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How Goal Setting and Self-Talk Will Bring Your Success in Triathlon

By Seth Rose | May 25, 2018, 2:21 p.m. (ET)


“Yeah, that’s the thing about mental training and mental things you know, whether you think you can do something or you can’t, you are probably right, and I did believe I could do it. I trained for it, and I visualized it probably a hundred thousand of times …” – Jan Frodeno on his mindset leading into his second IRONMAN World Championship victory

You did it. You signed up! Now you are starting the journey for your race. You won’t be able to finish the race or keep up with the competition if you find yourself staying up late, sleeping through your alarm or binge watching your favorite show on Netflix instead of your evening run. What if we could train mentally to continue that drive when times get tough during our training? You put all that time and effort into training, so don’t leave your race to chance by hoping for an excellent performance. Train your mind to set yourself up for success!

Your Garmin does a great job at showing you all the data you need, but the most powerful training tool you have is the one between your eyes. This can be your greatest weapon or your biggest enemy. Research has shown that the four primary mental skills used by triathletes to enhance their performance are: goal setting, self-talk, breathing/relaxation and visualization (Greenless & Thelwell, 2001, 2003). In part one of this article, we’ll dive into goal setting and self-talk.

Goal Setting: Your Stairway to Success to Win More Often

Triathletes race for different reasons and often finish disappointed for not reaching certain accomplishments. By creating goals during training, we can “win” more often by finding targets to hit along the journey to boost our confidence, focus and energy to be more successful, more often.

For example, SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-based) like “completing my first Olympic-distance in three months” or “do the run course without stopping” can help direct your focus and energy in your training. However, races are different based on a level of difficulty, environment (weather, terrain, etc.), competition and sometimes poorly marked courses. These are all things outside of your immediate control like “average 20 mph on the bike,” “finish top 10 in my age group” or “run under 50 minutes for the 10k.” While having an outcome goal is great, in order to achieve it, you’ll need to set several process and performance goals.

Think about a staircase. Your end goal is the top of the staircase, and you have to take one step at a time to get to the top. This process allows you to shift your focus on the things you need to do in the present moment to perform under pressure, and they are mostly things in your immediate control. “I want to arrive early to the race to set up,” “I want to keep my nutrition and hydration schedule consistent during the bike,” “I want to focus on my breathing during the swim to stay on pace and calm myself about being in the open water.”

Try it yourself. Process goals for training can include: Knowing your purpose for each workout, doing core training three days per week or diet adjustments during the work week (fewer sweets, more water, less alcohol, etc.). You can track how these are going by reflecting after key sessions during the week. Put them in your phone or in the notes section on TrainingPeaks. By focusing on these process goals, they can help motivate you when you want to give up, and provide a friendly reminder why you’re putting in the long hours of training.

Self-Talk: The Power of Mantras

You’re on the track, running those 200s. On the bike, during a 10-minute sustained effort. In the pool, doing 100 repeats at 1:30 pace. You’re looking at your watch to hit splits, to see if you’re in the right heart rate zone, or if you’re hitting pace. But what are the things you’re saying to yourself? It’s one thing to be aware of these thoughts, but it’s another to use them to gain a competitive edge on race day. Our confidence is fueled by what we tell ourselves, and ultimately our thoughts have a direct influence on our emotions and actions.

“I suck at climbing,” “I can’t do flip turns at all!” By saying these unproductive thoughts to yourself, you’re essentially creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, and you are more likely to believe those things. It’s time to challenge those beliefs. Time to change those negative thoughts. Practice putting a stop to them and change them to positive statements. Research has shown that motivational self-talk statements have been found to enhance cycling performance by increasing power output, VO2 max and completion times during a 10k time trial (Barwood, 2015). In addition, these statements have also increased swimming and running performances (see below for articles).

Even the professional athletes use these statements, often called mantras, during training and racing to catapult their performance to the next level. Jesse Thomas talks about his use of powerful mantras during his training for his sixth Wildflower victory.

“TRUST THE TRAINING. I used this mantra before Wildflower. I’d had some amazing training in the weeks leading in, but was still concerned about racing guys I’d never beaten before. These mantras helped me stay confident when those doubts arose.”

Try it yourself. It’ll take time, and some statements will be more effective than others. Try creating “I am” or “I will” statements. For example, “I am strong” during those hard track intervals. The key is to practice them during training, so you can figure out how to think when things don’t go according to plan.


Barwood, M. J., Corbett, J., Wagstaff, C., McVeigh, D., & Thelwell, R. C. (2015). Motivational self-talk improves 10 km time trial cycling compared to neutral self-talk. International Journal of Sports Physiology Performance, 10(2), 166-71.

Hamilton, R. A., Scott, D., & MacDougall, M. P. (2007). Assessing the effectiveness of self-talk interventions on endurance performance. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 19, 226-239. doi: 10.1080/10413200701230613

Thelwell, R. C., & Greenlees, I. A. (2001). The effects of a mental skills training package of gymnasium triathlon performance. Sport Psychologist, 15(2), 127-141.

Thelwell, R. C., & Greenlees, I. A. (2003). Developing competitive endurance performance using mental skills training. Sport Psychologist, 17(3), 318-337.

Weinberg, R., Miller, A., & Horn, T. (2012). The influence of a self-talk intervention on collegiate cross-country runners. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 10(2), 123-134.

Seth Rose, M.S., is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach, part-time lecturer and Covina High Swim Coach.

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.