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The Importance of Ritual

By Anthony Brown | Sept. 26, 2016, 6:40 a.m. (ET)

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Rituals for athletes are not a new idea but their importance needs to be stressed. It may be a Saturday morning when you wake up at 4 a.m. You roll out of bed like you always do. Quietly sneak out of your room (if you have any company) and head to the coffee maker to brew a fresh cup. Down a quick glass of water and eat a banana slathered in freshly ground peanut butter from the local market. Use the bathroom, check your email and weather one last time, and then grab the gear you will need to head out the door.

You travel to your destination, jamming to your personal music of choice and getting pumped up and ready to _____ (fill in the blank with an activity of choice). You perform your neuromuscular warm-up then your dynamic warm-up consisting of Frankenstein walks, hurdles, lunges and accelerations. If meeting with a group you may have some mild chatter about your co-workers or a funny story about what happened to you this past week. Then you take off to tackle the workout that was prescribed in TrainingPeaks or some other media.

Your main concern up to this point has been your workout and what you will do at the workout. The interesting thing is that what you did before the workout really impacts your performance. Let us throw a wrench into your morning routine. Assume you overslept and now you do not get the food or your normal checking of weather is gone and you overdress. This creates stress but not the good kind, and you feel off your game the remainder of your workout or day. 

Having a ritual can actually help you perform better. When you learn to swim, you first learn drills to master technique. At first it is hard with the stress of when to breath and how to stroke and you don't get to just go out and perform the effort. Mostly you’re focused about everything else. Once you create muscle memory you focus less on form and drills and more on the efforts.

Your mind is a muscle that likes to have some muscle memory as well. To reduce your stress on breakthrough workouts or race days it is best to have a ritual. This can provide a calming effect because you are used to this ritual and it can become like muscle memory. If you know that before a race or breakthrough day you always get up at the same time, eat the same meal, drink the same amount of fluids, spend the same time going to the restroom, checking email or social media and listening to the same music to get you excited for your workout, then your performance can be improved. Your focus will go from what to eat in the morning and when to get up toward how hard you race or work during a breakthrough workout.

You can minimize your stress and increase performance by giving yourself a ritual. It can’t just be race day because then it is just one day and your body is not expectant of the actions. Everyone has stress or butterflies in your gut. If you let those butterflies flutter on their own they will fly all over and create a lot of havoc on your mind and body. This sometimes leads to race day gastrointestinal distress. Take those butterflies and teach them to fly in a straight line and gain control of your stress by gaining control over your pre-race and pre-training ritual.

Anthony Brown is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach with a master's in recreation and sport management. He's been enjoying triathlons since 2006 and endurance events since 2005. Brown is multi-time IRONMAN and ultra-marathon finisher in the top 15 percent. He started as a personal trainer and spin instructor in 2007 and a coach and swim educator since 2008. Brown is a water safety swim instructor for the American Red Cross and taught swimming classes at the University of Tennessee.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.