As previously discussed, you hold the keys to your success or, in some cases, failure. That's the beauty of triathlon. While there are others on the course, ultimately, you race against yourself. Unlike other sports where you may be running stride for stride to the finish, trying to score against an opponent, or sprinting to the finish to hit the line first, most of the competing is against that inner voice that keeps trying to convince you that you just can't do this. There's no one there to push you, no team members to let down if you decide to walk, and no coaches yelling at you from the sidelines for motivation. It's just you.
Of course that's also what makes it such a great sport. Once you've conquered the little voice, it can be a huge confidence booster in many areas of your life, a slice of self-mastery, and something very few people do in their lifetime.
The question: how do I beat the voice?
At the beginning of a race, most athletes experience a sense of apprehension and uncertainty, a term sports psychologists call state anxiety. State anxiety leads to varying levels of physiological arousal such as elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure, or tense muscles. You may feel anxious about the mass swim start, a mechanical on the bike, possible stomach cramps during the run, etc. These thoughts, or cognitive anxiety, can lead to negative outcomes such as increased heart rate when you're trying to stay in a particular zone, going out too fast or too hard, or even mental colapse at the first sign of challenge.
Although state anxiety isn't always a bad thing, too much or too little may lead to poor performance. The most damaging part of state anxiety is that it can grow exponentially if not kept in check at the onset. You may have a tendency to be over or under anxious based on your personality traits, called trait anxiety. Trait anxiety is related to your perception of the event (on what level do you feel it to be threatening?).
Here are a few suggestions on managing your state anxiety with an example to finish things off.
First, you need to identify some of the things going through your head (the voices) before, during and after your event. Experts have identified 3 areas that lead to uncontrolled state anxiety: 1. perceived threat on your self-esteem (the bigger the ego, the worse it gets), 2. a perceived discrepancy between your ability and the demands of the event, 3. fear of failure (such as loss of approval from peers, family, coach, etc.)
Second, address the origin of your anxiety. One ideal appears in all of the above areas: perceived. In other words, your anxiety is based on something that isn't yet reality (see part one on self-fulfilling prophecy). In order to change your apprehension and uncertainty, you must change your perception.
In many cases, we have contrived unrealistic expectations of fame and glory that only exist in our own mind. The pressure of our own minds creates a false reality, or ideal scenario, one that we cannot realistically achieve even on our best days. So, once the ideal goes away (ex: you get passed in the swim, getting dropped from the pack), your anxiety begins to grow uncontrollably. We become so distracted by our ideal scenario, that our attention is directed towards task irrelevant cues, i.e. things you can't control.
To change your perception, focus your attention on relevant areas, called selective attention or focus. You can't control whether or not a swimmer or runner is faster then you. But you can control each swim stroke, each stride, each time you sight, pace of the run, etc. In other words you focus only on those things you can control and the race will work itself out.
A second way, and really the most important way, is to prepare for the event. Very few people can toe the start line without having done a significant amount of training. This means you need to develop a plan (or have a coach develop one for you-- how'd you like that plug). Follow the plan. Don't procrastinate your training until the last few weeks. If you prepare well, you know exactly what to expect so you can manage your fears better.
Another way to change your perceptions is to keep your expectations realistic. Your training is the best way to gauge that. Realistically, you shouldn't count on significantly exceeding your performance results from training. If you best 5k time in training is 20 minutes, you shouldn't expect to crank out a 16 minute 5k. I'm not saying "don't dream big," or "don't go for it." I'm just saying do that when you train and accept the fact that your race will be very similar to your training.
If you're preparing for your first triathlon or endurance event, go see a race before your race day. You will be surprised at who and what you see. This will take away the intimidation, some uncertainty, and improve your expectations of how the event will go for you.
A good exercise if you struggle in this area:
Before your next race, take a few minutes and make a list of some of the things you feel anxious about. Next, cross out the ones you cannot control. What you are left with are those items you can control. Consider each one and how you will address each one before and during the race. This should leave you feeling prepared, and ready to rock n'roll on race day.
Here's an example. True story. Most of the races I do are local, within a few hours travel distance. So, I usually wake up very early and drive to the location the day of the event. I would find that I was plenty rested and felt a reasonable amount of nervousness (state anxiety) just before the event. As a fairly laid back personality (trait anxiety), getting really pumped up to the point of bumping my chest, getting that bop in my step, etc, just isn't me. Instead, I would try to suppress the little anxiety to the point that I would almost feel lethargic to the point where nothing was threatening (selective attention-in the wrong direction). It would take me half the race to "wake up" and start racing which was usually to late to get the result I was after. So, I began to listen to a little music (cognitive anxiety) while getting my transition area set up. With the right music, I found that it helped get the right amount of adrenaline going but it wasn't so much that I was overhyped and burnt out half way in the swim. Instead, I was able to plan for and direct my attention on how I would deal with those hard moments when the inner voice would try to take over.
Scott Flynn, owner, coach and triathlete of 10+ years with Threshold Multisport Coaching, holds a MS in Exercise Science and multiple nationally recognized fitness certifications (CES, CSCS). For more about Threshold coaching packages click here.