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How do you do mentally prepare for a race?
Endurance sports are largely a mental game. Physical training is essential to perform well, but beyond the swim, bike and run, mental training techniques can also help you prepare for the big day.
Most professional athletes practice some type of visualization, but what does that entail other than just “thinking about a perfect race”? I have developed my own visualization routine over the years, and it usually includes thinking about what can go wrong rather than right. Perfect days are rare—I can think of exactly twice in my 12 years when I have felt like there was no chain on the bike and I could run all day without getting tired. Those are the 1 percent days, and if you are having one of those you won’t need mental strength. So, I don’t visualize those days. Instead I focus on the other 99 percent of the time: the days of relentless headwinds, heavy legs and mind-numbing fatigue.
The point is not to dwell on the negative, but to prepare for the inevitable events and emotions that will surface on race day. To achieve this, I break my visualization routine into three parts: logistical, physical and mental. The days before a race I try to find a quiet place and run through the entire race three times, focusing on each component individually.
Logistical: Here is where you run through the logistics of the race course. Make sure you know the layout of transition, the number of laps and the turns on the course, paying special attention to technically challenging sections. The first rule to a good race is completing the course correctly! Know where the tough parts of the course will be. For instance, at the Wildflower Long Course Triathlon, there is a long climb around mile 40 on the bike, so I know to take on fuel and conserve energy leading up to that section. At the Hawaii Ironman, the last mile of the run is downhill—it helps some athletes to know that their legs will get a respite at mile 25. This is also the time to plan the timing of your race nutrition and know exactly how you will take on the correct number of calories throughout the day.
Physical: In the next phase of visualization, the focus is on what you as an athlete will be doing during every section of the race. Again, you will perform a mental dress rehearsal of race day, this time concentrating on your own strengths, weaknesses and strategies. If you’re a strong swimmer, visualize your stroke in the water and smooth turns around the buoys. Here is a chance to plan your strategy and energy management—think about places on the course where you will be strong, where you might struggle and where you can conserve energy. It is a good idea to think of a few key motivational words or form cues that resonate with you. I tend to lean back and slow my turnover when I get tired on the run, so when I notice this happening I remind myself to lean forward and increase my cadence. Identifying your common problem areas before the gun goes off ensures that these cues will be close at hand to help you get back on track.
Mental: This is the most important part of the routine and also the hardest. It involves predicting mental states throughout the race and planning strategies to keep emotions in check. Race day, especially at the longer distances, is an emotional roller coaster, and your mental state can make or break your performance. The excitement of racing means you can easily go out too hard early in the race. It helps to plan for this and be prepared to rein yourself in for the first few hours. Here is my dirty secret: I have rarely gone through an entire race without considering dropping out, if only for an instant. There will always be low points during a race where you feel nothing is going right and it’s “just not your day.” Often, fatigue and negative thoughts are the result of glycogen depletion or dehydration. If you can identify when this is happening, you can remove the emotion from the situation and deal with it constructively. Slowing down and focusing on eating and drinking for a few minutes will be enough to get you back on track. My personal demon is the swim—I rarely visualize myself in the lead pack out of the water. Instead I deliberately consider the frustration I may feel exiting the swim farther back in the pack and plan on how I will refocus my energy onto the next leg of the race. It can be uncomfortable thinking about the critical self-talk that we all experience during a low point in a race. By accepting that problems are inevitable on race day and devising a strategy to deal with them, you will have prepared yourself to overcome them.
Visualizing all of the bad things that can happen on race day is not an exercise in negativity—it’s a constructive tool that will prepare you to problem-solve and neutralize unhelpful emotions before they derail your race. Success lies in recognizing weaknesses and devising strategies to deal with problems that arise. Plan for the worst while preparing for the best.