Photo by Jay Prasuhn


Triathlon plans are most often built on a week-to-week basis, which is great for capturing big-picture information such as training volume, objectives, and overall mileage. One thing they’re not so great at, however, is tuning in to the details behind the scenes. Hiding in each minute of your workout is valuable information on how you’re motivated as an athlete—and a potential key to a more fruitful season. Through these simple mental strategies to help you focus on the “little picture,” you’ll come closer to tapping into your true training potential.

Find the Parallel

We’ve all struggled through a workout. Sometimes we swear we can’t swim those last few yards, climb that last hill, or run that last mile. We keep going by dipping into that reservoir of sheer will that’s always available. But how do we tap into it on demand? The trick is to find the life parallel to the training experience.

Think of a non-triathlon experience in which you had to keep going with something even though you didn’t think you could. Maybe it was painting a room, burning the midnight oil on a project, or helping a friend move into an apartment that pushed you past your natural (or preferred) limit for doing something. This is the same “push” we want to activate in training, enabling us to go farther and faster than we ever thought possible. Momentarily changing our frame of reference from sport to a mundane task like painting enables us to conjure up the feelings we need to push through the rest of a workout in the same way.

Talk Back to Your Little Voice

You may think of your little voice as the ubiquitous “good and evil” duo camping out on your shoulders, but when it comes to training, your inner dialogue is much more complex. Just when the workout gets demanding and we want to make it easier is when those convincing arguments come up. The little voice extrapolates: since the body is already taxed from the first hour of cycling, continuing on for a second hour is not necessary and could cause injury. If that doesn’t work, it may remind you that you have family or pets waiting at home to spend time with you. Or perhaps you’ve been pushing off important errands that suddenly take on a red-alert status in your mind. Before you know it, you’re cutting the workout short and on your way to something else.

Getting to know what your little voice sounds like can help you call its bluff. Think of it like a nagging child or insistent sales person. Instead of kowtowing to a temper tantrum or getting roped into a longwinded pitch, calmly ignore the interaction and go about your business. Soon the nagging will subside and you’ll regain your focus. For every excuse your little voice comes up with to sabotage your workout, imagine you’re sitting across from it over dinner and talking to it about why your training is important. Soon the voice will respect your desire to push limits and will chime in less frequently.

Make a Vocabulary List

The mind is prone to wander during certain workouts, such as tempo rides where one of the only things to focus on is pacing. I ask the athletes I coach to think beyond the pace, and focus instead on how the movement and breath are connected to the forward motion of the body. I ask them to choose five words that represent how they feel during the tempo ride, and then imagine those words scrolling across their chests as they pedal. Why only five words? Because I want this list to serve as an “easy to recall” benchmark for future efforts.

One week the athlete may think of two positive words, two negative words and one neutral word. For example, a tempo run may inspire this list: “strong, smooth, achy, stiff, salty.” A week later the same workout could conjure up a different set of words. Were they more positive? Negative? The same? This information is an easy way for athletes to gain a better understanding of how they think and feel during important training sessions, without having to keep a comprehensive training log. Instead of simply completing a 50-minute tempo run, they walk away with 50 minutes worth of introspection that will help them improve in the future.  

Training is all about getting stronger and gaining the confidence you need to be successful on race day. Following a program is a great way to feel secure about the big picture—you’ve done the quantity of work you should have—but by zeroing in on the details of each workout, you can also feel good about the quality of your training on a more micro level.


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.