Training the brain for the perfect race
 

When people hear that I am a full-time triathlete, they get a look in their eyes which I can never  forget.

I laugh to myself whenever I try to explain what my “job” is. It’s hard to describe without sounding completely insane. The fact is triathlon is a sport where irrational, but dedicated people come together to compete in swim, bike and run: where the finish line is possible, but the pain is inevitable.

Canadian triathlete Tyler Mislawchuk knows the key to success is not all about fitness. (Submitted by Tommy Zaferes/ITU Media)Canadian triathlete Tyler Mislawchuk knows the key to success is not all about fitness. (Submitted by Tommy Zaferes/ITU Media)

I am currently competing on the ITU World Triathlon Series circuit, which includes both sprint and Olympic distance individual events. The 2020 Olympics will feature the triathlon mixed team relay for the first time, so  several stops on the circuit now include this event. The Olympic distance includes a 1,500-metre swim, 40-kilometre draft-legal cycle, and a 10-km dash. Fans get to watch athletes like myself empty themselves physically for upwards of two hours on race day.

Fitness alone does not lead to success; skill, mental strength, race tactics and the ability to execute on race day are all necessary to reach the podium. This is what makes triathlon one of the most compelling Olympic sports to watch. What the media seldom captures though are the hours that athletes spend plugging away outside of the spotlight.

 

My training typically involves 25 hours a week: swimming, cycling, running, and strength training up to four sessions a day. Most people hear this and think of the physical distress that  comes with the  training load. What they don’t realize is what a mental grind that amount of training is.

Triathlon peak performances only happen when mental fortitude and physical stamina work in harmony. The work that goes into these special performances can be gruelling, boring, and frustrating. But the feeling of executing a “perfect race” is euphoric. I compare it to a beautiful piece of art.

 
 

'Sickened at the end'

From personal experience, lining up the physical and mental aspects in perfect unison is not an easy task. I continue to work on it, every day. This means that for 25 hours each week, I am in my own head, talking myself through whatever training that is being done in that exact moment.

Mislawchuk’s mental form ranks with the best in the world. (Marc DesRosiers/Triathlon Canada)Mislawchuk’s mental form ranks with the best in the world. (Marc DesRosiers/Triathlon Canada)

My day-to-day training ranges from swim sessions that are so strenuous, I am literally sickened at the end, to bike rides where coffee and the pure bliss of scenery are the only goals. With variations in workouts comes the need for ever-changing mindsets.

I think the biggest misconception on the part of amateurs and professionals is the notion that training is purely physical preparation for whatever goal has been set forward. Of course, training is physical, but mental strength plays its own role: we must learn techniques and strategies to deal with the pain that comes with competitive sport. My preparation for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro illustrates this perfectly.

In 2015, for the first time, I found myself competing in the biggest races, against the best athletes in triathlon. I look back and realize that my physical state was a lot closer to the best athletes in the world than I was willing to admit to myself.

 

I was lucky enough to train alongside two athletes who were ranked fifth and sixth in the world. These two friends were responsible for teaching me that hard work, focus, and most of all, self-belief were enough to make any athlete great.

 

The words were never spoken directly, but demonstrated in their day-to-day behaviour.  Hard work has always come easy to me, but extreme focus and self-belief were things that I only started to work on leading up to Rio in 2016. Olympic distance triathlons last for about an hour and 50 minutes.

That means for 100 and 10 minutes, your head has to be completely focused on the task at hand. The best advice I received during this period was to set extremely small, process-based goals throughout the race. I have carried that advice in every race I have competed in since then.

 

Processed-based goals allow me to focus on specific details, which in turn push me to go faster, and dulls thoughts of the unforgiving, unrelenting pain experienced throughout the race. If, 200 metres into the swim, you are thinking about the fact that you have an hour and 45 minutes to go, then you are in trouble.

 
 

Technique and practice

When I dive into the water, I am thinking about the exact swim stroke I am taking in that moment, and the technique that I have practised over and over again in training. How does my arm enter the water? How does my elbow torque? Where is the next buoy? How is my body position? These are process-based goals.

Mislawchuk hopes his continued training methods lead to another shot at the Olympics. (Submitted by Delly Carr/ITU Media)Mislawchuk hopes his continued training methods lead to another shot at the Olympics. (Submitted by Delly Carr/ITU Media)

At the end of 2015, Canada had the first Olympic selection race at the world championships in Chicago. Finish in the top eight and punch your ticket to Rio. Before the race started, I decided that I was going to do everything in my power to secure a top-eight spot. There was no pressure from my federation, coach, family, or friends. On paper, I was a long shot.

I executed everything in that race with complete focus and self-belief, up until the last five kilometres of the 10-km run. I remember every moment of the first five kilometres; focusing on each pylon, which were spread approximately 100-metres apart. Five kilometres in, I was in running in eighth place and hurting; my mind went from small process goals to thinking “I STILL HAVE 15 MINUTES TO RUN.” I was almost instantly dropped and faded to 21st over the final kilometres. 

The race taught me that hard physical work was not enough. I needed to train my mind. I started to create mindsets in training that would emulate the same thoughts I would come across in tough races. In the following eight months, I qualified for the 2016 Olympic Games and climbed as high as seventh in the world rankings.

 

It is now 2018, and the Olympic qualifying period for Tokyo starts all over again next month. I have yet to put in the performance that showcases the true culmination of my hard work, self-belief, and focus.

But day by day, one tiny process-oriented thought after another, the journey of sporting excellence continues to Tokyo.

(Top large photo by Al Bello/Getty Images; Middle large photos by Buda Mendes/Getty Images and Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

10 quick answers Tyler Mislawchuk

Q: The best book you've ever read? 
A: Outliers.

Q: Must-listen Podcast? 
A: The Forward.

Q: Best advice you ever received? 
A: “Live in the moment."

Q: If your life was a movie, what would it be called? 
A: Rocky road.

Q: What word or phrase do you overuse? 
A: "Doing it."

Q: What is a skill you wish you had? 
A: A photographic memory.

Q: What's something no one would guess about you? 
A: I paint to de-stress in the off-season.

Q: If you could have the ultimate influential dinner party, who are the six people you'd invite? 
A: Albert Einstein, Ghandi, Barack Obama, Ellen Degeneres, Michael Jordan, Eminem.

Q: What makes you cry, every time? 
A: The memories of making wine with my grandfather.

Q: What's the next goal you want to accomplish? 
A: Finishing a race with a big medal knowing I had absolutely nothing left to give. 

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