Whether you are a veteran triathlete or recently came to the sport, you likely have encountered some barriers in the past as you’ve trained to reach your full potential. After all, the triathlon is renowned as one of the world’s most challenging sports. But which disciplines tend to test triathletes the most? Are triathletes’ weaknesses in certain disciplines a result of mental or physical issues? Can they actually utilize their strengths in certain disciplines to improve upon their weaknesses in others?
The following tips and techniques will help you overcome whichever challenges you have endured in the past, so that you can perform to the best of your abilities every time you compete.
Mind over matter
“Some mental issues that impact triathletes’ results include low confidence, the inability to focus on the task at hand and maintain composure, and a lack of motivation and commitment,” Daphne Glover, a triathlon coach for Chicago Endurance Sports, says. “Mental issues tend to affect triathletes’ performances more in swimming, as there is a general lack of confidence, fear of drowning and the distractions involved in open water racing.”
In fact, other Chicagoland triathlon experts and coaches believe triathletes struggle with swimming more than any other discipline.
“Open water swimming is a completely different animal than staring at the line at the bottom of the pool,” Libby Hurley, founder of Together We Tri, says. “Even good swimmers have panicked in open water swims if they haven’t practiced mass starts, navigating, and sighting.”
To overcome your fears, Hurley recommends a variety of solutions, such as concentrating on technique, practicing relaxed breaths and learning slow streamline endurance strokes.
“The calmer you remain in the water, the less chance your mental issues and fears will surface,” Hurley says. “All of us have our fears, strengths and weaknesses. By developing solutions to their weaknesses, triathletes can find comfort and overcome their fears.”
To increase self-confidence, Glover advises triathletes to establish SMART goals for their training sessions.
S – Specific. “Vague goals produce vague results, whereas detailed goals produce specific results.”
M – Measureable. “Do you have a specific time, distance, hour and number of intervals in mind as you train? If not, you should, so that you have data to measure and prove your progress.”
A – Adjustable. “Your goal should be flexible, adaptable, and within your control. If not, it needs to be changed.”
R – Realistic. “Is your goal within your reach and challenging? Or is it too easy or too hard for you? Your goals should be positive and achievable.”
T – Time-based. “Is your goal achievable today, or at least in the near future?”
Glover also recommends the following techniques in order to improve any mental weaknesses you have, particularly as you prepare for your weakest disciplines:
Pre-performance routines. “Triathletes should reflect on their best performances and what they did for their warm-ups, as well as what they were thinking and feeling,” Glover says. “They should also ask themselves how they will control their nervous energy and stay positive, which will help reduce overall race anxiety.”
Visualization. Glover believes triathletes should visualize all possible race day scenarios in a quiet, peaceful place during a formal time of day, for up to ten minutes, two to three times per week.
“Don’t visualize everything being perfect, or too bad,” she says. “Visualize getting roughed up a bit in the swim or having a flat tire and how you would deal with such scenarios emotionally.”
Positive self-talk. “Triathletes need to pick some cue words to maintain positive attitudes,” Glover says. “If self-talk is always negative, it will evolve into anxiety, which is detrimental to performance. The more positive the self-talk, the better triathletes will perform.”
Glover thinks positive self-talk eventually results in calmness and relaxation, as triathletes learn to protect themselves from anxiety-producing thoughts.
Glover also recommends working on positive self-talk during training, as it takes about six weeks of consistent work to improve or replace negative thoughts and move from a place of anxiety to a place of calmness and relaxation.
Activation and relaxation. Meanwhile, if triathletes lack energy or intensity on race day, they can utilize activation techniques to proliferate their energy levels. Such techniques range from energizing music to positive imagery and encouraging self-talk.
On the other hand, if triathletes are too intense or energized, they can reduce their energy levels by listening to relaxing music with softer pitches, implementing breathing exercises and imagining scenes that they relate to peace and tranquility.
Seek advice. Finally, Glover advises triathletes to work with coaches who can identify their mental issues and address them accordingly.
“From a psychological standpoint, two factors determine performance: confidence and the ability to deal with intense feelings during races. Coaches can assist triathletes with each of these issues,” she says.
“It is always wise to seek out the advice of an experienced coach,” Todd Jensen, head coach for Tri Faster, says. “Most triathletes’ issues have already been encountered and solved by others.”
Follow your heart. At the same time, Hurley also believes triathletes should remember why they decided to compete in the first place, whether for camaraderie, personal achievement, or passion for the outdoors.
“It’s important to get real with your own goal and your own heart,” she says. “Do not allow doubt and ego to get in the way of the joy of your accomplishments.”
Develop a training plan
Furthermore, to maintain their health, lower their risks for injuries and improve upon their weakest disciplines, Alison Tibbits, another triathlon coach for Chicago Endurance Sports, recommends the development of a training plan with drills for each discipline.
Swimming. “Triathletes should spend time focusing on drills, using items like kick boards, pull buoys and fins to craft and perfect strokes before getting out in the open water,” Tibbits says. “Once they have perfected their strokes, they should get out in the open water as much as possible to simulate race day. There is nothing like being in the open water to prepare for race day.”
Cycling. “If triathletes train in a climate where weather is challenging, they can start training early on a spin bike with an indoor cycling trainer,” Tibbits says. “Then, they should practice outdoors as much as possible, training on a consistent basis, as cycling will yield strong results for triathletes if they take time to improve.”
Running. “Triathletes should also consider taking running clinics, which helps them craft their techniques and develop a solid base from which they can start running stronger and injury free,” Tibbits says. “They must be diligent about consistency, when it comes to training.”
Glover also suggests simulation training, workouts or races that actually mimic race-like conditions. Training can occur during one-day workouts or weekend training camps, providing triathletes opportunities to swim, bike, or run their racecourses prior to their competitive triathlons.
“Triathletes will be able to practice transitions, decide which gear they will use on race day, and develop a pre-race meal and hydration plan, which helps to lower their risks for injuries,” she says.
Improve your weakest discipline – by using your strongest discipline
If triathletes are interested in improving their weakest disciplines, looking to their strong disciplines may help.
“Success in one discipline can be used as motivation that they can conquer another as long as they are patient,” Jensen says. “The basic modus operandi of triathlon is ‘train your weaknesses and race your strengths.’”
Patience is key, however, as improvement simply takes time.
“If someone is new to something, they often get frustrated because they aren’t ‘good at it.’ Technique and endurance builds over time,” Michelle Moore, another triathlon coach for Chicago Endurance Sports, says. “You can’t look at the overall race and figure out how to tackle it. You have to take it sport by sport, workout by workout.”
Triathletes must also be willing to exert an equal amount of effort for each discipline they train for and learn how to enjoy their weakest disciplines as much as their strongest disciplines.
“If you want your weaknesses to become your strengths, you will have to put more effort into those sports to improve. It will take work,” states Hurley.
Finally, Tibbits believes all triathletes need to balance their time and effort amongst all three disciplines.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about taking the different disciplines and putting them together. Triathletes need a healthy balance of all disciplines, while also practicing each transition, like a well-oiled machine,” she says.
Discover – and improve – your weakest disciplines
“If triathletes are novices, it typically only takes a few training sessions in each discipline to determine their strengths and weaknesses,” Glover says. “More experienced triathletes could also participate in races and view their rankings in each sport, deciding which ones they need to spend more time on, in training. Afterwards, they can add more workouts, drills that focus on mechanics and efficiency, and a proper strength training program, if needed.”
Moreover, coaching and lessons often helps many triathletes improve their weaknesses considerably.
“Find an experienced triathlon coach that will analyze your background, fitness, training plan, and racing results,” Jensen says.
Above all else, triathletes should not let their fears or discouragement hinder them from improving their weaknesses, offering advice and helping others discover the sport.
“Do not let your fears hold you back. Find the courage to leap in regardless of the outcome – and when you learn something along the way, share it,” Hurley says. “The magnitude of joy increases a hundred fold whenever you reach out and help someone else discover that there really are no limits.”