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Triathletes - are you training the mind as well as the body? by Chris Thomas

Triathlon Brain Training. By Chris Thomas.                                                             

Mental: in or done by the mind.
Tough: strong or resilient, firm and determined.

Before we look at the what, why and how’s of training the mind, lets take a look at the following scenes in which the athletes involved displayed both physical and mental greatness!

Lasse Viren; running the 10,000m in the 1972 Munich Olympic Games Lasse was knocked over and lay still on the track then managed to pick himself up and run into 1st position finishing in world record time.


I also witness mental toughness being displayed as a coach, I see it displayed not only amongst the elite but often amongst the later finishers. I also see mental toughness at Little Athletics on Saturday mornings during summer. Today I witnessed an under 14yr girl beat a 20year record in the 1500m run. The officials need to be notified when a record is going to be challenged so this girl started on the line with the record in mind – she ran the 3 ¾ laps with absolute tunnel vision, she neither saw, heard, felt or sensed anyone - not the other athletes on the track or those around cheering insanely. She ran a captivating 4:52 for 1500m and she did it with ease.

According to Olympian and author Jeff Galloway: “The brain has two hemispheres that are separated and don’t interconnect. The left-brain tries to steer us towards pleasure and away from discomfort. The intuitive-creative right side connects us to our hidden strengths.”

By preparing mentally for the challenges you expect, you will empower the right side of the brain to develop mental toughness. As we accumulate stress, the left-brain sends us a stream of messages telling us to “slow down,” “stop and you’ll feel better,” “this isn’t your day,” and even “why are you doing this?”

The big question is - Can mental toughness be improved? I RECKON SO!

So, you are preparing physically each day, race day is getting closer and the doubts surface … am I doing enough? I should have finished that last interval? I haven’t done as much as so and so? It is going to hurt; I am not ready for that? Should I have done more strength work? I think I feel like crap, OMG am I going to go faster than…? The doubts are ok and fairly common however, it is now going to get tricky, as you need to make a firm decision, one that can make or break you come race day: are you going to train the mind as well as your body?

Enter mental strategies 101 – it is time to train the mind as well as the body!

The physical training process can cause tiny tears and inflammation within your muscles and you experience this as a normal response to exertion – it is a beautiful thing really as it means you have trained effectively and with suitable recovery, the minute tears will heal and strengthen and the next time you put your body under that kind of pressure it will say, its ok, I have this covered!

Imagine now that lack of confidence, self-doubts and negative thoughts are similar to the minute tears you experience in the muscles only they are tiny cracks in your mind. Are you going to strengthen them or are you going to let them get bigger and turn into big issues? If you want become mentally stronger, you need to start training your brain.

In over 20+ years of coaching and competing we have witnessed many athletes who have allowed their thoughts and mind sabotage their training sessions and ultimately their race. We watch this unravel sometimes for months, weeks or days out from an event and of course on race day itself. So lets take a brief look at some of the common scenarios and then aim to help you put in place some practical and effective strategies so that you are fit in body and mind on the start line. You owe that to yourself!

1) Setting and utilising your goal:

Setting yourself a realistic goal is incredibly important; it provides direction and pushes you outside your usual comfort zone. Goals and expectations help you to reach higher, work harder and challenge yourself. Your goals will give you a target to aim for and will provide you with motivation when you start to question the discomfort and the pain. Stay focused on your goal and aim for nothing less within training sessions as they will keep you honest and provide you with the determination you need to succeed.

Race day is an opportunity to put your physical and mental training into practice with no barriers whatsoever! We often see athletes that focus on their goal while racing make the mistake of focusing on the outcome only and if things are not going to plan their heart rate rises, nerves get the better of them, muscles tighten and the mind games begin and that then leads to choking and average performances.
Use your goals and expectations to aim higher in your sessions, to help you get out of the comfort zone and to simulate your race day experience, however, when you are ready to compete leave them behind, go out and race to the best of your ability regardless of your goals. If you have used your goals effectively in training then you will know what you are capable of on race day and who knows, your race day goal may be selling you short!

2) Work ethic builds mental and physical strength.

Slacking off with training, pulling short with sessions, giving less than required and cutting intervals will lead to lack of confidence leading up to and on race day. When we understand the intent of the session and commit ourselves to focusing on the process of the session and pushing through the pain we are not only building strength and fitness, we are strengthening the mind and therefore instilling confidence. Of course, pushing yourself through bad pain or  pushing at all cost is not what I am saying as you need to stay within the limits of your particular session.

In the words of swimming great Grant Hacket “ Our squad was expected to finished a training session stronger than we began and I always finished the last interval as my best”

3) Self Confidence:

Having the ability to believe in yourself and your goals. “They can because they think they can”.

“Beliefs have the power to create and the power to destroy.”
—Anthony Robbins

We see athletes lose confidence when they focus on things other than their own performance. They start to focus on the negatives such as when they didn’t ride as fast as last week or they didn’t beat that person in the time trial. They start focusing on the uncontrollable instead of the controllable and let it play on their mind in a negative way. The other mistake athletes make in this area is to compare training programs or sessions. Remember that we are all individual and that you need to believe in the training YOU are doing with 100% of your being and that alone means your training will be effective!

When Chris McCormack was asked by an amateur triathlete; “What are the secret sessions the professional athletes do that we amateurs are not doing?“ His reply was “to be honest, there are no secret sessions” “They simply do not exist”

He then talked about one of his coaches Brett Sutton and I think this sums up the importance of believing in every session you do.

Brett’s biggest strength was his way of motivating an athlete. He empowered them to believe that what they were doing was the right stuff, and that there were no limitations to what they should chase.  Brett’s biggest strength was his ability to get into the head of the athlete and give him or her that belief. The training itself could be very hard, but it was really unsophisticated and repetitious. When you intertwine this with the building up of the athlete mentally, the mix was potent. What I took from Brett was that the belief in what you are doing is more important than what you are actually doing.

4) Concentration:

Losing concentration in training or on race day can ruin a quality session and will play with the mind and on race day it can prevent you from executing your individual plan and cause major stress and even accidents.

Distractions can be internal such as worries/thoughts about past situations and mistakes; negative self talk and fatigue can also cause poor concentration. External distractions such as other competitors and the crowd can add to loss of concentration.

Other ways to take your mental training to another level.


Visualisation is something that can be used by anyone but is often only used by elite athletes as it is misunderstood. Imagery is an exercise that can be undertaken to improve performance but without the physical stresses – you can do it anytime of the day or night.  Much like a pilot uses a simulator to improve performance, skills, coping mechanisms etc you can use imagery to master your skills and performance. It can be done internally (through your own eyes) or externally (seeing yourself from outside your body) If you can use all the senses such a sight, hearing, smell taste, touch and movement then it is ideal – all the time you are creating muscle memory within the nervous and muscular system to improve performance – how cool!

Running through your race from warm up through to the finish line addressing possible scenarios in your mind and picturing yourself looking fit, strong and positive is a great way to work on this area.

Visualisation isn’t necessarily visualising winning but visualising yourself going through each process of the race perfectly.

Mental routines:
You wouldn’t go into a race without a physical routine such as a warm up so don’t go into a race without your mental routine to help you get into the zone and psyched up!  A mental routine can help you relax and narrow focus and build confidence. Using music that gets you energised and positive can also help.

A mental routine is the process you need to take your mind through in order to be prepared to race well. Your physical routine may be to have breakfast, check gear, set up transition, warm up etc and your mental routine will have your mind set to race. You may benefit from taking yourself away from others and sitting still or maybe listen to a favourite workout tune.

Other thoughts:

In the final weeks, I believe it helps to choose not to share or verbalise any doubts and that will give ammunition to that left side of the brain – keep your thoughts positive. You can directly affect your race by the thoughts you choose to have prior to and during your race.

Triathlon is an endurance sport and endurance racing is a mental game. If you are not committed to your absolute best race then you are not ready to race physically or mentally – it is as simple as that! Go into your race with a clear plan and keep in mind that the day is a long one and that your thoughts are ultimately going to affect your result. Being stubborn is going to one of the best character traits you can have on race day. Stay positive, stick to YOUR plan and be an OX – seriously stubborn even when it gets tougher!

Here are some techniques to help you play the mental game:

·       Commit to your sessions.
·       Set realistic goals and expectations and use them in training but not on race day.
·       Don’t compare your training to others – big mistake!
·       Trust and believe in the training YOU are doing and your program or coach!
·       Focus on the process, not the outcome and control the controllable’s.
·       Totally believe in yourself - you deserve that!
·       Focus on the positive’s during training and on race day – hold good technique, stay strong, think about what you are achieving and how fortunate we are!
·       Draw inspiration from your support crew and what they have done for you.
·       When it gets tough – get tougher.
·       Put on your poker face – it may hurt and it may not be going to plan but it can pass so keep your body language and your thoughts positive.
·       Don’t give in – be stubborn. You will come away from the race satisfied if you don’t let the race beat you!

AIS brainwaves:  how to improve attention, concentration and control.


AIS brainwaves will help you understand self-confidence and how to build it.


AIS brainwaves: More about imagery:


AIS brainwaves:


Jeff Galloway:



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