I recently presented on the topic of “Mental Performance” for a group of adult triathletes in Port Saint Lucie, FL. I began by asking, “What percentage of a triathlon do you think is physical, and what percentage is mental?” Everyone offered up different responses. Some said triathlon was an even split—50% mental and 50% physical. Others said 25% mental and 75% physical, while a few even said the sport was 75% mental and only 25% physical. After everyone gave their response, I followed it up with another question, “What percent of your triathlon training is physical and what percent is mental.” Some people laughed at the question, recognizing where I was going with the conversation.
There is no right or wrong answer to the above questions. Each person will have a different opinion on the subject; however, almost every athlete will agree that triathlon requires a significant mental component. Most will also agree that, compared with how hard they train their bodies, they spend little to no time training their mind. For those among us who have ventured into the psychological aspect, you’ve likely heard of visualization. But what is visualization? More and more coaches are instructing their athletes to “visualize the race” or “visualize success,” but what does that really mean? How does someone visualize success? In this article, I am going to give you the tools to develop and improve your visualization skills so you can start applying them to your training today. Regardless of what percent of a triathlon you think is mental, we can all agree that it’s important—and it could likely use some work.
So what is visualization? Visualization, or mental imagery, is also known as the scientific use of the imagination. By creating mental images, you can recall past events with great detail and even “see” desired outcomes for future events. Creating these ideal outcomes in your mind can actually have a positive effect in real life, enhancing the likelihood of them happening. You are, in a sense, “programming” your mind to respond to a given circumstance based on your predetermined suggestions.
When first getting started with visualization, I find that visualizing past events is much easier at first. So with my athletes, I prefer to use past experiences to elicit future results. Once accustomed to the visualization methods, one can, with great detail, foresee future races, workouts, and other life experiences. But first, let’s walk through an example of visualizing a past event.
Think about your best race. If you don’t have race experience yet, think about your best workout. This is likely a positive experience that you are proud of and makes you feel good. Now, in your mind, try to recall an image from that day. Perhaps looking back at pictures from the event will help you remember.
Once you are able to see this image in your mind, try putting that image into motion. Walkthrough the race and try to see what took place from your point of view. Almost as if you were watching a video relay from your perspective. Was it sunny, or overcast? Early in the morning or late in the afternoon? Was it windy or calm? Perhaps you recall seeing the flags waving furiously or the calmness of the ocean water.
Now try engaging other senses. This is where it can become difficult. However, with practice, you can get there. Try to add sound to your visualization. What did you hear? Did you hear the rhythm of your breathing, the grinding of the chain against your bike’s gears, the applause of the crowd, or the music that was playing over the loud speakers? What were the things you were saying to yourself? Try to be as specific as possible.
Once you’re able to see and hear that event taking place in your mind, think about how you felt. Was it hot and humid, or was it cold and windy? Did you feel nervous, or were you calm and confident? Finally, how did finishing make you feel? After all, if this is your best race ever, this feeling is likely significant to you. Is it a positive experience in your life that brings joy or pride? That’s an experience you can draw upon when times get tough in future events and training.
Through the use of visualization, you can then anchor that experience—that feeling—to a specific word or phrase. The word can be anything you want. For example, if you had an outstanding performance at a World Championship event, you might come up with “Worlds.” In this case, “Worlds” represents your best race ever. By visualizing this significant event periodically throughout your training, you can see that word or even just think about the word “Worlds” and immediately recall that positive experience. This could be the difference between giving up and gritting your teeth and pushing through.
Visualization is also commonly used in actually creating a desired outcome or result in future events or training. In this case, you become the narrator in your visualization process. By visualizing a future event, you can make specific suggestions or plans and then program them into your thinking. For example, I was working with an athlete who had severe open water swim anxiety. He had attempted a few triathlons only to be pulled out of the swim, which of course had left him with very bad past experiences. In this case, I wouldn’t advise using the earlier technique of visualizing a past event. Instead of visualizing this bad experience, I recommend this particular athlete visualize a perfect swim. For him, this meant not only visualizing how he would perform physically, but how he would feel mentally as well. The following is a piece of the mental dialogue this athlete used during the visualization process:
“5-minutes before the start of the race, my breathing is as calm as the placid lake water. I see the course that lays in front of me, and I am prepared to swim it without regret. I have done the training, and my body is more than capable of this 750m swim. I am ready. My fellow competitors are not here to cause me harm, but to lift me up and inspire me to push on. I will use their energy to keep myself moving forward. I am confident that I will conquer this course. 1-minute until the gun goes off, and I line up along the outside of the corral. By positioning myself here, I can be in control. If I come in contact with other swimmers, I will calmly give them their rightful space. I can simply move out into clean water and swim my race. The gun goes off, and I jog calmly into the water. The water is cold, but my wetsuit will keep me warm and provide additional floatation. I will control my breathing, focusing on deep exhales during my stroke. I will count my strokes to 12 and then lift my head slightly to ensure I am still on course. Buoy to buoy, I will pace myself to ensure success. At the halfway point, I assess how I’m feeling. Is the pace too strong or too weak? I determine that my pace is just as planned, and I spot the shoreline. Now, with a smile on my face, I am in complete control of this swim and know that I am going to finish strong. I do not grow anxious as the shoreline approaches. I simply swim patiently until the bottom rises up to meet my hand. Once I touch the lake floor I stand up and run up the beach toward transition.”
This was written by an athlete prior to ever successfully completing an open water swim in a triathlon. As you read it, you probably feel as if you are actually there doing the swim yourself. In this case, the athlete is using visualization to overcome the fear of the open water. However, visualization can be used in many ways, including proper pacing, nutrition strategy, race tactics, self-monitoring, and motivation. Not long after this was written, the author successfully finished his first sprint triathlon. He recalled in a post-race report that the swim was enjoyable. While his physical training had not changed from prior races, his mental training was much different. By spending a few short sessions visualizing success in the swim, he was able to achieve his goal. This is just one example of how proper mental training can lead to better performance in triathlon.
I urge you to experiment with visualization and discover how it can improve your performance during your next workout or event. Remember to start with recent events that are still fresh in your mind and practice seeing all of the small details. Pretty soon you will be able to create vivid images of future events, and you may just surprise yourself when it actually happens.
|Tommy Allore is the Director of Triathlon at Club Med Academies. A USA Triathlon L1 Certified Coach, Tommy is a certified personal trainer (CPT) by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) and is a 6-time triathlon champion, Ironman Finisher and USAT All-American. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org|