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Some Thoughts on the Mental Aspects of Multisport Racing, Part 1

By Dr. Steve Jonas | Jan. 29, 2018, 4:57 p.m. (ET)


Talking Tri-/Duathlon for Ordinary Mortals®: A Series, (No. 49, 2018/01)

I think that it was the renowned American inventor Thomas Edison* who was supposed to have said: "Invention is 10 percent inspiration, 90 percent perspiration."

Taking "inspiration" to mean mental work, at the time back in 1992 when I wrote the original version of this column (see my note below at the end), I thought that the ratio in triathlon racing was almost the opposite of that one (even on a very hot day) — that is 90 percent mental work, 10 percent perspiration. I recall reading in an issue of Triathlete magazine back then in which one of the original “Fabulous Four,” Mark Allen, described winning the Hawaii IRONMAN as a "mental exercise in pain management." (The other members of the group were, of course, Dave Scott, Scott Molina, Scott Tinley. All four are members of the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame.)

Back then I noted that except for those folks at the front of the pack who are technical riders or fast swimmers, there is little physical or athletic skill involved in the primary triathlon sports: swimming, cycling and running. Left, right, left, right is the name of the game. And while we all perspire profusely on a hot day, it is not the perspiration per se that gets us through the race. It's our minds. Today, while I think that is still true for the most part, for the fast and even middle-of-the-pack folks, there is much more emphasis on technique, in all three sports than there was back then.

Now I must say that for myself, as a Golden Oldie (age 81), who, as I describe myself, one who started out slow 35 years ago and has been getting slower ever since, it’s never been much about technique. I needed a lot of discipline and indeed technique in both teaching and writing in my work as an academic. I also needed it in my other sport, downhill skiing, in which I eventually became good enough to become a certified ski instructor. There, of course, in order to teach proper technique, essential to good (and safe) skiing, I had to be able to do it myself. But for our sport it’s always been to do what I do in all three sports to a) get through the course and b) not get injured, having learned just enough technique in all three sports to do just that.

Nevertheless, what is it that enables triathletes to finish, especially in the long races (that is whatever is a long race for you, whether it be sprint-, Olympic-, long- or ultra-distance race)? Technique, for sure, to help you go as fast as you want to go, bearing in mind that you have to be able to finish the race. But primarily, in my view, it is mental discipline, dealing with both technique and speed. It is the ability to focus, to concentrate. As well as staying with your technique, it is the ability to keep your eye on the prize (which for most of us is finishing at or around our time objective). It is the ability, as Mark Allen put it, to put up with the pain, to manage it, even adjust your speed to it: "I can take the pain that speeding up will bring with it." Or, conversely, "It's OK, I can take a minute-a-mile less on the run; it's going to hurt a lot less and that makes slowing down a bit worth it."

But for me, much more important from the mental standpoint is knowing why you in the sport. Multisport racing over time is tough, more for the training than for the racing. So, to stay with it for any considerable period of time, you have to be doing it for yourself, for how you feel doing it, for how it makes you feel about yourself, for how it makes you look, to yourself, not to someone else. If it makes you feel good, and feel good about yourself, you are going to stay with it, as tough as it is, physically, mentally and time-wise, over the long haul. If not, then you will not stay with it. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Hardly. But to stay with it, you definitely have to know why, and what are the goods, for yourself, that you are getting from the sport.

Next month we shall deal with some more of the specifics of the mental aspects of the sport and the power of the mind in it.

*For those younger readers who might not be quite certain of the name Thomas Edison, he was the most important American inventor of the late 19th/early 20th century. [Today his work would be called "applied technology" or "industrial research."] He, and (later in his career) his team of fellow scientist/engineers, produced, among other things, the first electric light bulb, the first system for generating and distributing electricity, the microphone, the phonograph, and the first motion picture camera able to take pictures on a continuous roll of celluloid film. [For those of you who are too young to know what that is, ask your folks.])

This column is based in part on one that I wrote back in 1992 for my then regular column, “Triathlon for Everyman,” that appeared in the June issue of Triathlon Today! It was entitled "Some Mental Aspects of Triathloning."

This series of thoughts and recommendations about multisport racing by Dr. Steve Jonas is, over time, drawn in part from his book, “101 Ideas and Insights for Triathletes and Duathletes” (Monterey, CA: Healthy Learning/Coaches Choice, 2011), from which text is used with permission. The book can be purchased here and is available at and

Steve’s most recent multisport book is “Duathlon Training and Racing for Ordinary Mortals®: Getting Started and Staying with It” (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press/FalconGuides, 2012), available at and

His first book on multisport racing, “Triathloning for Ordinary Mortals®,” 2nd Ed. (New York: WW Norton, 2006) also can be found at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Dr. Jonas has also been featured in World Class Magazine. Click here to read the article.