By Steven Jonas, M.D., M.P.H.
Renowned American inventor Thomas Edison supposedly said: “Genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.”
Taking “inspiration” to mean mental work, back in 1992 when I wrote the original version of this column (see my note below at the end), I thought the ratio in triathlon racing was almost the opposite (even on a very hot day) —99 percent mental work, 1 percent perspiration.
I recall reading an article in an issue of Triathlete magazine back then in which one of the original “Fabulous Four,” Mark Allen, described winning the Hawaii IRONMAN as a “mental exercise in pain management.” (The other members of the group were Dave Scott, Scott Molina, and Scott Tinley. All four are members of the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame.)
Back then I noted that except for those folks at the front of the pack who are technical riders or fast swimmers, there is little physical or athletic skill involved in the primary triathlon sports: swimming, cycling and running. Left, right, left, right is the name of the game. And while we all perspire profusely on a hot day, it is not the perspiration per se that gets us through the race.
It’s our minds.
Today, while I think that’s still true for the most part, there is much more emphasis on technique in all three sports than there was back then.
For myself, as a Golden Oldie (age 81), who, as I describe myself, started out slow 35 years ago and has been getting slower ever since, it’s never been much about technique. I needed a lot of discipline and, indeed, technique in both teaching and writing in my work as an academic. I also needed it in my other sport, downhill skiing, in which I eventually became good enough to become a certified ski instructor.
In order to teach proper technique, essential to good (and safe) skiing, I had to be able to do it myself. But for our sport it’s always been to do what I do in all three sports to a) get through the course and b) not get injured, having learned just enough technique in all three sports to do just that.
Nevertheless, what is it that enables triathletes to finish, especially in the long races (whatever is a long race for you—sprint-, Olympic-, long- or ultra-distance)? Technique, for sure, to help you go as fast as you want to go, bearing in mind that you have to be able to finish the race.
But primarily, in my view, it is mental discipline, dealing with both technique and speed. It is the ability to focus, to concentrate. As well as staying with your technique, it is the ability to keep your eyes on the prize (which for most of us is finishing at or around our time objective).
It is the ability, as Mark Allen put it, to put up with the pain, to manage it, even adjust your speed to it: “I can take the pain that speeding up will bring with it.” Or, conversely, “It’s okay, I can take a minute-a-mile less on the run. It’s going to hurt a lot less and that makes slowing down a bit worth it.”
For me, much more important from the mental standpoint is knowing why you’re in the sport. Multisport racing, over time, is tough, more for the training than for the racing. To stay with it for any considerable period of time, you have to be doing it for yourself, for how you feel doing it, for how it makes you feel about yourself, for how it makes you look, to yourself, not to someone else.
If it makes you feel good, and feel good about yourself, you are going to stay with it, as tough as it is, physically, mentally and time-wise, over the long haul. If not, then you will not stay with it. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Hardly. But to stay with it, you definitely have to know why, and what are the goods, for yourself, that you are getting from the sport.
Next time, we’ll deal with some of the specifics of the mental aspects of the sport and the power of the mind.
* This column, as recently published (see below) is based in part on an article I wrote in 1992 for my then-regular column, “Triathlon for Everyman,” that appeared in the June issue of Triathlon Today!It was entitled “Some Mental Aspects of Triathloning.”
** A version of this column originally appeared on the USA Triathlon blog, Talking Tri-/Duathlon for Ordinary Mortals®: A Series,(No. 49, 2018/01), Jan. 29, 2018, and is used with permission.
2018 marks Dr. Steve Jonas’ 36thseason of multisport racing. He began the season with a total of 255 du’s and tri’s. He is a member of USA Triathlon’s Triathlon Century Club and is in the 90’s for duathlon. He has raced up to the Ironman distance, but now at 81, he is sticking to the sprints in both duathlon and triathlon. Steve is a prolific author of books on multi-sport racing. His first (originally published in 1986) was Triathloning for Ordinary Mortals®. The 2nd Ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006) is still in print. In 2012, he published a book exclusively devoted to duathlon: Duathlon Training and Racing for Ordinary Mortals®: Getting Started and Staying with It(Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press/FalconGuides, 2012). All of his books on multi-sport are available at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. He is also long-time writer for various multisport periodicals, including the USA Triathlon Blog. He very happily joined Du It For You in 2016.