Becoming a Mindful Triathlete

By Will Kirousis, MS, CSCS, CISSN | Jan. 06, 2020, 12:20 p.m. (ET)

sitting in sunset

We're celebrating the third annual #DreamingSeason! A digital and social media-driven campaign that runs from Jan. 6-19, #DreamingSeason encourages both veteran and first-time triathletes alike to set their goals for 2020. Athletes are encouraged to comment on any USA Triathlon social media post related to #DreamingSeason on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, using the hashtag #DreamingSeason, for a chance to win special prizes from USA Triathlon partners, including : 2XU, Amp Human, BOCO Gear, Hand & Stone, HotelPlanner.com, KT Tape, Pilates for Sports, Playtri, Retul, ROKA, TrainingPeaks and Wahoo Fitness.

Training for triathlon can feel like an entirely physical thing. How long, how hard and how often do you train each discipline, and does that change at various points in the year? That’s it… right? Wrong! That’s certainly a big part of it – you need to do the physical work to be ready, that is certain. It’s easy though, to forget about arguably the biggest driver behind whatever performance your physical training has you ready to deliver on race day…your mind!

I’d like to present you with a simple approach/strategy to improve your mental performance, and a tool which can result in achieving your absolute best in training and racing. This strategy has helped athletes I have been fortunate to coach finish distances they didn’t think were possible; improve their performances; manage the challenges of work, family and training; and even win races from the age group to professional ranks. To be clear, it is not “my” strategy. It’s one that I’ve gradually worked towards and learned more about over the years. And, as with most things in training that work extremely well, it’s SIMPLE! What is that strategy?

Mindfulness!

The approach I’ve grown to use has been solidly influenced over the past several years by the work of Dr. Judson Brewer and meditation teacher Michelle McDonald. The key – it’s simple!

You learn a few basic steps, begin to use them throughout the day in general, then while training/racing and repeat. What are those steps?

1.) Acknowledge – no grading, no evaluation, just acknowledge – that you are thinking or feeling something.
2.) Get curious – is this good? Could I do something to change it? What may that be? If not, what’s the best move to get the most out of this situation?
3.) Try an idea out – give it time, see how things evolve, and repeat.
4.) Feel the joy of letting go of the challenging experience and moving forward.
5.) Repeat.

Simplified further, this process comes down to acknowledging what you are feeling/experiencing, curiously looking at options that improve the situation, trying an idea out, and repeating as needed. This process helps keep the experience real, but is also viewed through a lens of possibility. At its most basic, this approach keeps you focused on the question: what can I do now?

Note: NONE of these ideas are about you telling yourself things are easier or less challenging/daunting than they may be. They are simply about keeping your focus on what helps most – looking at what you can do, what tasks help most in that moment.

Let's consider how this could play out during a race. Perhaps things have been going well, but late in the bike, the clouds break and the sun turns a cool humid morning into a sauna. Heading out on the run, you feel like you are melting, its brutal, it’s so hot! Ok. Clearly you are feeling the heat – literally and figuratively – but that does not change your situation. It’s the same as prior to feeling the heat turn on.  You are racing. So, what options are at hand that can help you handle this situation? You could slow your pace a bit, make sure your fueling is emphasizing electrolyte rich fluids, grab ice at an aid station and hold it in your hands as you run, lightly chew and swallow some ice, or pour cold water on yourself.  Suddenly, there are several tasks which you could apply to help you continue to get the best out of yourself.

In the scenario I just described, you acknowledged that you felt hot, you didn’t give it a value, you simply recognized it was occurring. Then you became curious, and you sought out strategies to help you get the most out of the current situation. You then started to apply some of those strategies and enjoyed moving forward with these new ideas.

This simple approach – acknowledging what is being experienced, becoming curious about what you could do, trying it out and moving forward – is easy to remember and practice throughout life, when training, and in the midst of a big challenge, like racing a triathlon.  

I encourage each USAT member reading this article to try the mindfulness strategy laid out above. Really try it. Work it into your daily life, your work, your training, your racing.  See how it helps you look for possibilities and work through big challenges consistently.

You will walk away able to get the most out of yourself, and perform your best this year!

Will Kirousis has presented and written for national and international organizations on endurance training and has been coaching triathletes and other endurance athletes for over 20 years.  He’s been fortunate to help athletes achieve a range of goals, from finishing their first triathlon, to winning age group national and world championships as well as professional national championships.  You can learn more about Will at www.tri-hard.com or by following him on twitter @willkirousis.