There was a time, not too long ago, where I felt tremendous pressure to perform on race day. I carried a lot of weight on my shoulders from the pressure I felt from those who were watching/tracking me. I felt pressure to meet the expectations of others in order to prove my athletic worthiness.
As a result of this faulty mindset, I was not reaching my athletic potential.
When all of our 2020 races were cancelled due to the pandemic, I was given a first-ever opportunity my long-distance triathlon career. Even though I've never been one for obsessing over metrics, each training session often felt like a pass or fail exam based on how I performed. But in 2020, for the first time in fourteen years, I was able to return to the joy of training without the pressure of racing and needing to prove my athletic worthiness.
And then it happened.
I took my fitness to the next level. When I returned to racing, I raced better than I have ever raced before in my life.
And I was having a lot of fun. .
Although I've experienced a lot of success in the sport over the years, I finally learned how to race at my best and how to truly be in the moment. Not just on race day but in training. I learned how to center my mind in the present moment without worrying, chasing or wishing for a certain outcome.
When you are focused, you're thinking about what's happening right here, right now. When you are in the moment, you are completely immersed in the experience without any thought of other things that could be distracting or pulling on your attention. And this is where the magic happens. Without any pressure on the outcome, you can respond to changes more quickly and most of all, you allow yourself to have fun. Joyfully experiencing what's happening in the moment - without being distracted on things out of your control - is extremely powerful.
Your race day performance is determined by a number of factors - from genetics and training to nutrition and luck. But most of all, it's affected by what's happening in the mind. To perform up to your potential, you must remove all of the the things that interfere with a negative or poor state of mind.
I still love the sport of Ironman-distance racing but most of all, I am grateful that I still have the ability and willingness to train for Ironman-distance racing. When you train for a 140.6 mile event, athletic burnout and chronic health issues (or injuries) are far too common. But it doesn't have to be this way. Factors like chasing a race weight, undereating/underfueling, metric obsessions, a pass or fail mindset, unrealistically high expectations, haphazard training, a "more is better" training approach, a reduced sense of accomplishment, rigid standards and perfectionism will suck the fun away from training. More so, with so much unpredictability of long distance racing, being unable to cope with challenges and obstacles can lead to excessive pressure, nerves, stress, panic and anxiety. Long distance triathletes so often feel controlled by the goals they are pursuing, which keeps them trapped in the sport despite losing the love, joy and fun of training. There's no denying that pressure to perform can take a great mental toll.
On the eve of Ironman Lake Placid, I told Karel that I don't have any specific goals for the race but to just tell me what I need to hear on race day based on how I was performing. My mind was removed of outcome goals, free of metrics and I didn't feel shackled by the competition. At Ironman #17, I didn't feel like I needed to prove anything. I raced with grit, drive, gratitude and focus. I emptied my mind of as much interference as possible so that I could full compete to the best of my abilities.
I raced with joy. I raced with respect for the distance and love for the sport. This doesn't mean that the day was easy, comfortable or pleasurable. Ironman Lake Placid was very challenging. We had rain, sun, gusty wind and lots of hills to climb. But the experience as a whole was a lot of fun. I was always smiling. For 140.6 miles, every upcoming mile was something that I looked forward to doing. My motivation for racing was not about the race outcome but the joy of covering 140.6 miles with my mind and body.
If you are currently struggling with emotional or physical exhaustion, a reduced sense of accomplishment or negative feelings about your sport, take a look at the pressure you feel. To some extent, you are the only one who decides what pressure to put on yourself. Even the pressure that you feel from others will be filtered through your perfection of what you think they expect of you.
Sport is not pass or fail. Remove the standards that you place on yourself and get rid of the perfectionist mindset. And most of all, don't forget that sport is fun. It's honor to get to do what you can do with your body and mind.