Early season racing has arrived. Most of you have spent a winter on the trainer, treadmill, sweating in the sauna to prepare for your early season races. Generally, athletes have no problem knocking out the training sessions. The day to day grind of workouts is a rhythm that is easy to sustain once started. But on race day, we know that success is more than just the training sessions. If that was the case, the most consistent, fastest trainer would win every time! Hardly the case. Let's look at some of the other things it takes to put together a successful race.
Start with why
What drives you to train or compete? What made you spend months preparing? What goes through your mind when the alarm clock goes off at 4:55 am? This is your “why” and it’s a very powerful motivator en route to your success. In Start with Why, author Simon Sinek describes the starting with why as starting with clarity. In his words, you have to know why you do what you do. To inspire (yourself), you need to start with the clarity of why. Think about what brings you to the race – personal enjoyment, competition, fitness, vanity – there are many reasons why people participate in triathlon. Think through what your reason is and revisit it over and over again – this “why” should pick you up when motivation is down and give you that feeling of completion when you cross the line.
You gotta believe
Top performance comes from a place of confidence and trust in yourself. In Bounce, author Matthew Syed states it best: to perform to your maximum, you have to teach yourself to believe with an intensity that goes way beyond logical justification. No top performance has lacked this capacity; no sportsman has played to his potential without the ability to remove doubt from his mind. The what if’s, the questions in your head will often speak louder and get harder to ignore the more you are under stress. You must 100 percent believe in your ability to do what you are setting out to do. Where does this belief come from? Preparation and training. Revisit your training – the good and bad sessions – for confidence in your abilities, whether to perform, hit certain paces or simply overcome adversity.
Recently, I read a fantastic blog at Championship Basketball School about training ugly to get to greatness. Training ugly means allowing yourself to make mistakes, training when conditions aren’t perfect, making things, well – difficult for yourself. Racing isn’t easy, comfortable or flawless. There’s no option to ride indoors if it’s too windy or too hot. You can’t put on your favorite playlist to get through mile 18. Training doesn’t need to be ugly every day but more often than not, be sure that you’re training ugly enough to feel the pain, get out of your comfort zone, sweat a little, suffer and risk failure. One of my favorite sports books, Go Girl by Natalie Cook quotes Steve Anderson: The willingness to risk creates the opportunity for success. Play it safe, comfortable and pretty and you’ll never taste the discomfort it takes to be a success.
Understand the physiology of competition
In Top Dog: The Science of Competition, the authors describe how testosterone allows you to take more risks and better respond to challenge with intensity. When your mind recognizes that a competition is a challenge, testosterone gives you a boost to get ready for it. Both men and women have testosterone. In fact, a woman’s testosterone will respond similarly as it does for men before a race – with one caveat: women must see themselves as a serious competitor and care about the outcome. Interestingly, chatting with your competition and making friends before the race can actually defuse the testosterone response in both sexes. What to do? Save the socializing for after the race. Prior to the race show up with your “game face” on and race mindset ready for action.
Research the race
Legendary coach John Wooden once said, confidence comes from being prepared. Preparation is more than just training. Know everything you can about the race – read blogs, race reports, websites, forums to find out any little detail available. Oftentimes you can learn which goggles to bring, tips and tricks about typical weather patterns, road quality, etc. When you arrive at the race, take the time for a complete course preview. Know the weather forecast; what will the temperature be at the start, when you’re on the run. What about wind direction – where on the bike will you encounter head or tailwind? What’s the water temperature? What’s the quickest “line” to swim, the fastest way through transition? This knowledge is free speed available to anyone regardless of age, talent or equipment.
Know your optimal level of arousal
Some people thrive on stress - they need it to get properly fired up and need pressure to perform at their best. Others get easily overstimulated – preferring quiet time to gather their thoughts. Find your level of optimal arousal. Look back to your best races – did you travel alone or solo? Did you feel stressed during the week or totally relaxed? Know your level and then determine, on race week, how you can properly time yourself to get there. And if you are anxious on race day? Don’t worry about it! In Top Dog: The Science of Competition, authors Bronson and Merriman discuss how lower anxiety doesn’t always lead to better performance. In fact, most elite athletes are moderately anxious before their race. The difference between elites and amateur is that the elites recognize their anxiety but remain confident that they are still prepared and in control.
Rely on your routine
Routines make things automatic – giving us a sense of control over the little things we can control. In The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg discusses how coach Bob Bowman taught Michael Phelps a series of routines to help him pave his winning ways. By the time the race arrived, Phelps had already been victorious in half of the steps in his routine. This continual pattern of success was empowering and winning the race became the natural extension of everything he had done prior to the race. Create your own pre-race routine from breakfast, warm ups, checklists, even songs and then execute. Nail the steps to put yourself at ease that you are prepared to continue on to your personal victory.
Plan your race and race your plan
Showing up to a race without a plan is like getting in your car, driving and hoping you’ll end up in your desired location. Like the famous quote: if you fail to plan, you are planning to fail! Write out a race plan. For some, this is a detailed outline. For others, it reads like a movie script. Write the story of your race in a style that works for you – from start (race week) to finish (race recovery). Include a timeline, pacing, fueling, strategy, mental tactics. Review this plan a few times before race day. As you review, visualize your success in executing the plan – literally see, feel, smell, hear the race. And, don’t be afraid to visualize yourself making – and then correcting – mistakes. On race day, you simply race your plan and troubleshoot as needed.
Control the controllables
In Choke, Sian Bellock discusses how athletes choke because they worry – about the outcome, the consequences, what others think of you. Instead of worrying about things you cannot control, free yourself up to focus on what you can control. What can you control? Effort, attitude, pacing, fueling/hydration, mindset, action – in other words, the process. In Choke, Bellock offers how taking the time to write about your worries can improve performance. How so? When you describe and confront your worries, this act of disclosure actually lessens negative thoughts and frees up mental space to handle whatever comes your way. Before the race, make a list of everything that you worry can or will go wrong and how you will respond. I call this the “what if” list. What if you get a flat? What if you drop your nutrition? Having a road map of how to respond will give you a sense of control, calm and confidence on race day if and when things go awry.
Adapt and overcome
Rarely will racing unfold as the perfect day. Expect to encounter obstacles many times throughout the day. In Developing Resilience, author Michael Neenan talks about strategies to change how you view and respond to obstacles. Rather than asking yourself why me instead look at what you’re facing and say why not me? Why not me implies that you were thrown a challenge because you are tough and equipped enough to handle. You shift from victim to victorious. Draw from times in training when you overcame similar obstacles to find proof of your resilience to better deal with adversity. Remember too that what happens after adversity is often entirely within your control. Martin Seligman, in Learned Optimism, reminds readers you can set off a “giving up” response by neglecting this simple equation: adversity leads to beliefs which lead to consequences. Be aware of your patterns of dealing with adversity and how it impacts what happens to you. The most successful athletes encounter obstacles – and then adapt and overcome. Simply put, they don’t get stuck. They deal and move forward.
Anticipate you vs you
At some point during the day, the biggest challenge you will face will be you versus yourself. This is why training solo during key sessions can really give you an edge. You’ll be prepared for how to manage the conversations and battles in your head as the ‘competitor’ you faces the ‘I don’t like to be uncomfortable’ version of yourself. Your brain is constantly seeking ways to keep you comfortable and safe. Any threat is going to be met with resistance. You must welcome and deal with this resistance in training – whether it’s through solo training, heat training, training when it’s cold, etc. Author Steven Pressfield talks about resistance in his books The War of Art and Do the Work. In short, resistance is the enemy and if you listen to it for just a moment, it will find excuses and a million reasons why we shouldn’t do what we know we need to do. Ignore the chatter, resist the resistance!
Leave the race with no regrets
When traveling to a race, I’ve gotten in the habit of asking myself what will it take for you to sit on this plane/in this car on the way back with no regrets? The pain of regret is worse than any physical pain you will feel during and after the race. It’s the missed opportunities that leave doubts in your mind and questions about your abilities. And sadly – there are no do-overs! In Bill McKibben’s book, Long Distance, he describes his journey into competitive skiing. He says, about training and racing, I want to gain an intuitive sense of my body and how it works. And at least once I want to give a supreme and complete effort in a race. Define this for yourself – what truly is a complete effort, one that will leave you with no regrets? Don’t return home with a list of couldas, shouldas, wouldas in your head. Give a complete effort in your race.
Take the time to recap
Every success and mistake in a race is a learning opportunity only if you take the time to reflect. Evaluate yourself on pre race preparation, race day execution and post race recovery. What worked? What didn’t work? What can you do better next time – and how? Write out detailed notes on the timeline, pacing, hydration/fueling and strategy that you followed. Keep a journal of these notes and revisit them before every race to build on what you've already learned. Remember, there is a finite limit to how much we can train, recover and improve speed-wise but you can always race smarter.
Good luck to all those racing in the next few weeks!