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Use Breathing Techniques and Mental Rehearsal to Race Smarter

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

This is Part 2 in a series on mental tools for triathletes. Read Part 1, “How Goal Setting and Self-Talk Will Bring Your Success in Triathlon” here.

mental tools

Breathing and Relaxation: Control Your Breath to Control Your Body

Just breathe! Why does this sound so easy, yet so hard when we’re nervous or trying to catch our breath? How important do you think it is to take a good breath? Even more important, how easy is it to breathe when you’re tight? Try to take a deep breath and freak out or yell at the same time. You can’t physically do it! We know we breathe automatically every single day, but learning to breathe on purpose, with purpose can help us relax when we are tight or anxious come race day. Take control. Learn to control your breath, to control your body. This self-control can ultimately help you perform better during hard intervals on the track or in the pool.

When we talk about controlled breathing, we want to breathe using our diaphragm, which is the muscle below our lungs that contracts to allow air to fill our lungs more efficiently. This diaphragmatic breathing can:

  • Put your focus on the present moment
  • Enable you to “check in” with yourself to see if you are in control
  • Decrease negative emotions and stress
  • Increase sustained attention
  • Energize you when you are feeling sluggish
  • Help you shift from conscious thinking to “unconscious” trusting
  • Help establish a sense of rhythm in your performance

When pressure builds we usually start feeling nervous. What happens to your breathing? Most people begin taking short, shallow breaths. When you start breathing from your chest instead of your diaphragm, you’re not getting enough oxygen to your lungs, muscles or brain. This change in oxygen in your brain causes adrenaline to release and your brain’s warning alarm goes off causing, even more, adrenaline to release, and the vicious cycle starts all over. Below are some steps to practice deep diaphragmatic breathing. Just like anything else; the more you train this skill, the more likely you’ll be able to use it when you need it most.

  • Sit straight in a chair without arm rests, feet flat on the floor. Put hands comfortably on your lap.
  • Inhale through the nose and feel your abdomen expand. Some people find it helpful to imagine a balloon expanding as they fill their lungs.
  • Picture your lungs filling with air as you inhale and count slowly from one to four. Make sure your shoulders and neck are relaxed during the inhale.
  • Exhale slowly through your nose so that it takes to the count of six seconds to exhale completely.
  • Continue this process slowly from anywhere from one to three minutes.

Focus your thoughts on your breathing. If your thoughts start to wander, continuously shift your focus back to your breath. This part is typically the most difficult, so be patient.

Mental Rehearsal: You Don’t Have to Race Just on Race Day!

The body achieves what the mind believes. If I told you to think of a pink elephant riding a motorcycle. BOOM! You’re probably thinking about a large pink elephant riding that little tiny motorcycle. Weird, right? Why is it that our brain is so powerful like that? Our brain does a terrible job at determining what is real versus imaginary. So, you can use mental rehearsal to create an image of what you want to happen or feel. Often, the term mental rehearsal gets confused with visualization. While visualization is focused on seeing things in our mind’s-eye, mental rehearsal involves us using as many of our senses that are appropriate to make our image as real as possible.

Imagine your transitions so that you can plan “what-if” scenarios in your mind (i.e., where’s the exit for the bike and run in transition, they could be different spots). Run through changing a flat on the bike, so if it happens, you can manage your frustration (aka freak out moment) and emotions better because you know what it feels like. When imagining these scenarios, the athlete can repeat them over and over again, enhancing your skill through repetition that is very similar to practice, so your mind and body make the connection to mimic physical practice.

The coolest part is that we don’t have to wait for our whole training block to race! You can practice using this skill to imagine your race happening the way you want it to, so you don’t leave anything to chance. However, it won’t guarantee success, but it can increase confidence, motivation and reduce stress. These skills are supplements, not a substitute for real training. If you can incorporate them into your daily training, just like your workouts or recovery, you’ll be on your way to triathlon success!


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.