The person you talk to the most is not your significant other, not your son or daughter, not your best friend or even your dog — it’s yourself. This self-talk is fueled by your thoughts which then creates your attitude, and your attitude then influences your actions.
Self-Talk, Attitude, Actions.
This is a never-ending cycle that determines how you view the world and the events around you. This self-talk reveals one’s self-trust. Self-trust is belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations, also known as self-confidence and self-efficacy. Self-trust is the secret ingredient that can make or break one’s performance in a variety of situations, including triathlon.
A high level of self-trust is a requirement for success in triathlon. During the conversation one has in their head during training and racing, a belief in one’s self and performance is a necessity. Self-trust can be built, maintained and strengthened through consistent and intentional repetition, otherwise known as purposeful practice. Purposeful practice of self-trust consists of five steps:
1. Begin with the end in mind.
What do you want? To become? To do? Your future first begins as a narrative that your brain tells you. What are you telling yourself? I personally use and advise my athletes to use the goals-targets-outcomes framework. Goals represent items that are completely under your control (I’m going to follow my fueling plan during my IRONMAN). Targets are items that you have a little bit less control over but are directly related to your training and therefore can be predicted very closely (pace and time). Outcomes are items that you have the least control over and are actually an outcome of your goals and targets (qualification and pace).
2. Clarify and define the required process to achieve your previously stated goals.
This could be creating a clearly defined annual training plan that is built around your goals-targets-outcomes. The more clarity with the plan, the more likely they will be achieved. The key being to make the plan unambiguous and right on the edge of your current skills and desired skills — pushing the edge of your current capabilities.
3. Do the required work that your desired outcome requires.
Quite simply, follow your annual training plan and complete your planned workouts. The not-so-popular secret to success: work as hard as you can for as long as it takes. Every desired outcome in your life has a required response. The bigger the desired outcome, the more difficult and longer it will take to give the required response.
4. Let your success in preparation fuel your self-trust during the race.
Consistently and repeatedly training to the very best of your ability creates and fuels a courageous mindset. This is called acquired self-confidence. During the race, do what you have repeatedly done — revert back to your training and habits. Don’t prove how good you are, be how good you are.
5. Learn from the race and apply this knowledge for the future.
The race outcome is feedback on your preparation. If you do not perform how you wanted to, that is the feedback that your preparation was not sufficient. Take this information and begin again more intelligently.
The best way to acquire self-confidence is to do exactly what you are afraid to do. Sometimes you act because you are confident. Your confidence fuels your actions. And sometimes you take action and then build your confidence because you have acted. Confidence is built by action. Both of these require action, you taking the first step to begin the process. Taking action leads to more actions. Opportunities multiply as they are chased.
When your brain senses pain, it says to itself, “Bad. Make it stop.” When you are doing high-intensity workouts, your brain says, “Pain. Bad. Make it stop.” But you do hard workouts for a reason—they really, really work to make you fitter, stronger and faster.
One easy way to increase the benefit of your high-intensity workouts is to bring your brain along with you. When your brain understands the purpose of these workouts, the benefits of the workouts and what these workouts look like, this brain of yours will help you and stop trying to get you to stop.
Here’s how to do it.
1. **State the purpose of your workout.** If it’s a high-intensity workout intending to raise your upper limit (VO2max), state that. If it’s a recovery workout, say that.
2. **State the benefit of this workout to you.** A high-intensity workout brings you benefit by raising your lactate threshold, improving your VO2max, even recruiting mitochondria, the powerhouses of your cells. A recovery workout helps by mobilizing and clearing metabolic products from previous workouts and preparing you for future workouts.
3. **Rehearse your perfect workout.** Make a movie in your mind’s eye, seeing yourself over there, watching a movie of yourself doing your workout. This “seeing yourself over there” is called a dissociated perspective. The key is the perfect movie, just as you want and intend your workout to go. If you hit any snags, stop the movie, back it up, make it perfect, then run it to the end. You are the director of this movie—direct it to be just as you wish it to go.
4. **Rehearse your workout again**, this time seen through your own eyes and feeling it in your own skin (this is called an associated perspective). Once again, make the movie go perfectly, just as you wish it would go.
5. **Make one more perfect movie, in fast motion.** The entire movie should take only five seconds.
How does this work?
First, your brain is really good at seeing patterns. It looks for patterns, just as a good golden retriever looks for what you toss at it to retrieve it. So, when you explain to your brain the purpose and benefits of the workout, your brain looks for those things.
Second, there is an area of your brain that stores memories of events that haven’t happened yet (this area is called Brodmann’s Area). You can install a future memory in this area of your brain of exactly what you want to happen in your workout, and that future memory is what your brain is looking for. Therefore, it isn’t surprised by the discomfort of a hard workout, it sees it as desirable. Instead of objecting to the pain, it expects it.
That’s it. The whole five-step process, once you have practiced it two or three times, will take you less than one minute, maybe even half that. And it will recruit your brain to help you do your workout as prescribed, and once and for all eliminate all the negotiations and objections of your mind when you are doing your perfect workouts. Do this process before every single workout and before every race, and soon it will become as automatic as rinsing your swim goggles, buckling your bike helmet or lacing up your running shoes.
In just 50 minutes you’ll learn techniques for specific skills:
++Get Your Mind Right—planning for a great swim
++Breathe easy—key insights from physiology for comfort in the water
++The Warm up—how to have a great start and finish
++Wee (and not so wee) Besties—what is in that water anyway, and how to regard the marine life
++Feet and Elbows—overcoming getting touched by other swimmers
Don’t just endure the swim—learn to love it.
Presenter Will Murray is our Team’s mental skills coach, a USA Triathlon certified coach, and co-author of The Four Pillars of Triathlon: Vital Mental Skills for Endurance Athletes.
Triathletes invest in their sport time, effort, emotion, and funds. You invest in running and cycling shoes, a bike, swim goggles and a wetsuit for starters. Then you may shell out for a Garmin device, a lactic threshold test and a blood test to check for micronutrients and balanced physiology.
Some athletes believe that their absolutely most important investment is in a smart, competent, experienced and supportive coach, who writes your training plan, provides race advice, works through your emerging issues, keeps you injury-free and has your back.
Sometimes, as an athlete, you might have doubts whether if it’s worth all this investment. Or, more truly, have doubts that you are worth the investment. This doubt can be temporary. You have one disappointing track session, but the next day your tempo run goes fine, and the doubt shrinks in the rearview mirror. But sometimes these doubts are more deep and stubborn.
Masters swimming: “Oh, I don’t swim well enough to take up lane space from the real swimmers.” Group runs: “Oh, they don’t want somebody like me slowing things down.” Group rides: “What if I get dropped?” A coach: “A coach, for me? I’m nobody. I’m not the kind of person who deserves a coach. I’m not good enough.”
If any of these prickly little phrases sounds familiar, don’t fret. There are answers.
The technique below requires work. You actually must do the steps, as though you were with your coach and she is expecting you to carry out the instructions. When you are doing a swim workout, you actually must swim and not just read about swimming—you follow the coach’s direction. To get ready to do the next steps, round up a pencil and paper (not optional). Take your time. I’ll wait until you are ready. Now? Okay, let’s go.
Step 1. Articulate your goals and reasons for doing triathlon.
You may be striving for a healthy lifestyle and general fitness. If you have aspirations beyond this, such as finishing a longer distance race, achieving a personal record or qualifying for a championship race, having a clear, written goal statement is indispensable. You already know the trick—write your goal statement (e.g. qualify for USA Triathlon Age Group Nationals) on a piece of paper and stick it to your refrigerator or your bathroom mirror.
Step 2. Ask yourself, in the privacy of your own mind, “Am I worthy enough to pursue that goal?”
Notice carefully any response you get. If no response, wait a few moments, then ask, quietly, the question again.
Step 3. Notice whose voice is answering the question.
Carefully listen, not so much to the answer, but to the voice providing the response. Is it your voice? Or someone else’s voice? Or a blend, a small chorus of different voices? Notice carefully who does this sound like? When you have a clear sense of who is answering your question go to the next step.
Step 4a. If the voice is someone else’s ask, “What is your positive intention for me?”
Wait for a response. If the response makes sense to you, great. If not, ask, “What is important about that?” Wait for an answer. Keep asking this same question, “What is important about that?” until you get an answer that makes sense to you. Thank the voice each time you get a response. Go to Step 6.
Step 4b. If the responding voice is your voice ask “What is your positive intention for me?”
Wait for a response. If the response makes sense to you, great. If not, ask, “What is important about that?” Wait for an answer. Keep asking this same question, “What is important about that?” until you get an answer that makes sense to you. Thank the voice each time you get a response.
Step 5. Ask the responding voice, “How old are you?” and notice the response.
If the responding voice is younger than your present chronological age, ask this (exactly as stated here): “Without giving anything up, and while keeping everything you have, would you like to gain all the experience and wisdom available to you to advance to [your current age] or beyond?” If the response is positive, allow the part to grow up to your current age and ask it to tell you when it is done.
Step 6. Imagine your next big event.
This could be a key workout session, a race, or even that masters swim that you have been putting off. See yourself, over there, performing exactly as you wish you would. Start a color movie at the beginning and run it to the end of this event. Make this image run perfectly, as you are the director and you can have the image run exactly to your desires.
If the image runs well, run it again in fast motion so that it takes five or ten seconds total.
Step 7. Return to the responding voice in Step 4 and ask, “Do you have any objection to having the image run that way?”
If there are no objections, your work is finished. If you receive objections, repeat Step 4.
The way you make progress toward your goals is to stretch and pursue improvements. The way you pursue is to recognize the worth in the pursuit, and the worth in you. The way you do that is to act as if you are worth it, that you truly do deserve it, and then go do what a deserving person would do.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Who am I not?’” Marianne Williamson
As a coach, I certainly don’t want my athletes to fail at their A priority race, but I do want them to fail in other races. While that may sound counter-productive, failure is where you learn the most. So when I talk about failure, I don’t mean it in the traditional sense, I mean it as a way to see what you are truly capable of.
I’ll use my own racing experience as an example. I was not particularly strong in any one discipline, rather, it was my calculated approach to racing that helped me reach the top 10 in my age group in Kona. I never hammered the bike, or took off on the early portion of the run and ended up blowing up and having to walk. I always had the finish line in mind and metered my effort accordingly. I liked to think that I was racing smart, and I was.
However, while pacing was my strong suit, it was also my weakness because it never allowed me to fully explore how fast I could go. To me, blowing up was a failure, and I wasn’t willing to risk failing in my own sense. In hindsight, I should have chosen some B priority races to find out where the edge of my fitness was and pushed the bike to the limit, or gone out of T2 like a rocket. I never did and if there is any regret in my career, it’s that I didn’t take that risk.
So, look at your own racing to identify what is holding you back. It may not be your fitness, it may be your own pacing strategy, your inattention to nutrition, your lack of mental toughness or something else. For example, many athletes I have coached have told me, “I have to push the bike because I’m not a runner.” My response has always been, “Have you ever held back on the bike and given yourself a chance to run well?”
This is a perfect example of how you can take a risk during a B priority race to see how you can reach your optimum performance. I have athletes choose a B priority event of the same distance as their A priority race and pace the bike a little more conservatively than normal. This allows them to potentially nail the run, which then opens their minds to other strategies of reaching their peak performance.
For some, it can be hard to get past the idea of not using their strength during a race. But it is by addressing your perceived weakness that you find your true limits. After following my advice about holding back on the bike, many athletes have said, “I never knew I could run that well.” This gives them new confidence and a whole new card to play during their A priority race.
Open water swimming and the emotions swirling around it get plenty of attention these days. Many triathletes describe the “panic attacks” as feelings they experience in open water and not in their pool swims.
Maybe their attacks are not panic at all. Make no mistake, these sensations are awful and real. But they may have a physical origin. And, fortunately, there are simple, effective and fast techniques to quell open water swim issues and make swimming one of the most comfortable parts of triathlon.
First, let’s describe the feelings of discomfort that some triathletes call an attack. Then let’s look at the physiological causes of this feeling. Finally, let us practice a couple of specific, fast and easy techniques for relieving those sensations once and for all.
Maybe it’s not a panic attack.
Triathletes often describe the sensations that they interpret as an attack: shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, dizziness, light-headedness and strong self-talk. Symptoms of a panic attack, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), sound similar:
Difficulty breathing, feeling as though you ‘can’t get enough air’
Terror that is almost paralyzing
Dizziness, lightheadedness or nausea
Trembling, sweating, shaking
Choking, chest pains
Hot flashes or sudden chills
Tingling in fingers or toes (pins and needles)
Fear that you’re going to go crazy or are about to die
However, there are some important differences. Again, according to the APA: “A panic attack is a sudden surge of overwhelming fear that comes without warning and without any obvious reason.”
The main difference here is “without any obvious reason.” In the case of open water swimming, there could be some very obvious reasons.
For starters, let’s see if perhaps there aren’t physiological rather than psychological causes.
Get off my neck.
One way to induce the symptoms some swimmers feel is a tight collar. On either side of your neck you have a carotid artery. Inside the carotid artery below your jawline is the carotid body, a small area that includes pressure sensors. Pressure on the carotid body increases blood pressure, which then signals your heart to slow down. Your carotid body sends this signal to your heart via the vagus nerve, which will become even more important later in the story.
This carotid sinus reflex is sufficiently dependable that doctors sometimes use mild pressure on the carotid sinus to reduce heart rate in patients whose hearts are beating too fast. According to Selvin and Howland (1961), males older than 50 years and with high blood pressure can be disproportionally susceptible to carotid sinus reflex.
The location of carotid body, high up on your neck under your jaw, is well out of the way of most collars on wetsuits specifically designed for swimming. However, neoprene swim caps with a chin strap may get close to this area of your neck.
One of the easiest things to do to avoid all those icky feelings: make sure that nothing much is pressing on your neck.
Before you don your wetsuit, try putting a plastic grocery bag on your foot, then slip into the leg of your suit and when your suit is all the way on your leg and your foot protrudes, pull off the bag. Repeat with the other leg and both hands. The slippery plastic bag helps your limbs slide into your suit effortlessly and completely, to get your legs and arms well into the suit. Make sure you create a little gather of neoprene at the front of your shoulder to avoid having any tension on your collar. Once you are in your suit, pull the collar away from your throat.
It’s in your face.
A second physiological phenomenon that can cause similar symptoms is a result of you being a mammal. Maybe you have seen stories of children who fall through the ice and get rescued many minutes afterward being submerged, only to recover fully. All mammals have this natural ability, called the mammalian diving reflex (DR), to respond to submersion.
It works like this:
When you put your face in cold water and hold your breath, the trigeminal nerve in your face sends a signal to your vagus nerve (there’s the vagus again) to slow down your heartbeat. Your body also shunts blood flow from your extremities to your internal core and brain.
You could imagine this conversation:
“Hey, wait wait wait wait! I feel cold water and pressure on my face and I’ve stopped breathing!”
“What do you think this means?”
“What, are you dense? We are drowning!”
“What should we do?”
“OK, well first let’s slow down the heart rate and ship more blood to the brain, so we can keep that going at least and conserve as much as we can until we surface.” “Hey, good idea.”
This mammalian diving reflex is just fine for keeping you from dying too fast underwater, but it really feels inconvenient when you are trying to swim. You slip into the water, and it’s cold. For the purposes of your trigeminal nerve, anything in the 70s and below (F) qualifies as cold. As you start to swim, your mammalian diving reflex kicks in, your vagus nerve reduces your heart rate and your blood departs your extremities.
But also when you start your swim, another part of your system wants to elevate your heart rate and flush your swimming muscles with blood.
When you jump into cold water and swim away, if you feel as though you have a war going on in your chest, you are not far off. According to Rennie (2012) “A disadvantageous consequence, however, is that the muscles in the limbs must then rely more on anaerobic energy metabolism to keep working, so they build up lactic acid and tire more rapidly than they would from comparable exercise at the surface.” Maybe this feels true to you. And according to Panneton (2013),“The DR is the most powerful autonomic reflex known.” He goes on to say, in laboratory experiments, “100 percent of rats get it 100 percent of the time.”
You are dealing with very strong forces here.
Fortunately again, there is an easy solution to the mammalian diving reflex war in your chest.
Recall your first swim lesson — blow bubbles.
Even before you start your swimming warm-up, you might consider doing your breathing warm-up. You do this by bobbing in the water. Yes, bobbing. As in, bobbing up and down. The easiest way to prevent that feeling is to warm up a little before you swim off.
Get in the water. Let the water trickle into your wetsuit. Float around for a few moments and feel the temperature of the water on your hands, feet, face and head. Adjust the collar of your wetsuit off your neck to make sure that your wetsuit is not pressing on your carotid arteries.
Bob. Take a breath. Put your face in the water and in a relaxed way exhale bubbles for 10 or 15 seconds. Lift your face into the air, take in a relaxed breath and then bob again. Repeat this for perhaps a minute or two.
Swim a little. Do some 25- or 50-meter easy swimming back and forth along the shoreline to get your muscles and your heart on the same page.
By gently bobbing for perhaps a whole entire minute before you start swimming, you settle down your trigeminal-vagus nerve cascade, get your inner mammalian diving reflex part to realize that indeed you are not drowning and you can just calm down. Then you can settle into your swim warm up and carry on.
Those two physiology issues, carotid sinus reflex and mammalian diving reflex, can explain a lot of that panicky feeling. Let’s get back to psychology for a moment.
One of the things about panic attacks: they can lead to altered behavior. Most important is to avoid developing panic attacks by attending to the physical causes and gaining the calmness in the water that makes open water swimming so rewarding.
APA. Panic attacks: the hallmark of panic disorder. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/topics/anxiety/panic-disorder.aspx
Panneton, W. Michael. (2013). The Mammalian Diving Response: an enigmatic reflex to preserve life? Physiology: 28(5) p. 284-297
Rennie, J. (2012). How the dive reflex extends breath-holding. Scientific American, March 22, 2012
Selvin, B and Howland, WS. M.D. (1961). New concepts of the physiology of the carotid sinus reflex. Journal of the American Medical Association. 1961;176(1):12-15. doi:10.1001/jama.1961.03040140014004.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Will Murray is a USA Triathlon Certified Coach and is the mental skills coach for D3 Multisport. He is co-author, with Craig Howie, of “The Four Pillars of Triathlon: Vital Mental Conditioning for Endurance Athletes.”