Thinking of Joining USA Triathlon?

Be a part of our 550,000 member community of multisport athletes. Membership benefits include a subscription to the quarterly USA Triathlon magazine, discounts from USA Triathlon partners, inclusion in the national rankings, excess accident insurance at events, and savings at races. To see why you should join or renew today, visit the membership benefits page. Already a member? Login below.

Forgot Password  |  Forgot Member ID  |  Help Renew Membership Become a Member

How Mental Toughness Can Impact Race Pace

By Loren Fogelman

"While this is tough, I am a whole lot tougher." — James Loehr

How fast you go out at the beginning of a race is a personal decision. Some athletes end up giving away that control without even realizing what they’re doing. Quickly you are caught up in the energy of those around you. When you finally realize you started out too fast in the race, valuable energy has been burned. Then more energy is used to regain focus, returning to your race plan.

mental strengthWho influences you most when racing? Being influenced by other athlete’s pace is a poor strategy when racing. Managing the high energy during triathlons — of other racers plus your own adrenaline levels — drains energy needed for your race. Creating a tight race plan, prepared to deal with the onslaught of energy is all part of the mental game.

Novice athletes and seasoned veterans alike can face the problem of going out too fast. Even experienced athletes periodically must return to basics. Lack of experience, preparation and commitment are some contributors.

You may relate to Jean — her passion is competing in triathlons. The first race of each season she is a bundle of nerves before the start. With the tension building prior to the start, she begins her swim with explosive energy. The frenzy of a mass open water swim start, trying to avoid getting bumped, hit with arms and kicked, adds to her nerves. The intensity of the swim is more like a water fight for Jean. By the middle of her second leg, she is suffering from going out too fast.

Some reasons athletes go out too fast:

  • Pack instinct is to stay together
  • Sensitivity to the energy around you
  • Externally directed; tend to please others
  • Too much adrenaline and nervous energy

Getting caught up in the mayhem around you at the start of the race is a sure sign that your mindset is not prepared for the race. Pacing yourself with the crowd around you, instead of running your own race, is a weak strategy. Social proof theory reveals people will follow others when they’re not sure about what to do.

Following the crowd is an emotional decision. Somehow fear influenced your actions so you ditched your plan. You’ll pay the price later in the race when you needed that extra energy to finish. A strong body, trained mindset and high confidence all set the foundation for high performance.

Jean’s goal was to approach this season differently. Within a couple minutes of talking it was clear that Jean has a big heart, goes with the flow and is a joiner. She has been this way as long as she could remember. Caring for other people and volunteering time toward worthy causes is highly satisfying for her. Jean needed the psychological proficiency to withstand the pressures of the race.

Too frequently triathletes are told by their coaches to ignore what is going on around them. The coaches who tell you to just not do it are unaware of the power of habit. Following the crowd, going out too fast because of the other athletes around you, is a symptom of a habit. Under pressure, you are going to return to your old familiar habits. This is why competing successfully in triathlons is a mental game.

Just like Jean’s tendency to go out too fast then burn out early in the race, this occurs in other parts of her life as well. Jean’s solution, therefore, was to develop better boundaries on and off the course.

The first step to change is recognizing the habit. Habits have a cue, or trigger, and a learned response. Don’t worry about changing the cue, or trigger. Instead figure out a better way you would like to respond to the cue.

The approach Jean took was to acknowledge the anxiety and expectation of others, increase her personal self awareness, find effective ways to deal with pressure situations and stick to her plan.

Her three-step plan:

  1. Develop a strategy to compliment her giving nature
  2. Plan for potential situations which could drain her energy
  3. Strengthen boundaries

This tactic validated Jean’s reality — the approach to shift her attitude to endure tough moments in the heat of the race and confidently deal with adversity. It provided tools so she could stick with her race plan.

Triathletes understand the importance of strength and endurance. Athletes would never consider racing without the time spent preparing for the event. It would be foolish. It’s to your disadvantage when only a fraction of your training hours are used to strengthen your mindset. To race well, under all conditions, requires physical along with mental endurance. Don’t take the chance that your untrained mindset will get you through the race when you’re tired, hurting and depleted.

Even with the best intentions, Jean knew her pattern. She disregarded her plan at the start of the race because her natural tendency was to follow others’ leads. Awareness was the first step toward change. Jean wasn’t told to break a habit. Instead she was shown how to respond to her cues differently to achieve her goals.

The decision to change her approach to the racing start had unexpected benefits. She began setting boundaries in other areas of her life leading to increased confidence. Stronger confidence led to her being more committed to her racing strategy. Even when fatigued, Jean was able to dig deep to keep going. With a fresh perspective, Jean started her season strong. Sticking to her plan led to a new outcome.

Challenge: What triggers throw off your focus, affecting the way you start your race? Usually there is some underlying reason triggering the response. Do you know what it is? If a friend were telling you about this same situation how would you respond? What would be your suggestion? Experiment. Follow your suggestions to see how well they work for you.

Loren Fogelman is author of The Winning Point and founder of Expert Sports , a company devoted to teaching athletes around the globe how to become high performers, maintain focus during competitions and create the confidence to reach their BIG goals. During courses and coaching programs, Loren teaches her clients proven strategies for reaching their goals by working smarter, not harder. Psychology, physiology and productivity strategies when combined create a comprehensive training program, boosting performance.