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Mental Mastery With 6-Time World Champion Mark Allen

Over the next nine weeks, join Ironman legend Mark Allen as he shares some of his key workouts and his specific mental recipes for success.

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I spent 15 years racing professional triathlon, and during that time, I gained a reputation for being mentally tough. Mental strength – or better put, mental focus – was viewed as my secret sauce. I had the mindset of a champion, if you will.

It was intimidating to my competitors because they knew that no matter how deep I was in the zone of impossibility that I could never be counted out to come back and win. Were my powers of mental mastery otherworldly? Were they unique to me alone? Absolutely not!

I feel like the only difference between me and my competition is that I trained my mental approach with just as much focus as my swim, bike, and run workouts—with that same specificity. And I didn’t separate the two parts of being a complete athlete. Every training session was a ripe opportunity to practice mental mastery as much as it was an opportunity to get physically stronger or faster. But it also wasn’t “go train then sit under a tree and meditate.” The two aspects of peak performance were literally intertwined into every workout.

Over the next nine weeks I’ll be sharing with you some of my favorite structured workouts that will also build your mental mastery. They will be integrated into some sample workouts with specific instructions on how to practice them. The training sessions will be tailored to help ignite those golden opportunities to practice each specific mental mastery component.

I’ll include written instructions that you can refer to in each weekly focused workout. The three sports will rotate each week as you practice the mental component—treat the workout as your key session for that sport that week. Just like any training plan, we’ll build on each week, so expect the first three weeks to focus on endurance, the next three weeks will be strength, and the final three weeks will emphasize speed. You can do this plan at any point in your season, but if you start over nine weeks out from an event, it’ll sync up nicely.

Each week, we’ll also share a short video on Triathlete’s Instagram with a reminder of what you are practicing, what you will gain from it, and some personal stories of how each mental mastery drill helped me out in my own career.

RELATED: Fitter & Faster Podcast: Maximizing Your Mind for Training, Racing, and Life

Mark Allen prepares to enter the water at Ironman Hawaii 1991. At this race, Mark was the two-time defending Kona champ; he went on to win this race, plus three more Kona titles. He credits much of his success to mental training for triathletes. (Photo: Lois Schwartz)

Introduction to Mental Mastery in Sport

As this is the first week of the program, let’s quickly identify the three pillars I believe are key to mental strength in sports:

  • Body Awareness
  • Internal Dialogue
  • Mental Race Prep

As you go through this program, we’ll work on understanding and developing these three concepts, but even if you come into this mid-program, it’ll still be useful. Each segment stands on its own, which also affords you the ability to emphasize a particular area you feel you want to build. Let’s get going!

Week 1: Key Endurance Swim Workout and Mental Mastery Drills

There is a physical goal and an associated mental mastery goal within this week’s key set. The physical goal is to push your endurance fitness up with a swim set that is intentionally very far from entertaining. The set is simple to remember but will cause you to fatigue in the second half of the set and likely in the second half of each swim within the set.

The mental mastery goal is to utilize this fatigue to work on keeping a steady focus in a way that keeps you relaxed and calm even with fatigue.

When you put the two goals together, you should first and foremost show yourself that you can make it through something tough, and to do it in a way that utilizes a calm relaxed state rather going to your “suffering panicked I want this to be over” state. Obviously this will serve you physically and mentally on race day, at any distance, and even in any of the three sports.

RELATED: A Complete Guide to Triathlon Swimming

This Week’s Key Workout Session: Mental Training for Triathlon Swim

Total distance: 2,600-4,400


300 easy, focusing on good swim stroke mechanics and good body position.

6 x 50 with 20sec. rest between each

Main Set:

Choose one of the below:

6×300 with 30sec. rest for Olympic-distance focus

6×500 with 40sec. rest for 70.3 focus

6×600 with 45sec. rest for iron-distance focus

(No toys allowed—pull buoys, fins etc.)


200 easy

The Mental Mastery Focus Cues

Main Set Reps 1 and 2 – Build Big Picture Focus: Just before pushing off for the first two swims, remind yourself what this is going toward (your key big races of the season). Then, with that specific thought in your head, let your body relax slightly—even though you’ve got this big set in front of you. This is one big foundational piece you are adding to your overall preparation.

Main Set Reps 3 and 4 – Simplify Thought: In the second half of each of the next two reps, place your focus on form rather than speed. Fatigue will likely be starting to set in. What specific part of your stroke is failing because you are getting tired? Bring that one motion or cue into good form. Side effect: By focusing on one aspect of your form, there is no room for whining or negative thought.

RELATED: The Four Pillars Of The Freestyle Swim Stroke

Main Set Reps 5 and 6 – Present Engagement: In the final two swims of the set bring your focus into the immediate, and let go of wanting the set to be over. This is surrendering to the challenge. It makes the moment at hand more potent, as it does for every other moment to come.

Each of these three cues work all three of the mental mastery pillars.

  • They work on your ability to focus on how your body is moving so that you can optimize that.
  • They build the ability to focus all your energy into the moment at hand rather than wasting energy worrying about the future.
  • They also strengthen the bigger picture purpose of each workout. They will also serve you well in a race if you feel that desire to just stop.

This week’s goal is to be able to step out of the intensity of a race moment and feel the true sense that your life is blessed to even be in a race and pursuing this amazing dream!

RELATED: Afraid of the Swim? Here’s How Mindfulness Can Help

Mark Allen is a six-time Ironman world champion and former Olympic distance world champion who now coaches scores of triathletes at TriDot.