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Developing a Pre-Competition Plan

Your Personal Recipe For Success

You’ve trained hard and are now ready for your big race of the season. There are so many variables involved in racing; how can you make certain that all the conditions come together to give your very best performance?

Everyone has a unique “recipe” of emotions, thoughts, and physical preparation that produces optimal performance. Knowing your own unique recipe and putting all the ingredients together can make a tremendous difference on race day.

A pre-competition recipe is that ideal combination of activities, movements, self-talk and imagery that creates the optimal mental state for peak performance. It is not just the few minutes before a race, but involves the entire sequence leading up to the start. For short events this may be the day prior to the race; but for major events that involve travel, a good plan usually involves all aspects over several days leading up to the starting gun. It addresses those variables that you can control and minimizes the impact of those that you can’t.

Determine the Right Ingredients

Terry Orlick’s Psyching for Sport: Mental Training for Athletes is an excellent resource for developing your pre-competition recipe. Orlick suggests that you start by looking at your all-time best previous performance. What did you physically do during the various stages leading up to the event? What were you thinking and feeling during those stages? How aroused or “psyched up” were you just before the event? How worried? What were you saying to yourself or thinking immediately before the start?

Next, think about your all-time worst performance and answer the same questions. How did you deal with the various stages prior to the event? What were you feeling, thinking and saying to yourself?

If you are a first time triathlete, draw from your previous experience in other sports where you have had your best performance. If you have absolutely no prior experience in athletic competition, look at your best training days. Use your first season as an opportunity to experiment with different pre-competition strategies to determine what recipe is best for you.

Choose your menu

Look at your information and decide how you want to feel during the event. Most people believe they need to get pumped up before an event. This may work well for activities such as football or weight lifting where short bursts of energy are required (I even know one power lifter who has his coach slap him in the face just before competition to get him really pumped up — a technique I do not recommend for triathletes). But for both endurance and fine motor events, most people benefit from psyching down— relaxing and lowering arousal levels.

My first race was typical of many first timers. I was so psyched out that I was exhausted after only 100 yards of a quarter mile swim. Only later did I discover that I do much better when relaxed (my all-time best performance was in a race where I actually took a brief nap before the 6:00AM start).

Look at the physical preparations and mental aspects from your best performance to select the proper ingredients. You may want to vary the recipe for races of different lengths.

Make a list and check it twice

To be most effective, now commit your plan to writing. Under stress or excitement, it is easier to recognize what to do from a list, than it is to recall the task from thin air (that’s why multiple choice is easier than fill in the blank). A good pre-competition plan will include both physical and mental goals for each stage of preparation.

A typical plan will start when you arrive the day before the race. Your physical goals might include picking up your race packet, going to the actual race site and driving the bike course in your car. Mental goals during this phase may include enjoying seeing old friends; or if you are a first-timer, appreciating the excitement and energy of the race. As you drive the bike course, imagine yourself riding it— where you’ll want to push it and where you can really gather your speed. Note any dangerous portions or intersections and imagine yourself deftly navigating them. If time allows, you may then want to do the same thing for the run (or even bike the course). Again, note landmarks and imagine yourself on the run, how you want to feel and what you want to remember at each point.

The night before the race is a time for finalizing your equipment and having the pre-race meal. Contrary to popular belief, massive carbo-loading is usually best done two nights before the event. Stick to foods that your body knows and likes. Check your bike and lay out your equipment. You don’t want any surprises the morning of the race. If you have any pre-race rituals, now is the time to do them. For example, I know one triathlete couple that has a practice of putting on new handlebar tape the night before a race. NOTE: They use the same kind of tape they have trained with; this is not the time to try something new.

For your mental preparation, do what has worked best for you in the past. Some like to relax with friends, while others like quiet time alone. Music can be a terrific aid in setting a desired mood. Remember all the training you’ve put in and clarify one or two process goals that you want to focus on during the race. These may be things such as staying relaxed on the swim or keeping your heart rate up on the bike. Many people like to relax and visualize the entire race, maintaining focus on feeling confident and relaxed.

Race Day

The morning of the race both your physical and mental focus will begin to narrow as the start time approaches. Have a definite plan for what you eat and drink that morning and when you leave for the race site. This is when those checklists really pay off in helping eliminate ambiguity and questions. Have your plan for getting to the race site, setting up your transition area, getting marked, and getting to the bathroom. NOTE to first-timers: I’ve discovered that a spare roll of toilet paper is a priceless addition to a triathlete’s equipment bag.

Your physical goals at this stage should focus on warming up and getting your body prepared for action. Joel Friel’s article in the July issue of IT (Do Sweat The Small Stuff) is an excellent guide for this process. Since Friel’s article addresses preparing for duathlons, don’t forget the swim warm up.

This is time to mentally rehearse your transitions, imagining yourself smoothly flowing through the various tasks. On the run warm up, many find it helpful to run the final portion of the course. This allows the opportunity of visualizing the finish. See yourself finishing strong and proud. Keep your thoughts and images positive.

The final moments before the starting signal is a crucial part of your mental preparation. It should be a natural extension of all your preparation to this point, yet also include a reminder of one or two specific process goals— a brief review of one or two key elements of your race plan and then focusing on those first few movements that you will do just after the start. This is the time to monitor your arousal level and take a relaxing, centering breath. Savor the moment.

You’ve followed your recipe and now is the time for the fruits of your labor. Let it flow and enjoy!

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© Copywrite 1998, Dr. Charlie Brown.  All rights reserved.