It’s race morning and you are scrambling around trying to grab all your gear for the big dance. You know how it goes.
Your mind is racing. You are constantly checking the time, either worrying that you will be late to transition or worrying that someone else is going to beat you to that prime spot next to the bike-out area. Let’s not forget triple checking your gear bag, making sure that you don’t forget anything!
We’ve all been there. Race mornings can be pretty stressful, and sometimes that stress can hinder your potential for a successful race. By adding in some simple mental preparation strategies, you can win the morning by becoming more confident, focused and prepared to perform to maximize your potential for a successful race day.
I like to tell athletes the race begins before it begins. You’ve put in all the hours for training, so put in the time to use pre-performance routines to ensure race morning is smooth and that you are ready (mentally and physically) for your race.
Routines can help you in many ways, such as:
Making unfamiliar environments familiar
When you move from venue to venue, unfamiliar environments can cause stress or anxiety to an athlete. When you can bring your mental routines with you, it can make these places seem normal, familiar and comfortable to do what you’ve trained to do. For example, study the race venue prior to arrival to prepare a game plan. Familiarize yourself with transition, bike in/out, run in/out and even the restrooms. These little details can make all the difference.
Helping stay focused on useful behaviors
Maintaining the appropriate focus for competition is crucial for athletes in high pressure situations. These routines can help keep you from thinking of distractions or ‘what-if’s’. It will keep you moving, present, and focused on what’s important now.
Increasing sense of control
When you make these routines consistent in both practice and competition, you will have a sense of control and confidence when you get to your race venue, even if it’s in an unfamiliar location. Make sure you prepare your routines ahead of time, and maybe use a brick workout or big training day to practice your pre-performance routines.
Making important behavior automatic
Humans have what’s called learned behavior patterns, or things that happen unconsciously when you have done them repeatedly. During training you might think about technique or do certain drills. However, if you were to think about those things during competition, you increase the chance of having ‘paralysis by analysis’ — otherwise known as freezing or choking by thinking too much about behaviors that should be automatic.
Increasing your focus and concentration on the proper things
Human brains have a limited capacity of things they can actually focus on. When you have automated behaviors from routines, it frees up this space, so you can focus on the things that actually matter. For example, having a way that you unpack your gear bag to setup for transition can aid in a stress-free routine to allow you more time to warmup and utilize time for last minute restroom visits or seeing loved ones.
Freeing you from having to make decisions
Think about a time you were packing your gear bag for your competition. You might already have a mental checklist of everything that needs to go in your bag. Athletes typically get weighed down on simple things such as what workout shirts to bring for weekend trips, or where their swim goggles are. Routines help reduce thinking and allow for no wasted energy (no more triple checking).
Gaining control of your arousal levels
Having the proper arousal levels before a race can help you control those pre-race nerves or jitters. Everyone performs at different optimal arousal levels, and a mental preparation routine can help you increase or decrease that level, wherever it might be in the moment.
OK! We get it! Routines are important, but now what?
You might already have a routine before your race that your friend might do or something that your coach told you to do. That is great! You are already on the right track. Most athletes will usually have a pre-race routine from something their peers and friends might do, or something they saw the pros do.
Often, doing a physical routine consistently can help with many of the benefits listed above. Now let’s add in the mental components and make it personal to you. Check out the examples below of some mental preparation strategies to add in.
Prior to race:
- Study course / venue or prepare your race plan
- Use imagery or visualization to
- Go through race morning from alarm going off to the start of the race
- See yourself starting the swim and then exiting the water
- Visualize the exit and entry for each transition
- Gear bag packing routine – save a copy of a checklist that you can grab every race
- Prepare for and have plans for potential distractions and what-if’s (you can visualize these!): Getting your goggles knocked off in the swim; Flat tires; Dropping bottle of fluids; Cramping or stomach issues on run
When arriving to race:
- Athlete mode on — Pick a point in time when you become the athlete. This is a time that you really begin to compartmentalize your focus, detach from other roles, responsibilities, or outside distractions (leave those things in your bag, room, or home)
- Familiarize yourself with the competition environment
- Check-in and control your arousal levels
- Try practicing relaxation strategies such as breathing and add them to your routine
This is just a short list of effective mental strategies to add into your training and pre-race to prepare you to perform to maximize your potential for a successful race day. If you have more questions or want to learn more, send us a message and we can chat!
Seth Rose is a Certified Mental Performance Consultant and founder of Transition Performance. He is a USAT Level 1 coach and is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in Sport Psychology. He enjoys training and racing triathlon and spending time with his Wife and two dogs. For more information on Seth Rose and his services, visit www.transitionperformance.org.
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.
Routines, rituals, and performing under pressure. (2008) McCaan S., US Olympic Team Coaching Newsletter.
Thelwell, R. C., & Greenlees, I. A. (2003). Developing competitive endurance performance using mental skills training. Sport Psychologist, 17(3), 318-337.