In order to be an elite triathlete you must be able to swim, bike and run. This is a given, just as a good arm is a given to a professional quarterback in football. Other areas such as nutrition and recovery are also very important but the ultimate weapon is the mind. As a member of the US National Team for Paratriathlon, I race all over the world, racing against the best athletes in my class. When you get to the small group at the top, the separation of physical abilities gets very small but the separation among mental preparation is much larger.
I have been fortunate to work with sports psychologist Sarah Mitchell from the USOC to learn something that I like to say is the ultimate weapon, “mindfulness.” Mindfulness is not the ability to ignore anything negative, as this is not realistic and will often just lead to increased negativity or feelings of being a failure. Mindfulness is the ability to take in all the thoughts and stimuli from your surroundings and acknowledge that they are there, but decide to attend or not attend to them. It also includes the ability to direct our attention to thoughts that will positively impact our performance.
Another key part to learning mindfulness is the ability to become one with your breathing - to learn how it should feel to properly breathe and the ability to control the depth and frequency. When our breathing is relaxed and controlled our muscles work better and we are typically able to stay more focused on our goal. When negative thoughts or something unexpected happens there is a tendency for anxiety and therefore an increase in breathing and tightening of muscles. This can lead to a cascade effect if we have not learned the secret weapon that “mindfulness” offers.
When you have learned the art of being “mindful,” you will go into races knowing you will have negative thoughts and unexpected things will happen that are out of your control. You will also know that when these events happen you will be able to acknowledge these thoughts as present but redirect your mind to your breathing and then onto a more productive thought such as cues for good running form or engaging your core to increase power on the bike.
Recently, at the Paratriathlon World Championships, I had one of my better races of my career. I don’t say this because I was the fittest I have ever been because I was definitely not. I was coming off a year of injury and rehab from surgery and this was just my second race back. It was one of the best races mentally that I have ever had.
In the swim, my plan was to jump on the phenom British swimmer's feet and hold on as long as I could and I did so for the first 200m of 750m. As he pulled away from me after 200m I could have freaked out and allowed the thoughts going through my head to cause a mini anxiety attack, leading to increased breathing. Instead, I was mindful of what was happening and then redirected my focus directly back to being as long in the water as possible and grabbing the water and throwing it behind me. As a result, I came out of the water in 9:50 which is faster than I have swam the 750m in years.
On the bike, I knew that guide Ben Collins and I could sweep through most of the field and make up tons of time on everyone. We were doing just that but after lap one of four on the bike our DI2 electrical shifting totally failed and we were stuck in one gear the remainder of the bike. Luckily it was a flat course but this definitely hurt us on the six U-turns that still remained on the course. Once again when this happened I recognized what had happened but didn’t freak out. I relaxed my breath and redirected my focus back on what I could control and that was creating as much power through the pedals as possible.
We came off the bike in the lead by over 30 seconds on the British and Spanish athlete. I knew that the young kid from Great Britain was a great runner and would be trying to hunt me down but I didn’t focus on that but rather keeping my posture tall and turn over quick. Just over halfway through the run, the Brit and Spaniard came up behind. As the Brit surged and went by meI went with him because even though I knew I probably wasn’t going to be able to hang with him at that point, I sure wasn’t going to give any confidence to the Spaniard. As the British team passed, I remained calm in my mind and in my breathing. This allowed me to refocus quickly back to my form. In the end I was only 20sec out of first, and finished in second, in only my second race back from being injured, having a child and getting our first house.
In all three areas; swim, bike and run I used the power of “mindfulness” to take in what was going on around me and then redirect my mind first to my breathing and then onto something that was under my control and that would positively impact my performance. The ability to be “mindful” is the ultimate weapon and this is typically what separates those fighting to be in the top ten from those fighting to be on the podium.