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The Mental Aspects of Multisport Racing

By Dr. Steve Jonas | March 01, 2018, 3:07 p.m. (ET)


Talking Tri-/Duathlon for Ordinary Mortals®: A Series, (No. 50, 2018/02)

In this column, we are dealing with some further dimensions of the mental aspects of multisport racing (Part 1 having appeared in this space last month).

Let’s first talk about the value of what we can call “mind-work,” in both training and racing. (Of course, the most important aspect of mind-work in multisport racing is “knowing why you are in the sport,” which I discussed in last month’s column.) One aspect of mind-work is “knowing your body.” For example, it can be knowing that the physical pain you are feeling on a ride on in a race is indeed not due to an injury. Rather it is knowing that the pain is from muscle-use, knowing that when you finish, or perhaps even when you go on to the next race-segment, in a few minutes it will go away. And it is being able to act on that knowledge and keep going.

Several times in long and ultra-distance events on the bike segment I have experienced a great deal of knee pain. I was able to deal with it because I was pretty sure that it was just from exertion. I was almost certain that it would go away on the run, when I would be using different muscles. And indeed, it did. So it's OK. The pain doesn't worry you. It doesn't cause apprehension of a future negative event. It just hurts, that's all. You go with it, and put up with the pain, because you know what finishing means and you have the mental power to do that.

Also in terms of mind-power, success in tri/duathlon depends upon your ability to keep your wits about you during both training and racing. To stay alert, and out of harm's way from traffic, natural hazards, and other racers, even when you are tired, you need to be able to think clearly. To remember to drink and eat at the required frequencies, you need to be able to do that too. In hot weather, drinking fluids on a regular basis before you get thirsty is, of course, vital. (It is often said that if you wait until you get thirsty, it's too late.) That requires mental discipline too, not to pass up a water stop when you are going well, feeling good, and not feeling thirsty, remembering to take on water anyway.

You also need to use your mind to hold yourself back from going too fast at the beginning of a race-segment, or, let us say, powering all the way through the bike leg because you are a good biker, you are feeling good that day, and you get caught up in some person-on-person competition at a given level. How many times have you heard someone say: "If only I held back a bit on the bike. I just had nothing left for the run." Mental discipline is what you need to control that urge.

The power of the mind in multisport is nowhere more evident than it is in training. Day after day, week after week. Sticking to that schedule. Knowing what you need to do to achieve the results you want. Being able to go out when you awaken feeling very sleepy, as well as when you awaken full of vim and vigor. Or being able to go to the pool at the end of a particularly hard day's work to put in the yards or the minutes you need on the swim. As I have said many times since I first started writing about triathlon back in the 1980s: “The hard part of regular exercise is the regular, not the exercise.”

The power of the mind is also evident in the mental discipline that you need not to overtrain. Of knowing when enough is enough, to achieve the results that you want. Of being aware that overdoing it at times can be more harmful than underdoing it, in terms of potential long-term damage to your body and thus your racing career. And even when training is going well, and so is your racing season, you need mental discipline to say to yourself, as you should from time to time, "let's take it easy this week, or let's even take the week off. I know that my conditioning won't disappear overnight (and it won't), and my muscles sure could use some rest."

 Then too, in the races the power of the mind comes in knowing when to stop, when to take a Did Not Finish, if you have to. Of being able to recognize that it's just too hot, or the head-wind is just too much on the bike, or that you really didn't take enough long rides to prepare properly for this long race, or that you just don't have enough time left in the race to make the time limit, or that you just simply don't have it that day. (I have experienced all of the above, more than once in my 35 years on the courses.) Just in terms of your health, you must be able to stop before you get heatstroke, or hypothermia, or a serious musculoskeletal injury. Remember, in the scorecard of life, no one was ever declared a failure for not finishing a particular race on a particular day. And remember too, there's always another race.

This column is based in part on one that I wrote back in 1992 for my 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.