The Mental Game Of Triathlon

  • By Torbjorn Sindballe
  • Published Mar 11, 2013
  • Updated Mar 11, 2013 at 3:30 PM UTC
The greats in our sport all have a mental edge over the competition. Chris “Macca” McCormack’s 2010 Ironman World Championship win is a perfect example of this, as he had to mentally out-duel Germany’s Andreas Raelert to achieve the victory. Illustration by N.C. Winters.

Macca’s Masterpiece

The greats in our sport all have a mental edge over the competition. Chris “Macca” McCormack’s 2010 Ironman World Championship win is a perfect example of this, as he had to mentally out-duel Germany’s Andreas Raelert to achieve the victory. After the race, Macca spoke to several news outlets about his win, and his story was a textbook example of how to remain calm and controlled under fire.

When Macca entered the Energy Lab in the early afternoon of Oct. 9, 2010, he knew Raelert was steadily closing in, but he still had a lead of more than a minute. At this stage of the race, when severe physical fatigue is imminent, most athletes would likely have gone all out, putting in a surge to try to break the stalking Raelert and force the deciding moment. That way, the relentless pressure would diminish as quickly as possible. But Macca did not use this strategy. Instead, he decided to wait for the German machine and took his time through the hottest part of the course, ensuring his energy and fluid needs were met. After years and years of painful trial and error in Kona, Macca knew that managing energy balance and responding carefully to the signals his body was sending him were the key to success. When Raelert caught him with three miles to go on the Queen K Highway, Macca was mentally energized and ready. He let Raelert close in on him, but he kept running with his shoulder just a notch ahead of Raelert’s as if to tell him, “You can catch me, but you will not get the lead.”

Raelert had been on the hunt since the start of the marathon and must have spent oceans of mental energy in the process. As he finally caught McCormack he fought for every inch, but he did not have it in him to make a move. Raelert was left with little other choice than to accept his role in Macca’s mental game. He took a break, getting fluids and energy at the aid stations while the master tactician stayed one step ahead of him and chose not to slow down for drinks. Macca has studied the legends of the sport, the myths and the stories from the past 25 years, and he must have found confidence in the 1989 Iron War between Mark Allen and Dave Scott. During this duel, Allen gained the psychological upper hand over Scott in exactly the same way—maintaining drive and momentum in exchange for abstinence.

With two miles to go, Macca turned to Raelert and said, “No matter what happens you are still a champion!” He then reached to shake his hand. Macca’s comment is a psychological work of art. At this stage, both of them are physically at their limits—their bodies are broken down and screaming for them to stop moving, and their subconscious is looking for that little excuse that will make giving up acceptable. Consciously or subconsciously, Macca was toying with Raelert’s mind, displaying his mental strength and giving him a lesson in race tactics. As the finish closed in, Macca made his move down the steep drop of Palani Hill, a point in the race where the muscles are shredded. This is the absolute hardest spot on the course to attempt a breakaway, but it’s also a place where he would gain a bit of free speed, given Macca’s slightly larger frame.

There was never really any doubt who would win that day.

Developing Mental Toughness

“It is one of the strange ironies in this strange life that those who work the hardest, who subject themselves to the strictest discipline, who give up certain pleasurable things in order to achieve a goal are the happiest men,” said Brutus Hamilton in 1952.

Hamilton was the track and field coach of the 1952 U.S. Olympic team and his words say it all: Hard work is a key element to mental toughness. The simplest and most well-known tool to building mental toughness is killer training sessions. Most of the legendary athletes and coaches in triathlon are famed for favoring torturous workouts. When I was a professional iron-distance triathlete, one of my own favorite workouts in preparation for Kona was a seven-hour time trial at close to race pace. This workout made the 112 miles on the Queen K seem like a training ride. Two-time Ironman world champion Craig Alexander is known for his occasional 2.5-hour-long runs at Ironman race pace in the mountains above Boulder, Colo. (He often runs the final 30 minutes at slightly faster than race pace.) And Sutton is known for training his athletes in a way that makes racing feel easy. In his years under Sutton a decade or so ago, Olympian Greg Bennett ran 35 seconds on and 25 seconds off on a treadmill raised 1 degree and going 22 kph (faster than 4:30 pace)—for 2.5 hours straight!

The German armada of the mid-1990s—Thomas Hellriegel, Jurgen Zack, Lothar Leder and others—were all part of the German national team under the leadership of Steffen Grosse, who was trained as a coach in East Germany. He demanded an extreme work ethic with 40-hour weeks for months in a row, and he once commanded a 55-hour week during a cross-country ski camp. What’s more, despite the high volume of their training, the athletes would endure massive intensity, such as 20×1 kilometers on the track, where the accumulated amount of talent and type-A personalities helped create a fierce competitive climate, with many training sessions becoming elimination races. Only the best of the best made it through. The results of the group are legendary, but their careers were, in many cases, cut short, largely due to the extreme mental and physical pressure.

Racing experience is also a big part of developing mental toughness. Guys like Macca raced countless times on the World Cup circuit and in the American non-drafting classics such as Wildflower, Escape From Alcatraz and the Chicago Triathlon before attempting the iron distance. Because of this background, Macca and others like him grew very familiar with head-to-head racing and what was required to mentally vanquish one’s opponent. Back in the days of the great four—Allen, Scott, Scott Molina and Scott Tinley—it was normal to race a lot during the season. With former ITU guys such as Rasmus Henning—triathletes with heaps of races under their belts—now jumping into the Ironman mix, the iron-distance racing mentality seems to be getting more and more fierce.

Sacrifices are another way to foster mental toughness. For example, many of the now dominant Australians started their careers by traveling to the other side of the globe to race back-to-back weekends in Europe. They had no support whatsoever other than their own desire to succeed. They slept in a different bed every few nights and had to endure the pressure that comes from racing for one’s need to put food on the table. Many of them also had to endure constant questioning from their parents, who wondered why they were striving to succeed in a profession with many risks and few rewards. Nevertheless, all of these sacrifices sharpened their mental focus.

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