Learn to think like a winner and you can race like one, too. In this extract from the December issue of Triathlon Plus, double ITU world champion Javier Gomez tells you how to edge out the competition.
“In close races it’s nearly always the athlete with the strongest mind who will win. It’s not easy to think clearly and make the right decisions when your heart rate is up at 180bpm, but that’s exactly what you need to do.
“The race that mentally tested me most was the World Championship Series race in London this summer. I had won the weekend before in Hamburg and felt great. There was a lot of pressure on me from the media and public in Spain, and I could really feel it.
“It was a tough race, with Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee pushing the pace hard. It was a very fast run and I struggled to keep up. In the last kilometre we were still shoulder to shoulder – I felt dead on my feet.
“I said to myself that although I was struggling, they were bound to be feeling just as bad – I had to try and break them. From then on I concentrated hard. I didn’t look back, focused on myself, tried to hold off the pain and just ran as fast as I could.
“I won that race, and I consider it my best performance of the season – probably one of my best ever. It was also the race in which I suffered the most. I know I won because my mind and motivation helped me get something extra out of my tired body.
“When a race is tight like that, it’s easy to have negative thoughts. You can overcome this. Build up your strategy: if you have confidence in your sprint, visualise the last metres and the finish line. Work out where you are going to start the sprint. Once you make that decision, give it everything you have.
“I don’t really like sprint finishes, so I try to break the race before that. I do my sprint with few kilometres to go, when I try to make a little gap and then keep it until the finish line. Even when you are struggling you always have a bit more, so think how hard you have trained and how much you have worked to win that race and go for it!
“Sometimes in races I ‘play poker’ with my competitors in a bid to psyche them out. I will show them a smiling face when I’m struggling, offer them water at the aid stations or even talk to them. I want them to think the pace is pretty easy for me.
“Most athletes try to create an aura of fearlessness, but everyone has fears – it’s natural. Fears drive you to improve on your weaknesses and make you respect your opponents. When I see someone with that aura of fearlessness, I know he is just hiding weaknesses.”
Step by step: be your best
1. Focus on you
The presence of other athletes just behind you, or at your pace, can be unnerving. To realise your potential, focus on yourself.
“If you’re focusing on someone else you’re wasting energy and taking your focus away from your own performance,” says Kim Ingleby, a mental strength coach and Team GB sports therapist. “You can only give 80 per cent if you’re focused on others; the rest is wasted energy. If you’re focused on your own performance then you can give 100 per cent. There are a number of techniques you can use for this.”
2. Mind games
“Modelling works well for many triathletes. It’s basically acting as if you have the quality of an athlete you admire. I get people to think of someone in swimming, transition, bike and run who represents a quality they want, such as strength.
“There’s also anchoring. Think of four key qualities you want to have in a race. In triathlon it’s usually calm, self-belief, strength and speed. Write down all the times you’ve felt these emotions. Then close your eyes and listen to a specially chosen song. Hold your finger and thumb together and imagine those qualities as you listen to the music. Listen again and imagine you’re going through the race. If you then hold the trigger point, those qualities in your physiology should be enhanced, and when combined with the modelling plus visualising exactly how you want the race to go, the race should come naturally.”
“If there’s someone at your heel, imagine they’re pushing you forward with each step and with each push you’re getting stronger,” says Midgie Thompson, a mental performance coach.
You do need to practise these things. “It’s like learning a new swim technique,” says Ingleby, “You need to go away and practise before training. Using these techniques can help you trick your body into keeping up a painful speed.”
3. In the moment
To find that sprint finish, Thompson says it’s all about mental strength: “It’s digging deep into your reserves and believing that you’ve got it in you. A lot of people tell themselves, ‘It’s the end of the race, I’m so tired.’ Tell yourself it’s the start of the race, and use visualisation to feel the energy coming up from the tips of your toes and carrying you forward. Visualisation is very personal so find what works for you. Sometimes it’s your coach’s voice, or it’s imagining wings on your feet. Focus on what makes you feel stronger rather than on the pain and discomfort, which makes you weaker.“
Ingleby says: “Getting that sprint finish is about being completely calm and in the moment, which comes with experience. It’s where nothing else is in your mind, nothing else matters and you totally believe in yourself. Your whole physiology is relaxed yet strong. So you’re not wasting any energy with tension or worrying about people next to you. Many people repeat ‘strength and power’ as a mantra to keep their focus on themselves and that gives them that extra 10 per cent.”
To read the full article – including expert advice on using your mind to overcome injury, get over a bad race, and get through long events – check out the December issue of Triathlon Plus magazine, out now.
Interviews by Matt Anniss and Eva Caiden