How to Mentally Conquer a Half-Ironman Triathlon

While it goes without saying that completing a half-ironman triathlon (1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, and 13.1 mile run) is a physically demanding task, the mental battle is just as challenging. I remember doing my first half-ironman thinking to myself, “I’m going to be exercising hard for around 5 hours.”  Explaining this to others and hearing their “You’re crazy!” reactions didn’t ease this challenge either.

So how do you mentally conquer a half-ironman triathlon? Practice the following 3 tips in your training and racing to see what works for best for you in mentally conquering your race:

TIP 1- Break up the 3 disciplines (Swim, Bike, and Run)

Say for example you’re in the swim portion of the triathlon; your only focus should be the swim. Sighting the swim buoy, focusing on swimming faster, drafting, etc. should be the only thoughts in your head during the swim portion of a triathlon, NOT “Oh wow I’m already tired and still have 5 hours to go.” However, as you’re finishing the swim you should start thinking about your swim to bike transition. During the bike, I personally imagine I’m doing a solo time trial at 80% percent effort. Towards the end of the bike, I start to think about transitioning from the bike to the run and how I’m going to start truly racing on the run. Once the run comes, it’s go time! At this point, you can rest easy that you’ve made it to run.  Just stick to your race plan and you will be fine.

TIP 2- Break down each discipline with time or distance.

Assuming you’re using tip 1, starting a 56 mile bike is still a mentally challenging endeavor. To conquer each discipline within a triathlon, I find it extremely helpful to break it up with time intervals or with a certain distance. Examples of breaking up the course with distance include: turn buoys for the swim, climbing the first hill of the bike, getting to the turnaround point of the run, etc.

Time intervals can help mentally break up triathlon disciplines as well. Personally, I try to take in between 75-100 calories every 20 minutes on the bike portion of a triathlon. In my mind, instead of trying to simple hammer through the next 56 miles, I’m thinking “Alright, just 20 minutes until I need to fuel again.” On the run, it’s helpful to break it up with aid stations: “If I can just make it to the next aid station.”  Some athletes I coach prefer to look at their watch to estimate how much time is left, such as “Only 1 more hour until I finish the bike.”

TIP 3- Have fun with the pain

Counting is a really simple way to distract your mind from the pain. Simple counting to 100 when things are getting hard in your race is one method. Other examples include counting pedal strokes as you climb a hill or counting right foot strikes during the run. I breathe every 3 strokes during the middle portion of a swim so I continually count “1, 2, 3, breathe, 1, 2, 3, breath” and so on, which works well for me.

Repeating a simple mantra is effective as well. I like “Keep pedaling, keep pedaling, keep pedaling…” on the bike and “Move those legs, move those legs, move those legs…” for the run. Find something simple that works for you.

Lastly, music can distract you from the pain and keep you going in your race. While I don’t know of many (if any) triathlons that allow headphones during the race, you can still have music in your head. I recommend doing your key race like runs with the same few fast paced songs. If you can do this on your specific race course, it’s even more effective. When you’re digging deep in the pain cave come race day, these songs will often pop into your head and remind you to keep pushing just as you did in your training sessions with headphones on.

So get out there and start training and racing! Just remember to break up the triathlon into each discipline, break up the course with time or distance, and to have fun with the mind distracting techniques above!

About Brad:  Brad Haag is a certified Triathlon Coach, Personal Trainer, and a National Qualifying Triathlete. As a graduate of Ben Greenfield's Superhuman Coach program, Brad specializes in coaching warrior class athletes to peak performance in endurance sports. He can be found at HaagsAthletics.com or as a featured coach at PacificFit.net

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