’s found, in close or difficult races, that his physiology responds well to pushing hard and then going again. “So I tell myself, ‘Go now,’ as if the finish line were 200 meters ahead,” he says. In Oceanside, while trailing Thomas, Potts used this strategy to ultimately take the victory: “Basically the conversation that I was having in my head was, with three miles to go, it was like, ‘Go now if you want to catch him. The deficit is 25 seconds. You have to go now.’ And I went, and about two minutes later, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. My legs are going to fall off. I need to slow down.’ And 10 seconds later, I was like, ‘Ahh, who cares? Go again.’”

On the other hand, Olympian Groff says that it took her a few years, even after becoming a professional triathlete, to find her own recipe for racing success. A theory for the two types of people—“worriers” and “warriors”—was brought to light in a recent New York Times article, which cited studies related to the COMT gene. This specific gene was recently identified as responsible for building enzymes that either slowly (worrier) or rapidly (warrior) clear dopamine from the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for planning, making decisions, anticipating consequences and resolving conflicts. Under normal conditions, worriers tend to plan and think more clearly, but when put in stressful situations, they tend to under-perform—unless they’ve been well trained to cope with stress. Meanwhile, warriors actually need the stress to do their best.

Groff believes that the theory of worriers versus warriors holds true for triathlon racing. She had trained under coach Siri Lindley, a former ITU world champion, early in her pro career. “What I took away from Siri is that I had to be a warrior,” Groff says. “I tried to train with that mind-set day in and day out, and it fried me by the time I got to races—it just wasn’t a natural fit for me.” When Groff switched to coach Darren Smith, he understood her tendency to be a worrier athlete—a hyper-analytical, thinking athlete. “It’s not a negative—you can be a highly successful athlete as a worrier,” she says. “You just have to realize that’s what you are and work within those parameters instead of trying to reshape who you are.” Coach Smith taught Groff to become a process-oriented athlete: “Process orientation works with my sort of mind-set.”

Some athletes also need to learn to be their own coach, giving themselves positive reminders in the midst of a race, Kabush says. Depending on your training, saying things like, “Easy speed,” “Smooth,” “Focus,” or “One foot in front of the other” can help keep you on track and in the moment. “If you had your favorite coach on the sideline screaming quick reminders at you and encouraging you, what would you want them to be saying?” she says. “Train yourself to say those things in your own head.”

Photo: Mario Wagner

5. They see everything as an opportunity.

Injuries and training setbacks are inevitable in triathlon, but the nice thing about multisport is you can almost always be doing something. With Dixon’s athletes, he gives them 48 hours to pout before they have to become proactive. “So the question becomes, ‘What can you do?’” he says. “Then you put all of your emotional focus into the things that can proactively either help you heal, help you prevent the injury from occurring again, or building fitness and performance in different areas.” For example, if you have an Achilles injury and can’t run—great! This is an opportunity to become a better bike rider, he says.

Dealing with injury is also a chance to incorporate some extra strength training or cross-training, says Kabush. And who knows? Maybe you’ll come back even stronger because you worked on some weaknesses. Returning from injury can help you not only physically, but also mentally: “It’s a chance to reset the goals,” she says. “It rejuvenates your motivation, your whole perspective on why you’re doing it.” She recommends focusing on smaller day-to-day goals and staying excited about making progress—not focusing on where you were before the injury.

Treating injuries as opportunities to improve is difficult without patience, something pro triathlete Kessler learned the hard way. She was involved in a bike accident in 2012, resulting in a concussion, cracked ribs and a broken T9 vertebra, yet she still tried starting both the 70.3 and Ironman world championships—and was then forced to DNF (one because of dehydration, and one due to a second accident and concussion). “Being patient will be the toughest thing to do,” Kessler says. “[Triathletes] always come back too early, including myself, which results in further setbacks.”

While taking time away from racing, Kessler had to avoid the activities that mentally drained her (“I love swimming but I couldn’t move in the water for four weeks after my crash”) and focus on activities that buoyed her spirits (“I found solace in being able to use the stationary bike and treadmill to keep up my fitness”). And her patience finally paid off: She came back to win this year’s Ironman 70.3 U.S. Pro Championship in St. George against a stacked field—a victory she calls the biggest of her career. “You stop thinking about the negative things as far as ‘Why me?’ and you nourish the positives, such as, ‘I still have my health’ and ‘I can still do what I love,’” she says, reflecting on her mind-set during the St. George race. “There’s no denying how this type of injury can make you think about life differently, and it can be used as a springboard for bigger and better things.”

Just as coming back from injury is a chance to work on weaknesses, a disappointing race result is always a learning experience for adjusting your training and race preparation. “Give yourself a day [to process], and then take some time to objectively learn from it,” Kabush says. “Once you’ve taken all the positives you can from it, there’s no point wallowing in it anymore. It’s like, ‘OK, I’ve learned what I can learn,’ and use it as motivation to correct anything you need to correct or do things a little differently.”

6. They keep their races in perspective.

Realistically, races aren’t always going to go to plan—any number of factors can derail your day. That’s why Potts’ goal in racing is to always be happy at the end of the day, no matter what. “There are two things in life you can control, and that’s your attitude and your effort,” he says. “That’s usually why I’m pretty happy when I cross the finish line—whether I’m in 21st place or first place—because I really do try my very, very best every time out.”

Dixon agrees that giving your best effort is key, even if it won’t always produce the desired results. “Try to first set up your mind-set before the race that your job is whatever it takes to get 100 percent of what you’re given on that day,” coach Dixon says. “That might not be your best performance ever, but whatever your body is giving you that day.”

When races go to plan (or when they don’t), pros look at the result in terms of the long-term plan. “You can’t let the highs get too high and you can’t let the lows get too low,” Groff says. She recalls one training partner who won a big race, got caught up in the victory, spent the week watching videos of herself and basking in the limelight. The following weekend, she had a disastrous race. “It’s great when things go according to plan, but everything has to fit into a bigger picture,” Groff says.

Dixon believes that tempering the peaks and valleys of a season is a mark of a successful triathlete: “When things are going great, you don’t get overexcited—you just keep doing the task,” he says. “When things are going bad, you don’t let the world collapse underneath you—you do what you can to stay process-driven.” To help his athletes keep that perspective on their races, he sets up their training into a multi-year plan, with a “North Star” (where the athlete wants to be in three or four years) and a road map of how to get there, including a detailed plan of the current season. “As long as we’re improving and we keep the athlete focused on that short-term, narrow lens but also the long-term lens, where they understand the journey and the path they’re going on,” says Dixon, “then if you have a bad day, it’s just a blip on your overall journey.”

Finally, race results can’t be the only reason you’re racing triathlon, says Kabush—you need a balance. “You can’t sustain yourself if you’re obsessed with results,” she says. For most sports, triathlon included, 90 percent of your time doing the sport is training and preparing for the 10 percent of the year when you’re actually in competition. “So if you’re putting all your eggs in that 10 percent basket, then how are you really enjoying the overall journey, the lifestyle, the relationships you make from it—all these other perspectives that are outside of competition and results? Even at a pro or age-group level, sometimes you don’t get to do it forever—you get injured or sick or things happen, so you have to keep the perspective that you’re lucky to be able to do it.”

Confidence is Key

While physical training will take you a long way in the sport of triathlon, you can only get so far without confidence. Coach Matt Dixon defines confidence as “the catalyst that turns your hard work into performance.” The way you find confidence is by stringing together consistent training week after week and month after month—all without injury, without deep fatigue, and while making steady improvements. You also have to trust in your coach or whoever’s guiding your training. “Confidence comes when an athlete is actually enjoying and thriving in the process and the environment that they’re in,” he says.

While some athletes are naturally self-assured, confidence is also something that can be trained—which Olympian Sarah Groff took a while to figure out. “I just assumed that either you’re good at something or you’re not—it’s very black and white,” she says. “I assumed you were going to win or you weren’t going to win; it wasn’t a matter of working hard day in, day out, suffering.”

Dixon has worked with both types of athletes. “There are people that have that [winning] mind-set and require no coaching,” he says. “There are others that have to be taken on a journey to get them to believe.” For a coach, it’s a long, careful road to get an athlete to that point. Dixon recounts working with pro Jesse Thomas since he was an amateur, telling him early on that if he went on a journey and had patience, Dixon thought he could win a world championship. “He just looked at me like I was an alien,” Dixon says. “But now he’s moving in the direction where he can start to physically have the potential to be up there in a world championship. It might not happen this year, but emotionally now he believes it—he can see the path.”