Mental Toolbox 1/3: Visualization

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As the number of days until the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon are dwindling (about 11 days), I feel my doubts and anxiety about the swim mounting. At this point, I have a choice, let my mind carry me away in a swarm of doubts and fears, and end up a nervous mess at the race start, or consciously choose to harness my thoughts and focus elsewhere. The mind is like a monkey, and if you let it have free reign, it will wreak havoc, filling you with fear, and doubt, and negatively affecting your performance, in whatever task lays ahead of you. As triathletes, we spend a lot of hours training our bodies for swim, bike and run, but if we neglect to train our mind, it can  completely sabotage us; no matter how many miles we have under our belt. This is the first part of a three part series on creating your mental toolbox. These are tricks that you can practice in your training, leading up to a race, and during your race, that will help to quiet the anxiety and doubts, and boost confidence.

Tool #1 Visualization- In 2008 I was training for my first 70.3 and I was feeling intimidated, and scared. The race was going to be on a course with a very choppy swim and a very hilly bike course. That's when I started exploring the mental aspect of training, and I came across visualization. I used it during my workouts, and practiced it before bed, and to my amazement and excitement, it really does work!

The subconscious mind does not differentiate between an actual event, and one that's imagined. There are scientific studies that show you can actually increase muscle strength simply by visualizing doing a strength exercise. Or think about when you dream that you're falling, and then your body responds by waking you up with a jolt. In this same way, we can preprogram how we want our body/mind to perform on race day by using visualization.

You can use visualization during a workout,like a long bike ride. While you're riding, imagine that you are actually in your race, you're feeling calm and confident, you're monitoring your pacing, fuel, and cycling technique, and celebrating as the miles go by. In the same way, while you're swimming in the pool, you can visualize being in an open water swim, feeling calm, focusing on gliding easily through the water, letting the rhythm of the stroking and breathing distract you from an anxiety.

You can also practice visualization while you're sitting still. I like to do it before I go to bed at night. You imagine the experience from the first person, inside your body, looking out, incorporating all your senses (sounds, smells, sights). Here's a script that you can adapt to your race:
I wake up race morning, feeling excited about the day. I've done the training, and I know my body and mind are ready. I get dressed, and eat my breakfast, imagining it giving me fuel to power me through my race. I arrive at transition and set up my area. There's nervous energy in the air, but it doesn't affect me. I focus on what I need to do, and remain calm, confident, and excited. I put on my wetsuit and take a warmup swim. I remind myself that swimming in the open water is the same as swimming in a pool, it's just darker, there's no lane line, and I'll be surrounded by other athletes; but I can handle it.I just need to stay focused on me, my rhythm, my race.

We line up for the start, I take nice deep breaths and remind myself that I do this because it's fun; I actually love it.The race starts and there's chaos among the swimmers, but I start out easy and find my space. If anxiety starts to creep in, I just take a few breast strokes and slow my breath, then I restart. I remind myself I can cover this distance, and I focus on my rhythm, stroke, stroke, breath. I come to the end of the swim, and I'm excited to get on the bike. I pass calmly and quickly through transition, and I'm off on the bike. One part down, two to go!

On the bike, I focus on my nutrition, pacing, and pedaling technique. I do what I can to stay focused in the moment, and not thinking ahead to the run. I celebrate as the miles go byand appreciate that each mile brings me closer to my goal. At some points I feel a little fatigue, but I know that if I keep pushing through, and fueling, my energy will come back. As I finish the bike, quickly pass through transition, I'm so happy to be starting the run. Two down, one to go! The run is easy, one foot in front of the other. I focus on my pace, and long, relaxed inhalations and exhalations. I feel tired on the hills, but I remind myself that I've trained for this, and my body can do it; it's just my mind that wants to quit. I celebrate as the miles go by, each step closer to my goal. As I see the finish line, I get a boost of energy and I pick up my pace. I cross the line with a smile! It feels so awesome to have worked towards my goal and accomplished it!

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