How to Mentally Prepare for an IRONMAN
Moving up to the IRONMAN distance for the first time is a great challenge and adventure for triathletes. You only get to face the thrill and the sense of going into the unknown once as you train for and complete such a daunting distance for the first time. While there is no doubt that physical training and preparation are key to the long distance triathlon, your emotional and mental preparation runs linked to that training: the mental practices and habits you develop and establish in your training become the positive psychological force that power your race day.
The sheer length of the race, and the long term project of training for IRONMAN leaves room for quite a few opportunities to step up your sport psych plan. For example, even many months before the event, your mind can be cluttered with thoughts: some are helpful and others are not and knowing how to distinguish between the two is a strong skill. For some there are many questions, apprehensions and what you may call ‘fear’. Fear is usually a call to move beyond your comfort zone- a challenge. Fear can simply be the uncertainty of not knowing if you have the confidence to be able to complete the distance within the time frame or within your preconceived goals. Taking these question from an overwhelming feeling to a task based approach of progressive mental training is your first step in mental preparation.
How to Develop and Practice Helpful Habits in Training
Before you even begin your physical training for IRONMAN, you need to wrap your mind around the concept that good mental habits are learned, practiced and then become the new gold standard for your race day thought processes. Great athletes choose good emotional habits early in the season, change or discard old unhelpful habits, and then practice those good habits over and over again until they feel like old friends. A positive mental habit formed and practiced on a stinky, wet, windy, cold day that you are tired and distracted is a gold mine at 120km on the bike in IRONMAN, when you are fatigued, uncomfortable, and facing a headwind.
Pre-practice mental habits:
Before a training session, decide on your attitude, create process and outcome goals, and understand the purpose of the practice and the training. This can simply be called the ‘Plan to Show Up’. Deciding and visualizing beforehand how you want a session to go ensures the success of that session, and also reinforces the practice of being a strong mental athlete. If you can show up consistently in training and be the athlete you want to be, chances are high that you will be ‘on’ for race day.
In practice attitude:
While training is physically uncomfortable by nature, have fun with that challenge and remain focused on what you are doing, not how you are feeling. You can use words like ‘embrace the discomfort’ or ‘how tough can I be?’ and then move onto distraction control and process. Emotions and feelings are slippery things that we tend to put good or bad tags onto. Move away from how you are feeling to what you are doing. Re-focus on the action: breathing, being relaxed, your smooth pedal strokes. Again, this ensures a good training session (and the training benefit) and you are practicing the good habit of helpful attitude. Through this practice you learn that you can control self-talk and choose a positive mind set to boost confidence. You will start to be able to capitalize on your mental powers through this habit, and it is one of the greatest sport psych tools you will acquire.
Segment the Preparation and Segment the Race
With any monumental task, breaking it down into smaller pieces is always helpful. Short and long term goals for training are necessary as is patience and trust in the process. As a coach, one of the first things that I do when dealing with an athlete stepping up to the IRONMAN distance is to sit down and break the required training into a logical progression of monthly goals. In order to swim 3800m straight, one must first train to swim 1000, 2500, then 3000, and 3500m before hitting the full distance. Having short term targets and hitting them reinforces the athlete’s abilities and provides confidence as the workouts and training gets considerably longer. It also takes the focus from long term - somewhere way ‘out there’ to something that is well within reach.
Basically, you create and use in practice, the systems by which you will race. After having practiced this on the training grounds, you can use this approach on race day by splitting the race into manageable chunks, or segments to focus on one at a time. For instance, when approaching your long base rides (and then subsequently, IRONMAN day) keep yourself mentally in the moment. Allow yourself to think ahead for only the next 15 or 30 minutes. Have the training session route and race route broken down into segments that work for you. These can be kilometer or mile markers, landmarks and time, or a combination of all of these. Embrace and enjoy the process of the training. Lay down an emotional landscape that you see for yourself on race day, including the toughness and resolve required as fatigue sets in. Picture things like pedalling smooth circles or focus on keeping a sustainably low heart rate with rhythmic breathing while climbing or getting to the summit feeling strong and ready to tackle the next section.
Make the race a home course advantage
Find out everything there is to know about your race and use it to practice your mental training. Learn about the environment, terrain, weather and course and tailor your training—or at least some key sessions to what you know about it. If you can put yourself into a similar environment and practice positive sport psych you are setting yourself up for a great race day. The earlier you can do this in the build-up, the more your mind starts to work around possible weak areas, logistics and planning for the race. While you can’t always go train on the race course, it is a huge advantage to find out everything there is to know about the venue through the individual event’s website as well as an athlete guide. The guide contains a wealth of information that is unique to the course as well as valuable tips on specific preparation. During some training sessions, thinking about how you will deal with race day. Strong mental athletes can visualize easily, ‘seeing’ themselves racing strong even while doing a long ride at home. Learn as much as you can about when to arrive, where to stay and eat as well as bike shops if you need last minute repairs.
Your fears, anxiety, and doubt are normal and manageable
We all have challenges with a big project, whether it’s a Master’s Thesis or IRONMAN. This is normal human behaviour but also highly manageable with the right approach. The first is to pretty much decide that whatever fears you have, however normal, will not get the better of you, nor derail a chance to be successful at your race. The familiar cry, “But, I am not good at descending hills!” becomes, “I am not good at hills YET.” This implies that descending is not a fixed character trait, but a very real and improvable bike skill. By taking your bike skills and competency seriously you are essentially reinforcing the habit of positive thought-to-action while actually improving your bike skills and confidence.
This step alone, the decision to overcome a weakness, may be one of your most powerful psychological tools as you refuse to get stuck or paralyzed by unhelpful habits. You take what scares you and decide how you will overcome it, stare it in the face, practice a skill that erases the fear, and move on. If you get into a panic in open water, for example, you need to deal with this long before race day. Whether it’s swimming a lot with a group in open water, getting a coach, racing a lot of shorter open water races with ‘safe’ shore hugging swims until you are comfortable, you need to set up a way to become the fearless open water swimmer you want to be. Have a proactive approach to fear and deal with these things logically before race weekend. If you train scared, you will be scared on race day. If you practice being fearless—through specific skill based actions—you are already a stronger mental athlete and better prepared.
Like anything you want to be good at, there is no way around practice, practice and practice. By laying down a foundation of strong mental habits proactively in training, you are preparing positive and helpful emotional/psychological pathways for race day, where there will be inevitably many moment of doubt over the course of the long day. The IRONMAN distance is hard – preparing for one is a challenge and every workout is a chance to rise to that challenge and find success. How you train your mind—how you pick yourself up mentally and keep going—has lasting benefits far beyond race day.
“Thank you to LifeSport Senior Coaches Dan Smith and Lucy Smith for their contribution to this article”