A path in sport is never a straight line. Training for triathlon requires working through a veritable maze as you try to condition yourself for three sports, choose equipment and deal with the unexpected challenges of racing against a thousand competitors in an unpredictable environment. Triathlon is a sport filled with dramatic ups, and disconcerting downs, curveballs, injuries and moments of pure positive energy. Season after season we re-set our goals; we plan our training and race schedule and hope for the best possible results. If an athlete has had huge personal success during the season, they raise the bar and set higher goals, but even after a season of disappointment or injury, athletes persevere and start again. What makes us so tenacious in our pursuit of succeeding at swim, bike and run, and so audacious in our dreams of success that we risk so much each year?
My feeling is that, as humans, we have glimpsed the pure thrill of the peak performance and we are driven to feel it again. We have had moments in our life, training and racing where ‘everything came together’ and replicating this profound feeling of being alive, while being immersed in the things we love doing, drives us to compete again and again. Most elite athletes know that the perfect moments in sport are not luck. They, and their coaches, prepare relentlessly to ensure that the peak performance has the greatest chance of happening during the competition where it most matters: a qualifying race, the Olympics or the world championships. You know the saying: luck favors the prepared.
Peak performances are often described as a state of flow. A state of flow or being in the ‘zone’ is actually much more complex than a purely emotional state that comes on magically during a great race. Researchers in sports psychology have identified nine psychological factors involved in peak performances. They are: clear attention, positive mental attitude, physical and mental readiness, effortless performance, perception of times slowing, feeling of supreme confidence, immersion in the present moment along with a sense of fun and enjoyment.
You can probably relate to one or more of these psychological states and have probably felt them during great races in the past. To ensure that you get closer to achieving a peak performance this year, it is important to understand that peak performance training and preparation starts long before the target race day.
To shed some light on what a non-peak experience feels like, take this example:
During an early season run race, you start and, in the first half, you are running well, close to goal pace for your distance, but your mind might be wandering instead of focusing on the task of purely running. Typically an athlete will be thinking too much in early season races before they are in peak shape. Doubts and questions run through their minds: “Am I running hard enough? Can I keep up with this runner beside me? Am I going to fade if I keep up this pace? Am I close to my PR? This hurts a lot.”
During a peak performance an athlete is not thinking, but purely doing. Their body and mind are in unison for the task and the mind isn’t cluttered with analytical thoughts, or reactions, to the environment. In fact, after a peak performance, most athletes can’t remember thoughts at all. The athlete is so well prepared to race on the course, is so well conditioned physically and is so psychologically ready for the effort that they don’t have to think at all – they just have to execute. Coupled with the pure passion and love they have for their path, a peak performance is born.
Jasper Blake, the 2006 Subaru Ironman Canada champion, recalls his peak performance there: “I was just at peace with the outcome. I was not really concerned with it and was completely engaged in the process. I did a really good job of getting myself back in the moment whenever my mind started to drift, which created a very quiet state of being for about 8 hours.”
Preparing for an outstanding season is a multifaceted process. There are many things to consider: goal setting, picking your races, planning out your training, setting up your equipment, finding your optimal nutrition plan and developing good mental habits are the key aspects to consider. A peak performance can only happen when all other controllable factors are taken into consideration. In short you have to ensure that you give yourself the opportunity to perform to your optimal level.
In order to plan for a peak performance, you will have to challenge yourself to develop pre-season strategies to increase your psychological skills within your training schedule. This is not a huge task, but it sure is a rewarding one. Start by creating an intention for your training. Training is a path in itself, not just a means to an end, the end being a race. Training lets us take control of our lives, to do quality work on a daily basis, to create health and strength in our bodies and to build positive habits and routines that make us happy. Training also gets us prepared to execute our larger dream goals. Optimal training requires dedication, planning and a commitment to being our best as much as possible. If you understand that all your training sessions are an opportunity to be great, you are already a step closer to peak performance.
In order to plan for a peak performance you have to progressively build in race day emotional states and preparation in your training. In the pre-season, this can be done by deciding on key workouts in which to build and practice positive mental skills, choosing environments and workouts that the simulate the peak race and then, as the peak race nears, choosing competitive opportunities that mimic closely what you will experience on race day.
Key sessions and building good mental habits:
During the preseason, practice relaxation and the positive mental state that you will need on race day. Once race week comes around, it is too late to teach yourself to relax. Early in the year decide what your ideal race day state will be and use the early season to practice this habit. Key sessions are usually the interval workouts and longer endurance sessions of your week (you know, the long runs and bikes that give you plenty of time to work on positive thinking). Pondering these sessions ahead of time gets you mentally ready for the process of training and being at your best during these more intense workouts. If you notice negative self talk during these sessions, now is the time to get a grip and change your attitude so that you are reinforcing positive race day skills. It is proven psychology that mentally preparing for success increases the chances of it being reality. Visualize yourself running, biking or swimming well on those days, executing the skills competently and with confidence.
Practice being relaxed, energized and prepared for these sessions. Develop ways that you can stay relaxed in order to perform well. This can be rehearsed body awareness cues such as ‘relaxed shoulders and back’ or ways to calm your mind and re focus on the task at hand. Becoming aware of negative self talk and training yourself to delete self-defeating inner voices is one of the best things you can do in the preseason. As the training heats up, and the peak race looms, trying to change bad habits becomes harder. Some athletes have to write down a new mental routine for themselves and affirm this behavior until the new behaviors becomes automatic.
Another beneficial mental skill to master preseason is dealing with distractions. Distractions are usually somewhat chaotic conditions that arise unexpectedly and interfere with our perception of how things should be. When you are in the flow, distractions slide off your calm and confident exterior. Triathlon is a unique activity: a bunch of strangers are put in the water and asked to swim together, after which they continue to race for anywhere from one to 17 hours in an unpredictable outdoor environment. You have the choice to embrace this unpredictable sport and decide to be the best mental athlete out there.
Reframing is another positive technique that sport psychology has borrowed from psychotherapy. It involves the ability to transform adversity into a positive. In reframing you take yourself from being a passive victim at the mercy of whatever is happening to being an active agent in your own course. If you riding along hating the rain, the wind and your bike, you aren’t having fun! Athletes who can take an advantage out of poor weather conditions, bad calls by officials, and fatigue are athletes that stay relaxed and have taught themselves to ‘deal’ positively with such conditions.
Race Environment Simulation
As you increase your mental skills in the relaxed preseason environment, you can start simulating your peak race course and environment. Simply running or riding over the race course or a simulation of it can create positive associations between effort and emotional state. Race day simulation can include open water swim practices with a group, doing hard efforts of riding and running on key sections or simply planning and doing a long endurance ride well. The focus during these efforts is to practice concentration and distraction control, reframing techniques and emotional composure.
Depending on your goal race, you can schedule a race or a series of races that lead you to your peak. One of the benefits of getting on the starting line is to show your body just how hard and uncomfortable racing can be. While each athlete can handle a different race volume in their race preparation phase, very few people can have a peak performance unless they have practiced racing a few times. Approach the pre-peak race as a chance to practice and learn, not as a chance to prove your fitness. Athletes, who race to prove to themselves that they are ready for the peak race, often peak too soon.
If all this seems a little serious and intense for you, take heart. No matter what sport, or at what level, there is one factor that has been proven to exist in all peak performances: fun! When athletes are having fun (OK, whenever anybody is having fun), the more they learn and the better they perform. So go ahead, plan for success, take yourself lightly, and be prepared to excel.
Lucy Smith is an elite runner and triathlete. She is a member of the LifeSport coaching team.