10 Mental Tips for Triathlon Success by Jeff Symonds

Penticton, BC native and Ironman 70.3 World Champion Medalist, Jeff Symonds shares his top mental tips for triathlon success. Whether you’re competing in TriDu this weekend, are a seasoned triathlete or are just in the early stages of thinking about maybe doing a triathlon, these tips will be greatly beneficial along the way.
I have never been an athlete with a pretty swim stroke or running stride.  The success I have had has been because I am able to Get Ugly Out There and get everything I have out of myself on race day.  These are the mental techniques I have used and you can use to make your next race a success.

1. Mental Game Plan

Most people have a physical game plan and know exactly what pace they want to hold for every portion of their race.  I always create a mental game plan and plan out exactly what I want to be thinking of during every portion of my race.  By creating a mental game plan you will have the thoughts you want to have, and should have, as opposed to letting race day excitement and fatigue determine our thoughts for us. Often times I will use landmarks as cues to predetermined thoughts.  An example being that every time I see a speed limit sign I think, “Alright, going fast feeling good!”

2. Mantras

A key component of my Mental Game Plan is mantras.  I have them for the swim, the bike, and the run, and I repeat them over and over and over again.  Mantras help keep me focused on the task and keep negative thoughts from creeping in.  My mantras are often technical cues or related to pacing and rhythm.  For running I always think: “Re-lax, fly-ing, your pace, negative split.” For the ride, I think: “Easy Three-zy aero.” Easy to stay relaxed, Three-zy for pacing with my power meter, and aero to think remind myself to tuck my head into an aerodynamic position.  For swimming I think “flowing-ing“, or if I need to close a gap “four-twen-ty” to think of my 400 pace.

3. Attitude and Effort

Whether it be in training or during a competition, if I find myself distracted and beginning to worry about things beyond my control, I think about the two things that I can control: attitude and effort.  Am I staying positive and am I working hard?  If I am doing these things I know I am going to get the most out of myself on that day.  If I am not doing these two things, I should have a game plan to get myself back on track.  Thinking about this becomes especially important during a taper week when stress, anxiousness and irrationality start to creep in and you find yourself having a melt down because someone ate the last of your cereal…

4. Honor commitment with training

Pressure.  It’s there for everyone regardless of your experience in the sport.  Endurance racing can be a selfish task that requires support and sacrifices from others just to get us to the start line.  Your supporters will always value the work ethic and commitment you put in to your training rather than the end result (trust me, it’s true!). If I’m having a bad day out there, it helps me to remember that I am honoring that support. I honor my supporters by working as hard as I can everyday to prepare for race day. I am honoring them by training hard, eating healthy and getting to bed early; not by being first across the line.

5. Think like a Champion

I always look for situations to practice mental toughness and positive thinking.  Board games are a great opportunity for this (and a great way to spend a rest day). With board games, it is a lot harder to stay positive and focus on the process than it sounds. I am constantly putting this into practice when playing against my Grandma. Yes I am the type of guy that would never let my Grandma beat me at anything, I learned that attitude from her!

6. Learn to Love Ugly Conditions

I am often asked what my favourite race conditions are.  My answer? The hardest conditions imaginable!  I know that most people hate the extreme cold, heat, wind, rain, hills, etc.  Even at the highest level some competitors will mentally quit before race even starts. When I am faced with epic conditions I gain a huge amount of confidence knowing that my chances of racing well just went up! And who doesn’t want to be able to say that they did a race in 90km/hr winds or freezing rain?!

7. Make Lists

Lists rule my life (just ask my girlfriend).  I write down the key things I need to do a week out from race day, two days before, the day before and race morning.  The lists ensure that I stay calm and get everything done. It gives me a lot of confidence to look at the lists the night before a race and to be able to say that, yes, I have done everything I can to get ready for the big day. The lists will be everything from what food I am going to eat race morning to what I need to have in my transition bags to what I am going to do if something goes wrong.

8. Create a list of Solutions to Common Problems

Peter Reid said that “Ironman is problem solving”.   I like to have the solution to these problems long before I encounter them on race day.   What will I do if I get a flat? What if a goggle gets filled with water?  What if my goggles get knocked off? What if I drop a bottle on the bike?  It helps to write the list out and share it someone smarter than you to get her opinion.  Yes that “her” was intentional.

9. Attack your fears

If there is something you fear or are worried about, I can guarantee you that the majority of your competitors feel the same way.   Attack these fears in training.  I hate riding in the rain, so every time it rains I get on my bike and head out the door.  As miserable as I am, the more I ride in the rain the better my handling skills will be and the more comfortable I’ll be in rainy weather.  When I get to a race and it is a torrential downpour, I’ll be ready.

10. Deliberate Practice

Deliberate Practice is making your training sessions as much like race day as possible.  I incorporate deliberate practice into every workout I do. I train alone to simulate race day and I use my exact race nutrition for long runs and rides.  If I am preparing for a 3 loop run course, I’ll run 3 loop long runs. I ride in the aero position a lot! I use my mantras and I visualize scenarios. For example, getting passed is something that will happen on race day. So when someone blows by me on my training ride or run, think about how I will respond in a race situation and focus on maintaining my pace and not getting caught up in someone else’s pace. I look at all my training sessions and ask myself how can I make this more like race day.
Good luck to all those competing this Sunday in UBC REC’s TriDu! And don’t forget to tweet at us ( @ubcrec) using the official hashtag, #tridu14.