Art by Jim Bahn
On the outside, triathletes appear to be snot-rocketing, Lycra-clad beings operating with a myriad of gadgets and fuel in order to manage their energy. Defined by numbers and time, triathlon might seem more like a “left brain” sport, but in reality, it’s balanced by a lot of cues from the right brain—the side responsible for bringing our linear thought processes to life through creative imagery and emotions.
“The right brain approach to self-confidence involves a combination of affirmations and visualization of doing something tough that you really enjoy,” says endurance coach Bobby McGee. “Even though the peak moments are about courage, fortitude and endurance, the right brain will experience pride and satisfaction.”
Here are some ways to rethink yourself as a triathlete if you need a break from the number crunching, fuel-formulating side of multisport.
A Painter’s Primary Colors
Just as painters transform basic red, blue and yellow into the full spectrum of color, athletes take basic intensity levels and translate them into the language of training. A new runner starts out with three primary modes—walk, jog or run. As he gets stronger, he expands these by blending from walk to jog, jog to run, and finally, develops different speeds of running. A trained athlete learns to call upon this palette of intensity, if you will, to achieve a desired outcome—just as an artist calls upon his palette to express creativity.
A Conductor’s Baton
From stroke counting, to cadence, to stride length, triathlon is a symphony of movement carefully conducted across a series of beats per minute. The swim starts out smooth, then crescendos into a harder effort as the body warms. Finishing the race, an athlete may find her smooth pace unraveling into the “Ironman shuffle,” a series of staccato-like strides she must maintain to keep her heart rate in the right zone.
An Actor’s Soliloquy
Despite racing alongside hundreds of athletes, triathlon is a solitary sport. Each individual embarks on a unique journey to reach the finish line. But the overall winning time rarely defines what the experience means. In theater, an actor’s soliloquy is an opportunity for the audience to see into that character. In triathlon, we are the actors and our soliloquy is the internal monologue we recite to ourselves to keep moving. We don’t say the words aloud—we tell the story as we move forward with determination. This is why the audience happily stands on the sidelines ringing cowbells and calling out random names. Watching each story unfold is captivating.
A Dancer’s Rhythm
Triathlon isn’t as complex as the Viennese Waltz, but training for multisport does require technique and rhythm. It is prohibited to wear headphones while racing, so unlike dancers, triathletes must rely on their “inner music” to keep pace. Getting into a rhythm with breath and stride may even take on a “beat boxing” effect as all the little sounds of the body coalesce and the athlete latches onto it in order to focus on pace.
The “It” Factor
Tackling your training plan from a technical standpoint can lead to great results. After all, numbers don’t lie. Two plus two will always equal four, so targeting a specific finishing time is about coming up with the right equation and sticking to a prescribed pace, right? But getting too wrapped up in the numbers could lead to a major flaw in your performance—losing your “IT” factor—a term used to describe the charisma and personality that sets someone apart from others who practice the same craft.
Triathletes share a lot of the same quirks. We’re tolerant of tight clothing, we know all of our running splits, and we don’t bat an eye when someone shoves a wad of Vaseline down their shorts. But we all work a bit differently to tap into our imaginative side for the confidence to reach the finish line.
Your “It” factor might be in your sense of humor, something that McGee suggests is integral to a strong performance. “To withstand intense discomfort voluntarily, a subjective approach would seem to require a good sense of the silliness of it all, and in doing so, lose any sense of self pity. In these days of international pain and suffering, I’d call it perspective—it’s only triathlon, right?”
Ready to activate your right brain in training? Use these tips to kick your imagination into a higher gear next time you’re hitting the pool, trainer, or track, and get ready to reap the benefits.
1. Pretend you’re the subject of a documentary on triathlon.
You’ve seen the annual NBC Ironman production. Well, what would the narrator say about you? How would you describe the experience to the audience watching your film?
2. Visualize your workout as a blank canvas.
As you move through each part, think of how you would fill the white space to represent the intensity levels.
3. Take advantage of the song stuck in your head.
Think of a song that gets you going next time you’re working out. Plant the rhythm in your mind, and move your legs (or arms) along with the beat, coordinating your breathing to happen comfortably with the movement.
Lisa Barnes is a newly-certified USAT Level 1 coach and an Ironman athlete who lives and trains in upstate New York. In her monthly column Life Trainer, she helps triathletes balance other aspects of life with their passion for multisport.