Mental Strategies for Your Best Race

By Stephan Schwarze – September 5, 2012

There is a Latin saying: “Mens sana in corpore sano”—a sound mind in a healthy body. This is true. But the reverse applies just as well when it comes to training and racing; your mental strengths and the state of your mind very much affect how successful races can be.

The following gives some strategies and ideas on how to plan your overall training season, how to approach the days before a race, and how to handle race day for best success.

Overall Training Setup and Season Planning 

When you set up your race season, decide which events will be your important “A” races. Make sure you can dedicate enough focus to the races during the weeks and months leading up to them. To have successful races, training needs to become one of your priorities in life. Your mind needs to be focused on it. Don’t, however, make the mistake of making training your first priority all year. The athletes I coach who have the most successful races are those who have their minds on training and racing in phases and then work very hard and are dedicated for some weeks or months leaving their primary focus for the rest of the year, while still training, on work, family, or other things. Athletes who have their minds only on training all year long often get burned out when it matters and cannot take it to the next level on race day.

Find a balance between group and individual workouts. Training needs to be fun, and some of my favorite workouts are long bike rides with friends. It’s important to have groups of friends to train with; otherwise, working out can become a mental drag. On race day, though, you are on your own and it’s important to prepare your mind for this. In order to be prepared, I make sure that some of my training is done alone. Finding the right balance of social and solitary workouts is different for each athlete. Since I have a full-time job, I usually do lunch and evening workouts on my own as scheduling is easier that way.

Don’t race in training workouts. Pushing it to the limit is tough, not only physically but also mentally. Race day is when you want to “go all out.” I never leave it all out there on a training day. This doesn’t mean not to train hard. There are plenty of tough days in my training, but it’s only on race day when I let my mind “ignore all pain.”

Days Leading Up to a Race 

In the last days before a race, no athlete will catch up with the training that has not been done. You won’t fix things in these days, but athletes often break things then because of outside impact on their minds. The following behavior has worked well for me before races:

Don’t surround yourself with other athletes who just talk about their training and how they will approach the race. The risk of doubting and questioning your own race preparation is too high. Instead, focus on some quiet time with family and friends who talk about “non race” business, read a book, or catch up with other things you neglected in the weeks leading up to the race.

Visualize race day. On the day before the event, lie down somewhere, relax, and think through race day and everything you put into getting here, and what to expect on race day. Think through the course, your nutrition plan, and, most importantly, through some “what if” scenarios in case anything goes wrong. Visualizing these things in advance will calm you down prior to going into the race. You want to avoid surprises and situations you are not mentally prepared for in a race.

Race Day 

Know your weaknesses and strengths. Don’t expect miracles to happen in a race but be aware of your weaknesses and strengths so as to avoid disappointment and stress during the event. For example, I know swimming is my weakest discipline. Instead of being frustrated with my time and placement every time I exit the water, I’ve learned to accept that I am a weak swimmer. I do not let a bad swim time “mess with my mind” anymore; I see the positive instead—there are more people to pass on the bike or run. Those races where I kept a bad swim result in the back of my mind all day never turned into successful finishes.

Overcome your weak points. There are always tough spots in races, especially in longer events. That’s when it gets painful. Be prepared for this in advance and EXPECT these phases to come. Racing is tough. If you don’t hit these spots you may not be pushing hard enough. Secondly, instead of getting frustrated with such phases, strive in them. Look around yourself: most likely everyone around you hurts as well when you in pain. Tell yourself that all you need to be able to do is handle the race conditions (or pain) better than anyone around you. That way you see a positive side of being in pain—a strong mind can overcome a temporary weakness. Think “Pain is your friend….”

Train smart—only with a healthy mind will you achieve successful race results!

Stephan Schwarze has been active in triathlon for over 20 years as an athlete and coach. He raced his first triathlon in college in Germany in 1988. Since 1990, he has finished 45 Ironman races, winning his age group seven times. Schwarze has raced at the World Championships in Hawaii eight times, finishing on the age group podium there twice.

Over the last ten years, Schwarze has worked as a coach with many Austin-area athletes. He passes on his experience, sets up training schedules, and works with them toward specific goals and target races.

Schwarze is married to Illiana and has lived in Austin since 1996. As an amateur athlete, he has a full-time job with a local technology startup company.


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