Mental Preparation – Get Your Head Right

We spend hours in training putting in the k’s in the pool and out on the road, but just as important is preparing mentally for the big day, and the longer the distance you are competing in the more important this becomes.

Jason Gootman and Will Kirousis have some mental tips that will help you in your next race

“Man, that race was all mental.” This is a common utterance after a triathlon, especially an Ironman. It takes a lot of mental ability to race well in one of the world’s toughest sports. Thoughts alone will not get you across that finish line and will never make up for well-developed physical abilities, but because of the strong mind-body connection, thinking well allows you to make the most of your physical abilities.

You’re putting in all kinds of miles, doing all kinds of hard workouts, so put that same dedication into getting your head in the right place to race your best.

You are calm when you have a quiet mind. This is the most fundamental mental ability and opens you up for all of the others. As our world gets busier and busier, this is becoming more and more difficult to foster. Developing calmness requires that you learn to allow your mind to stop. Calmness is very important in an Ironman because of all that’s going on around you (e.g., chaotic mass-start swims, hectic transition areas, screaming crowds on the bike course). When you are calm, you are free to take in energy from these situations without getting thrown off your game. When you are not calm, you can lose your nerve. Maybe you get angry in the swim and tense up, wasting valuable energy early in a long race. Maybe you get too excited by the crowds coming out of T1 and convince yourself you can ride two miles per hour faster than you really know you can, writing a check that you won’t be able to cash a few hours later. Maybe you lose your wits in the transition area and forget to take your sunglasses, your hat, or some other important item with you. Staying calm in chaotic environments will allow you to execute your race to the best of your ability.

Calmness Exercise
Do this exercise a quiet place where you are free from distractions. Do this before bed or anytime during the day as a nice break from work. The more you practice this, the calmer you will become.

1. Lay on your back in a comfortable position.
2. Repeat a series of 10 full breaths. Inhale through your nose. As you do, feel your abdomen rise. Breathe in fully. As you inhale, say to yourself “breathe in” to focus on your breathing. Hold your breath for a four-count, saying to yourself “1…2…3…1” (the last “1” being for your first breath). Now exhale through your mouth. As you do, feel the mental tension leaving your mind and the physical tension leaving your body. As you exhale, say to yourself “let go” to focus on the release of tension. Repeat for 10 breaths, trying to increase your sense of calmness with successive breaths.
3. Practice this often, trying to become calmer and calmer. Bring these feelings of calmness with you into your race.

You are intuitive when you can readily tap into, trust, and act upon your instincts. Should I speed up my pace? Slow down? Do I need to make adjustments to my race nutrition? How fast can I handle this corner? These are some of the many questions that will come to you during an Ironman. In many cases, your intuition will supply the best answer. There is a time for reasoned, analytical thought. Interpreting how you are holding up at a certain pace, or sensing how fast to handle a sharp corner or descent in the heat of a race, are not two of them. Drawing on your intuition allows you to make in-the-moment decisions that will greatly impact your race. Over-analyzing, on the other hand, can spoil your day.

Intuitiveness Exercise
Do this exercise all the time. Incorporate it into your life.

Listen to your own statements to others or your own internal self-talk, listen for the word “but.” For example, in the early goings of the bike leg at a training race before your Ironman you might say to yourself, “I should slow down here, but if I can hang onto this pace, I will have the best race of my life.” Or “This gel really seems to be bothering my stomach, but I know Jill swears by it.” In these cases, your intuition is talking to you. It is telling you exactly what to do, right up to the part where you say “but.” After the “but”, your analytical mind takes over and convinces you that your own intuition doesn’t know what it is talking about. What you are to do is to practicing ignoring everything after the “but.” When you feel you should act in a certain way, do it, ignoring everything that comes after the “but” that will often follow. Use this in training and racing and in all of your life. The more often you can go with your instincts, the more you will develop your sense of intuitiveness. You will get louder messages from your intuition, you will trust them more, and you will act on them with less hesitation. Practice this often and bring a strong sense of intuitiveness to your race.

You are positive when you are focused on the good things that are going on around you and when you are optimistic about your future. You expect good things to come your way. Being positive lightens your load significantly. Good and bad things will happen to you in your life, in your days, and in your races. Taking everything in stride, focusing on the good and on the opportunities, makes it all a bit easier. In an Ironman, things do go wrong: flat tires, upset gastrointestinal tracts, bad weather, to name a few. You can dwell on these difficulties or you can keep your mind focused on what is going well and what you can do to keep it going well. Being positive has a direct impact on your body. Along with these other mental abilities, being positive releases physical tension allowing you to move more economically.

Positivity Exercise
This is another exercise you can do anytime you want to. You can do it at work, in most workouts or in your personal life.

1. Take 10 pennies (or similar small objects) and place five of them in your right pocket and five of them in your left pocket (or similar place).
2. Now as you go about your day, workout, activity, etc., pay attention to your positive and negative thoughts. Every time you have a negative thought, transfer a penny from your right pocket to your left pocket. Every time you have a positive thought, transfer a penny from your left pocket to your right pocket.
3. At the end of the day/workout/activity, see where you stand. Your goal is to end up with all of the pennies in your right pocket as you learn to think more positively.
4. Practice this often and work to bring positivity to your race.

You are courageous when you feel fear and you act anyway to do something that is important to you. You feel the fear and you do it anyway! The kind of fear you experience in sport is really “doubt” or “insecurity.” It is rarely truly fear, fear that you are unsafe. Fear in sport is usually fear of failure, fear of success, or most often, an odd combination of both. This kind of performance fear will always show up when you are trying to do something very important to you and something that is very challenging to you. The more you want it and the more challenging it is, the more your fear meter will turn on. One big mistake athletes make are trying to resist the fear or trying to push it away. Remember the “No Fear” ad campaigns? Being fearless is portrayed as being tough. Nothing could be further from the truth. No athletes, not even the greatest champions, are fearless; they are simply comfortable with fear. In fact, the better the athlete, usually the better they are at being comfortable with their fears. As we said, fear is a natural response to doing something important and challenging. Tri-Hard Sports Psychology Advisor Dr. Alan Goldberg, PhD, refers to this kind of fear as the “doorman to success.” That’s right, it shows you the way to success because when you feel its presence you know you are on the verge of breaking through to a new performance level that you want badly. Learning to be courageous, to be comfortable with your fears, will help you immensely in the daunting race that is the Ironman!

Courageousness Exercise
To do this exercise, you need about 10 minutes of free time, a quiet space free of distractions, a sheet of paper, and something to write with.

1. On the top of your sheet of paper write “10 Scary Things I’ve Done.”
2. Now simply reflect on your life and brainstorm 10 things you have done in your life that before you did them seemed really scary. They can be things you’ve done as a triathlete, like learning to swim, doing your first half Ironman, etc. They can be completely unrelated things like going off to college, moving to a new location, going for a promotion, becoming a parent, etc.
3. After you have made your list of 10 scary things you’ve done, reflect on each one. Recall the fear you felt. Recall how the fear felt physically. Recall the uncertainty. Then recall how you took one step at a time and did it anyway. Recall how you survived just fine and how it was not as scary as you thought it would be. Finally, recall how good it felt to do this thing which scared you.
4. To finish up, write on the bottom of your sheet of paper: “Doing scary things leads me to accomplishments that I really want to achieve.” Finally, say it out load to yourself five times with full conviction. Carry this feeling with you into your race.

You are egoless as an athlete when you are viewing your performance results as merely a part of your process as an athlete. Your ego is running the show when you think of yourself solely as the reflection of your performance results and how you compare to others. Strong egos are the downfall of many Ironman racers. Your ego can absolutely ruin your day out there. The Ironman is so long, so hard, so unforgiving, that you need to stay within yourself and race your race. But for the ego-plagued triathlete, all it takes is another racer in their age group zooming by them on the bike to make them scrap their personal race plan altogether. In addition, being obsessively focused on the outcome and comparing yourself to others does not allow you to fully focus on what is the biggest factor in your performance: what you are doing right in that moment. Being truly egoless allows you to fully take on the ideal performance mindset:

1. Focus on you.
2. Focus on you right now.
3. Focus on you right now doing well (being positive) and having fun.

If you are focused on what someone in your age group is doing, you cannot be fully focused on your pedaling stroke, on your breathing, on executing your race-nutrition plan — the very things that directly impact your performance. Keep your ego at bay and you can focus your mind on racing well!

Egolessness Exercise
To do this exercise, you need about 10 minutes of free time, a quiet space free of distractions, a sheet of paper and something to write with.

1. On the top of your sheet of paper write “Five Reasons I Love Triathlon”.
2. Now simply reflect brainstorm five reasons you love triathlon. They can be anything. What do you most enjoy about being a triathlete and racing triathlons? There’s one catch: None of your reasons can be about achievements or comparing yourself to others. They all must be egoless reasons why you enjoy triathlon.
3. After you’ve made your list, read it a few times to become more aware of your reasons. In the coming weeks, anytime you feel your ego taking over your thoughts, don’t try to push it away. Simply remind yourself all of the other great reasons that you love triathlon.
4. Practice this often and you will develop a well-rounded, more egoless approach to your sport. Carry these feelings with you into your race.

Stay calm out there, trust your intuition, be positive, courageous, and egoless and you’ll head in the right direction to a strong performance!

To learn more about Jason Gootman, Will Kirousis, and their coaching company Tri-Hard, or to contact them:


Articles on training-related topics represent the personal opinions of the author based on their own experience and research. provides these for your review and consideration, but does not endorse any particular recommendations of the authors.

Karl Hayes

Karl is a keen age group triathlete who races more than he trains. Good life balance! Karl works in the media industry in Australia and is passionate about the sport of triathlon.