5 Tips for First-time Ironman Competitors
Meet Our Sports Psychologist
UW Health sports psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, helps triathletes prepare for Ironman competition.
How should first-time Ironman competitors get ready for the big race? Dr. Mirgain offers these five tips:
Respect the distance and stick to your plan.
It is a long race, and coming off a taper you will feel better than you have at the start of the race than you have in a long time. It is easy to believe that you can do better than your original plan early in the race only to suffer the consequences later. Your swim and bike should never feel harder than any of your training sessions; swim easy and bike easy so that you can run. Don't forget to use your practiced nutrition and hydration strategies. Small errors in nutrition can add up to big problems over the long course. Don't overhydrate. Use the transition area to take care of yourself, mentally regroup, stretch, check in with your body and see what it needs.
- Prepare mentally for the toughness of Ironman.
You want your mind working with you during the race. Focus on completing one event at a time and don't get ahead of yourself by anticipating the next event. A variety of mental strategies help facilitate peak performance. Develop several focal points that you can use to foster mind over body. For example, monitor your body's internal sensations and states, such as your breathing pattern, heart rate, perceived exertion and muscular fatigue.
This internal feedback helps you make important adjustments throughout the race. Practice positive self-talk or have a variety of mantras that you can say to psych yourself up and encourage yourself to keep going when it gets difficult. Think about having thoughts that are your own inner cheerleader that you can say again and again to push you forward. Bring your mind into the present moment by focusing on something outside of yourself, the noises from the crowd, the smells in the air, the feel of the wind on your skin, and the colors and nature you are traveling through. Being here now and focusing on something outside of yourself can distract you from the physical discomfort in your body. Lastly, practice gratitude by dedicating each mile to someone or something important to you and focus on this for that mile, remembering that this is larger than yourself.
- Remember your goal.
For most first-time Ironman racers the primary goal should be to stay healthy and the secondary goal is to finish. If you race too hard or try something new to get an edge you may not stay healthy. If you don't stay healthy, you risk not finishing at all. By recalling your goal you will be better able to combat your mind when it tells you it is done before the finish line.
- Have a final week preparation plan.
Sleep a lot and rest before the race and, in addition to tapering, make sure to get good nutrition. Have a plan in place to calm pre-race nerves, such as being organized and arriving early, connecting with your support network, and practicing diaphragmatic breathing and visualization of your race. Take a few minutes to center yourself the morning of Ironman to reduce any physiological arousal that may be occurring so that you can conserve your energy for the race.
- Celebrate the journey and have fun.
This is what all the months of training is about—it is here! It is the day and you are racing in an Ironman! Celebrate the journey that you have taken to get here, not the outcome. Remember why you decided to do Ironman in the first place, have fun and keep it in perspective. It's one day in a long road of training so it is important to celebrate all the ways you've trained for this, and how you've grown and changed in the process. Remember to thank all of the people who have made this possible for you. The friends who missed hanging out with you, the family who helped take care of your personal matters, the coaches who kept you on track, colleagues who put up with your moodiness and volunteers who swept the roads for you. Smile and say thanks. Take a moment to savor it all and your accomplishment at the end of your race.