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Getting your mind right for race season

By Mitchell Greene | March 29, 2022, 2:37 p.m. (ET)

Just a half-hour before an IRONMAN 70.3 race, a triathlete approached me with an important question. “Should I pull out of the event?” she asked. I expected the athlete to tell me she was nervous, and I would reassure her that everything was going to be OK. Not even close. Her oncologist had advised her not to race because she was still recovering from a round of chemotherapy. When I reaffirmed what she already knew — that we should follow her doctor’s advice — she welled up with tears, and so did I. Together, we walked back to transition, and she decided to stick around and volunteer in support of her fellow triathletes.

As difficult a moment as that was, the correct course of action was clear. However, the decision whether to forge ahead or wait is rarely that clear. COVID-19 has made these decisions even harder because disruptions to our family life, health status, job stability and training have been massive. Many of us have waited nearly two years to race again. But it’s prudent to ask whether racing fits into your life right now or are you forcing it simply because it’s back? One way to assess that is to determine whether thinking about racing makes you feel more nervous-excited or flat and indifferent. As one triathlete said to me as she pondered whether to race, “When I think about training it just makes me think I will have even more stuff to worry about.” She decided to wait.

If you’ve done the work but still can’t visualize race success, even on the smallest scale (for example, getting to the second kayak in the swim and holding on to her board and then continuing), I suggest that you hold off on racing. Perhaps the expression “seeing is believing” is a statement worth taking seriously.   

Of course, being nervous, having imperfect training sessions and being unsure whether you will finish fast or finish at all are normal race day fears. But the key question to ask yourself is whether you have go-to mental and physical strategies to manage the adversity that will inevitably show up. For example, are you willing to slow down, ask for help and can you be safe and keep others safe? If you can envision your game plan, then I suggest giving yourself the green light.  

On the other hand, race directors like Stephen Del Monte of DelMoSports will assure you that nobody should use race day to re-acquaint themselves with open water swimming or cycling in a group. It’s hard to argue with that advice. It’s also understandable that many haven’t been able to swim in open water or ride with a group since the pandemic intensified in early 2020. 

Finally, consider asking your support team (friends, significant other, coach, training partners) if they think you are ready to race. They may be able to impartially assess your level of preparedness, stress, well-being and attitude. 

At the end of the day, you have to do what’s right for you. If you lean toward pushing the race to later in the season or next season (or picking a shorter distance), then give yourself permission to do just that. The races will be there when you are ready.

Most importantly, stay active and connected to your training group and your routines. And hold on to the thought that 2022 will be your comeback year.  

Mitchell Greene

 Mitchell Greene, Ph.D is a leading licensed clinical and sport psychologist.