Banish Triathlon Race Nerves Forever
Learn how the body responds to the pressure of a race and then develop an armoury of personalised tricks to deal with it.
Triathlete Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is a term we have coined to describe that ‘something else’ that allows you to perform at your best in a stressful race situation.
Heather Gollnick and Drizzy Justice explore what happens to our bodies under the pressure of a race and begin to understand what it takes to manage the variables that cause the pressure.
It is important to understand the brain’s role in all this. The body itself cannot do anything without commands from the brain. Your hand, for example, cannot decide on its own to wave at someone. Your brain has to decipher an experience and instruct the hand to respond. If you learn something, such as a new way to enter your arms into the water, the memory of that skill resides in your brain, not in any other part of your body. The brain sends all its instructions through the spinal cord, which is like a bundle of cables for that critical information to be sent to various parts of your body.
Your brain also takes its cues from the amygdala, a gland that secretes hormones. Microseconds within sensing a potential threat, it releases hormones that either partially or entirely disable your brain. This disabling of cognitive functions enables your body to respond quickly and instinctively to danger.
Although there are some universal physical dangers, such as someone pointing a gun at you, most emotional dangers have no standards. It is different for everyone and based entirely on our past experiences, often from childhood.
Learning how to manage the response of the amygdala is the key to optimising high-pressure sports performance.
Cognitive functions are disabled when triathletes get into situations that they perceive as danger, such as getting pushed at a mass swim start. The physiological response in the body after that push is virtually identical to that of someone pointing a gun at us. In other words, the amygdala does not make the distinction between the threat of a gun and the threat of the consequences of a bad swim start.
In triathlons the chances of something going wrong are high, which means that our bodies will be in this state at some point. And even if something does not go wrong, body fatigue, hydration and nutrition issues all force the amygdala to do its instinctive job. This leads to a ‘high alert state’ where the brain is operating in lockdown mode. This leads to the following consequences:
● Decreased cognitive performance
● Less oxygen available for critical brain functions
● You overgeneralise
● You respond with defensive action
● You perceive small stressors as worse than they actually are
● You’re easily aggravated
● You struggle to get along with others
● You cannot perform at your best
This state leads to negative monologues, in which we doubt our training, question our will and recall past negative situations unintentionally. At that point, access to our rational ability and skill memory has been disabled and we are in the instinctive fight-or-flight mode. No triathlete can perform his or her best at this stage. They are simply hijacked by their own bodies in the most natural and instinctive of ways.
The biggest challenge before a race is anxiety. To help combat this, draw two circles, an inner and an outer circle. Within the inner circle write down all the things that you have control over: gear, hydration, nutrition, pacing, electrolyte intake and heart rate to name a few. In the outer circle, list the circumstances beyond your control. These include the weather, other athletes, a flat tyre or various other random acts. Take the outer circle away from the inner circle and you have significantly narrowed down the potential for anxiety. Why worry about what you cannot control? This teaches the brain to redefine instinctive danger. For example, the weather is an instinctive danger. But because you have created a new neuropathway (or thinking process) for defining what you can control, the amygdala will still respond but not nearly as severely as before.
Make a plan
Make a list of the things that might go wrong in your race and then make a plan to deal with them. If something does go wrong during the race, be mentally armed with previous thoughts of affirmation. Evoking positive experiences to help dilute the negative ones is the best way to influence your amygdala. All triathletes should practise recalling their best swim, T1, bike, T2, and run, and an example of overcoming a negative situation successfully either in training or previous competition. You could even write these down on your arms or gear.
Learn to recover
Anxiety doesn’t let up simply because a race is over. The nature of racing often caters to a ‘Type A’ personality, where an ever-increasing workload and obligation to overachieve become common traits. This is entirely based on deeply established neuropathways that correlate to our past.
Not respecting recovery days is entirely an emotional response based on our perception of health and self-worth. For some, the idea of not working out leads to a feeling of low worth, which translates to ignoring recovery, over training or poor training. Understanding your specific emotional dangers is essential to your physical performance.
Take your temperature
Develop an imaginary tool called the Emotional Thermometer, which shows only three temperatures, similar to that of a traffic light. Green indicates that you are happy, stress-free, and can think clearly. Yellow indicates that you are a little stressed and anxious. In the heat of competition you can swallow lake or sea water, drop a water bottle, get a leg cramp or blister – the list of things that can take us from green to yellow goes on and on. Red is when you are out of control, filled with anger and rage, or disappointment and frustration.
Take your emotional temperature every 15 to 30 minutes in training and during a race, and have a specific positive memory or predetermined thought or action that can take you back to green. Be specific with what you need to do if your temperature reading is yellow – and it must be different to what you need to do if it’s red. You are guaranteed to be in all three states at some point during a race. Now that you understand what is happening to your body and brain, allow yourself access to your training memories so you can perform at your best.
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on Wednesday, September 12th, 2012 at 5:30 am under Race Day Tips, Triathlon Training.
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Tags: Triathlon Plus Magazine, Triathlon Tips