Psyched Online

Optimize Triathlon Performance Through Mental Training

By Bobby McGee


There is a great deal of science involved in the physical processes of training. Effective training that brings results inspires confidence. When training results clearly indicate certain levels of performance capabilities that are not realized in competition then it becomes clear that the challenge is mental. Only a very few athletes are “naturally” mentally tough. Most require either huge amounts of experience and early success to give a good account of their training and ability. Many athletes only develop the ability to maximize their ability when their best physical years are passed. There are ways to accelerate the process by which athletes can achieve complete performances commensurate with their ability.

My own formula for overcoming these barriers is a structure I call “The Essential Five” components of mental training. If practiced this is a useful tool that you can draw on to perform at the highest level. This approach can help you determine a language and strategy that ensures that you access as much as your physical potential as possible.

Human beings are thinkers. We have a constant flow of chatter going on in our minds. This incessant internal dialogue determines wholly how we act. We are not our thoughts, but we think we are, and act accordingly. When we get ready to train or race, we have a pretty fixed set of thoughts around these occurrences; e.g. “I’m not really good in the heat.”, or “I’ll get dropped in the swim and I’ll be history”. For the most part, we are unaware of these thoughts and how they absolutely determine how our training and racing turns out.

Based on the assumption that you will think something before you race, and that you will have very distinct thoughts while you train and race, you can pre-plan your thoughts and effectively program a successful event. Like race drinks and new equipment, mental strategies need to be rehearsed and refined before you take them into the cauldron of racing.

I. Strategy

Use Positive affirmations based on realistic, but high standards, written down and repeated (often and out loud). This is one of the more successful techniques used by winning sportsmen and women; rivaled only by visualization as the most effective tool to access potential. Just as you plan training and racing according to the specific demands of distance, terrain, surface, weather and your fitness level, so too you can prepare simple statements, or affirmations, to repeat to yourself when a certain situation arises. For example: A short, sharp incline out of T2, which might normally evoke a negative self statement such as: “Oh no, this is really going to hurt and spoil my run split” can be reprogrammed to elicit a key coping strategy, set in motion by a well-rehearsed instruction to yourself: “Shorten your arm action, hit back with the elbows so as to maintain rhythm…lean into it now” – same situation, different self-talk, better result.

When you “talk” to yourself, talk to yourself in the second person, e.g. “You smoothly and powerfully negotiate the hills on this course.”

The more detailed your planning, preparation and target setting, the less space you leave for negative thoughts to creep in. Write down your coping statements. This gives you easier access to them when the realities of race day are upon you. Break your race up into the smallest possible segments and aim to concentrate on one segment at a time.

II. Focus

Elite endurance athletes focus inwards. They do not attempt to take their minds off their running or the race by thinking of something else.

A good way to evaluate your powers of concentration is to determine how much of the race you can recall and how many times you lost focus or thought of something irrelevant to performance. “Did you notice all the construction near the 5km marker?” means you were concentrating – but not on the race.

One way in which countless tri-athletes lose concentration is by trying to avoid how hard the effort feels to them by trying to think of something else (see point number 5). What actually happens is that by focusing on not doing something you are in fact accessing the very thing you are trying to avoid. On top of this the mind cannot read a non-instruction – it removes the negative. Tell the mind what to do, not what not to do! By focusing on something else you lose power and control over the ability you have, because your mind is occupied with something that is irrelevant to your performance.

Tri-athletes respond well to advice that has them concentrate on a subjective feeling earlier in the race and on each leg. Example: “I feel like a dolphin, smooth and powerful” or “like a powerful motorcycle” or “like a wolf”. Any positive image of strength, endurance, efficiency and speed should do it. Then later, when the auto pilot feeling begins to fade, I have athletes turn to objective technical thoughts such as, (for the run) “Use your arms, relax your shoulders, lean into the hill”.

Remember the 75 percent factor: the physical and mental low point of a race. You’ve come too far to quit, and are too far from home to attack, and so you drift in no-man’s land. You become non-present to the situation and access to the full energy you have is lost. Your thoughts and focus are on what has passed and how that affects you, and what is to come – like, “Do I still have enough gas for the finish?” By not being in the present you are dwelling on things you have no control over – the past and the future. By getting into the present, you can work on so many things. You can use your arms; repeat your affirmations and so on. In other words, focus on the task at hand. Ensure that you always work hard on this area in training, until it becomes second nature. Add a focusing statement to your strategy: “I refocus my concentration on the bike from 30 to 36km (for a draft ride). On the run you could use something like, “I really gather my resources just after 7km.”

From analysis of many endurance events it has been found that the first 19% is usually achieved at predetermined pace. Expect and plan to go a little faster than 19 to 38%. Pace then normally decreases till about 76%, and from then on, the slowest part of the event usually occurs. By knowing this, you should be able to plan times of increased concentration and sensible pace adjustments. In this way you can ensure that the race holds less anxiety for you. This is especially relevant for non-drafting bike sections and the run.

Publisher’s Note: In this edition of Psyched, we have re-published the “Introduction”, “Strategy” and “Focus” sections of Mr. Bobby McGee’s article. In the next edition of Psyched, we will publish the sections titled “Anxiety and Relaxation”, “Visualization”, and “Dealing and Discomfort”. It is such a unique presentation of helpful information that we have kept it word for word as it was written by Mr. McGee. It would be of great value for you to check in with his website ( and review his biography, services, and book that he has written called “Magic Running.”