Sports Psychology Helps Triathlete Find Right Frame of Mind
Madison, Wisconsin - Triathletes call it "the washing machine."
As if the physical rigor of swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running 26.2 miles isn't enough, Ironman participants are greeted by a riotous churning of arms and legs and elbows and feet as their fellow competitors launch themselves into the water at the sound of the starter's cannon.
In his book on triathlon training, author Michael Finch writes, "To the uninitiated, swimming looks simply dangerous. Stories of frigid water, kicks in the face and black eyes are hardly a good advertisement."
And for those unfortunate enough to get stuck in the middle of it, the swim can feel like they've experienced a particularly malevolent spin cycle.
In 2008 49-year-old Amber Ault of Madison was training for her first Ironman, and she was worried about the washing machine.
"There are lots of frightening stories triathletes tell about that swim," she says. "Folks who have done it will bring out their war stories about surviving. I got caught up in those what-ifs."
Tips for First-time Ironman Competitors
Sports psychologist Shilagh Mirgain offers these five pointers for athletes preparing for their first Ironman:
1. Respect the distance and stick to your race plan.
2. Prepare mentally for the toughness of the Ironman.
3. Remember the first goal - stay healthy.
4. Have a final week preparation plan.
5. Celebrate the journey and have fun.
And her anxiety wasn't limited to the washing machine. Like many triathletes, Amber saw the Ironman as something more than a demanding race. It was a statement, a declaration on the way she preferred to conduct her life.
"I came from a fairly sedentary background and decided to take control of my health," she says. "I had known people who had participated in the Ironman and for whom it was a peak experience. It seemed to me I would learn a lot from the preparation process."
But Amber's motivation did not stem from a hunger for competition nor a desire to make a specific time.
"For me, the competitive aspect of the event was the least appealing part," she says. "My interest was in developing the fitness that would allow a person to take on the physical tasks required for the Ironman. Having that goal was a convenient excuse for developing that level of fitness."
Amber worked with performance coaches with specific expertise in triathlons to get herself in shape physically, but she struggled with the mental preparations an Ironman demands.
"Because my previous athletic career ended in my teens and because I was not very interested in the competition, I developed a lot of anxiety about the competitive nature of the day," she says. "I became distracted by everything that could go wrong or what it might be like to be with 2,000 people who might have more legitimately earned their places at the start line."
Fearing the hard work to which she had committed might be compromised by her inner doubts, Amber took the advice of her coach and called UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, whose practice includes sports psychology.
"Stress really impacts athletic performance, so sports psychology can be helpful for an athlete at any level of sports participation," Dr. Mirgain says. "Amber is a great example of somebody who is working toward an athletic goal but isn't quite there yet. She needed to build her confidence."
Initially Dr. Mirgain and Amber focused on the clues Amber's body was providing.
"When an athlete is stressed, a variety of things happen that impact performance," Dr. Mirgain says. "Some athletes may get muscle tension in their arms or back. Some may have an elevated heart rate. Some may sweat or get cold hands."
For Amber, it was erratic breathing patterns. When she swam she had difficulty regulating her breathing, which led to an elevated heart rate. Dr. Mirgain helped her find what she calls Amber's "optimal zone of performance."
"Biofeedback is a way to teach athletes how to self-regulate their psychophysiology," Dr. Mirgain says. "It allows an athlete to become aware of what happens to them under the pressure of competition. It gives them the tools to regulate. It’s like building a muscle. The more they practice the skill, the quicker they are at identifying and controlling stress to optimize their performance."
Dr. Mirgain also introduced visualization techniques that allowed Amber to see the swimming portion of the Ironman unfolding in exactly the way she wanted.
"Visualizing an aspect of an athletic event has been shown to improve performance," Dr. Mirgain says. "By using visualization, we're mentally rehearsing competing successfully, thereby training our minds and bodies to actually perform the skills imagined. Research has found that both physical and psychological reactions in athletics can be improved with visualization. Amber visualized her perfect race. What it would look like but also what it would feel like – the kinds of strokes she would have, how the water would feel, the natural excitement of the day."
"I'm not a visual person, so it was very challenging," Amber says. "But it was powerful when I could get to the place of visualizing myself getting into the water, swimming that 2.4 miles, swimming from one buoy to the next, making the turn and swimming to the finish. That's far more effective than visualizing how your nose might get broken or how somebody might swim over you."
Most importantly, Dr. Mirgain helped Amber put her Ironman experience in a context with which she was comfortable.
"We helped her find her own race," Dr. Mirgain says. "There is a lot of competition amongst triathletes. Because it was her first, it was easy for her to compare herself with other people around her. For her to find her own race and to define for herself what success would be was important."
"Shilagh gave me permission to go about the event in a way that felt organic," Amber says. "She knew I felt a lack of legitimacy because I was coming from this unconventional background. She said to me, ‘Look, you've gotten this far doing it your way. It's OK for you to allow yourself to work on this in a way that lines up with who you are.'"
Amber found her own race, which helped her maintain a healthy perspective when an injury in the weeks leading up to the Ironman jeopardized her participation. She wouldn't be able to bike or run, but Amber reminded herself that finishing the entire race was never the point. Though the race hadn't started, she had already accomplished her goal, and that realization liberated her to complete the swim in what she calls "a magical experience."
Buoys spaced roughly 100 yards apart guide Ironman swimmers, so Amber decided to dedicate each increment to a person who helped her prepare for that moment. Family and friends got 100 yards. So did her coach and Shilagh.
"It was two hours of gratitude, and the mental preparation allowed me that experience," Amber says. "I had no worries, no anxiety in the water. The event became a celebration of the hard work I had done."
"The Ironman was a metaphor," adds Dr. Mirgain. "It's about the sport but it's also about becoming the kind of person you want to be and claiming something for yourself."
Date Published: 04/21/2011