Optimal Arousal For Triathlon Performance

In a recent post race reflection with one of our athletes, we brought up some interesting points that are so easily overlooked to achieve peak performance. We were discussing how to balance physical and emotional energy (arousal) in the moments before the start and it lead to an interesting and important conversation. Although the start itself is only a very small part of any endurance event, it has a lot to do with shaping your mindset early and thats something that generally trends with you throughout the race. Therefore, getting into the right place physically, mentally and emotionally on the start line is worth all the attention you can give it. As you will hear from us, the physical warm up consists of three parts. "One for blood flow and movement, two for skills and rhythm and three to prime the heart rate (HR)". Once you have completed these steps, your physical body is good to go for approximately twenty minutes. This should be automatic and routine on race day (and refined during training) with room for subtle changes based on weather, the distance of your event and general feelings on the day. The mental and emotional preparation is more tricky and effectively becomes pandoras box in terms of sports psychology and performance. In summary, arousal includes all three and is defined as the combination of physical and psychological readiness. This includes physical markers such as blood flow, hormone activity (adrenaline) and cognitive functions (thoughts, anxiety levels, self efficacy/belief). The Inverted U Hypothesis (pictured) shows how we should consider our arousal levels and indicates what we need to create optimal arousal. This is sport specific as we will discuss and on different days you will need different stimulus. Therefore, understanding the principal is what gives you the power to take control. In triathlon, arousal is a really difficult balance. We need enough to be pumped up to begin at threshold intensity in the swim, yet to remain composed enough to relax, control technique and measure effort for the hours to follow. Too little and we're half asleep, unmotivated and "miss the boat" so to speak. It is really hard to come back from a low state of arousal early on and we loose all of our competitive instincts that make racing what it is... A thrill. So wake up, we're going to war! On the other hand, too much and were bouncing around burning carrots on the sand, we risk over cooking the swim start and going into lactic at the first buoy. This will spin the mind into fast forward and create an oxygen deficit until energy is drained from the body and we fall back into the default rhythm. This is an awful way to start the race and all too common for many athletes. These tough moments early on eat into our precious reserves of mental resilience and infect a negative headspace on the day where we need positive energy the most. To give it some context, if we were at an archery or darts competition, we'd want low arousal to drop the HR, focus on the target and perform small motor skills with perfection. Alternatively, if we were running out into the boxing ring or taking the first hit up in Origin III, we would need to be possessed and full of adrenaline. The learning from this is that we need to understand where we sit on the curve and what we can do on race morning to hit optimal levels as the gun goes off. This means, "tuning in" or "tuning out" to the surrounds, the music, the competitors and the race in front of you. If you are low/under, some elevated breathing techniques will help. It is also an idea to absorb the energy from others, listen to the song playing on the PA, take energy from the announcer and convince yourself that today's the day and you're all in for battle. No Matter What! If you're high/over, we need to settle and take a moment to gain thoughts and composure. Find a quiet place (on the land to sit or in the water to float), take some long slow breaths and listen for your heart beat. Remind yourself that smooth is fast and the best way to the finish line is to control the aggression and have energy/speed to commit to the second half of the race. "Fast times come from fast finishers". Our general assumption of pre race emotions specific to triathletes is that we are mostly under aroused. Race morning is a breeding ground for doubt and deflection. This is a human instinct and a result of feelings of pressure. Even if you have trained the house down, prepared to a tee and had the perfect lead up, if you misjudge the arousal you will begin to say... "Today doesn't matter, I don't care, next time will be better, I'll be ready then". If you recognise these thoughts, in that immediate moment you need some hard self-talk and a look in the mirror to turn things around. You must commit to yourself and do it by adjusting thoughts to be more general, such as "today will be nice, the sun is out, I like swimming, I like my bike" and avoid anything specific about anyone or any results based expectations. Creating optimal levels of arousal is a skill and something that can take years to refine. If you can adopt a technique that will produce a marginal improvement then you have shifted momentum to the positive side. Do not strive for perfect thoughts because they are so uncommon in high pressure environments. Just be happy with your awareness and use it to trust yourself and stand up to the challenge.
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