Triathlete Psychology 101: Managing Inflated Race Expectations

finish lineFirst, a few “technical” definitions:

    • The clunker race – a dramatic under-performance based on capabilities predicted from training
    • The mean racea performance at or near, just above or below, a level that training indicates
    • The breakthrough race a performance at a peak level, above and beyond what training indicates

The math doesn’t lie. Think about your races over the last few years. In fact, go grab your logbooks or open whatever you need to find your race results. Please, go do this now. I’ll wait. . . .

Ok, now that you’re back, let’s look at your data. You will see that a small percentage of your races were clunkers. A small percentage were breakthroughs. But the vast majority were means.

Admit that you’re seeing this. Internalize it.

Now my question is this: Why do we view breakthrough races as the expectation, the norm, yet dismiss the clunkers as exceptions or one-offs?

We all do it, right? We have that stellar race, that breakthrough performance, and yet, we expect the next one to be off the charts, too. And the one after that. And the one after that. Giant leap after giant leap. Phenomenal PR after phenomenal PR.

But is this realistic?

The answer, of course, is no.

Most of our races are mean races, or dare I say, average. Oh! That word! Average. We spit it out like cod liver oil.

“How was your race this weekend?”

“It was average. Thanks for asking.”

“Dude, I’m so sorry. That’s rough. Really.”

The average race, which I’ll heretofore refer as the mean race to protect the sensitive psyches reading this article, is a race where the athlete performs reasonably well based on the results they see in training.

Reasonably well often includes measurable improvements, but unless it’s a drastic improvement, we tend to be disappointed.

To be fair, we’re set up to view the mean race as a disappointment partly because we expect the rapid improvement we enjoyed early in our careers. When we first jump into the sport, every race is a breakthrough. We might have started in a relatively healthy, yet untrained state. Or perhaps we came from a single-sport specialty with little experience in the other two disciplines. With the addition of consistent training, we drop huge chunks of time race to race.

But as we become more fit and we tuck more race experiences under our belts, the improvements become more and more marginal. Ouch. This is another hard word to stomach. Worse than average, even.

A marginal improvement is still an improvement. You ran a 3:15 at the P. F. Chang’s Marathon last year. You ran a 3:14 this year. Outstanding. Congratulations. Based on your consistent, structured training, you enjoyed an improvement that fell right in line with where your metrics said you should have fallen.

“But Coach, my best time the year prior to the 3:15 was a 3:45. So logically, I should have run a 2:45 this year, right?”

“Uh, well, no. The 3:45 was your first attempt ever at the distance and that was completed with spotty training at best.”

The 2:45 would be a ridiculous expectation, right? Unless you possess world class DNA, it’s not going to happen. And yet, we still expect it.

In reality, a high-performing athlete who is well-trained, highly motivated and races in reasonable environmental conditions, is doing quite well to find most results falling in the mean category.

The truth is, we become numb to the fact that we’re super fit. We enjoy improvements of a minute here and a minute there and we’re dejected. I mean, we could do this with our eyes closed, right?

But you’re ignoring the years of training you’ve put in and how fit you actually are.

It’s not until we go through a period of being untrained due to injury, or have to deal with a stress-inducing personal situation, or just get old, fat and lazy that we realize at just how high a level we were performing in these “disappointing” mean races.

So going forward, how do we address the clunkers and the breakthroughs? First, let’s remind ourselves why these races happen.

      • Clunkers are generally a result of severe environmental conditions, a lack of motivation, a poorly executed race or nutrition strategy, or some other external factor—personal stress, etc.
      • Breakthrough races are typically a result of favorable environmental conditions, extreme motivation, and a lack of personal stress.

It is important to understand that the same training routine can result in both of these races. In other words, the training did not change to produce the results, only the factors on race day did.

The common reaction to a clunker is that I need to train harder or differently. The common reaction to a breakthrough race is that I should expect that performance every time. Both of these reactions are misguided.

As you evaluate your races, be realistic. Some races are going to be clunkers. Some are going to be breakthroughs and most are going to be means. Your training is the same for all three.

So instead of reacting to the race result and adjusting training, the successful athlete sticks with the routine and knows that the breakthrough race they so crave will eventually come, even if they are few and far between. The key is to recognize when a breakthrough race is in progress and take advantage of it and enjoy it.

Having a healthy mental outlook when considering your race results will grant you the freedom to take your clunkers and breakthroughs in stride, and ultimately, allow you to more fully appreciate and enjoy your mean races. The next time someone asks how your race went, smile when you tell them that you enjoyed an average race.

4 thoughts on “Triathlete Psychology 101: Managing Inflated Race Expectations

  1. Peter Ney

    Well, I must really like my own opinion. Really, there is no such thing as a bad race. Well, unless you crash into a median, golly never done that..I really try to look at races as learning experiences. If I’m not satisfied with my performance I really just ask myself, “What could I have done different during the race?” When the training is done, I tell myself, I got what I got(inside the tank). Lately, I’ve been focusing on the mindset that each race is a training race. It seems to put my mind at ease, with less pressure and more time to learn from the experiences throughout the race. Hence, no breakthrough races, no medians(unless I hit one) and no clunkers. Only learning experiences. Plus, it’s a sport, have fun and enjoy the ride, good or bad.

    1. Camelback Coaching Post author

      I think what you said at the end of your comment is the main message I was trying to convey. Have fun with the sport. I agree completely!

  2. Peter Ney

    It’s funny how the things you’re saying are so true. But, yet, nobody else has responded, or people just can’t see the posts link. Even though I really like doing triathlons we’ve really gotten away from the roots of the sport. I loved racing ‘back in the day’ when at Butcher Jones Beach we would get out at Fountain Mountain and look for our bikes lying on the pavement only to realize my best friend moved my bike into the next parking lot over. I admit, I love a good result. But, sometimes the best results are the beer at the end of the race. Also, I always look back at the days of racing cyclocross in Boise. We had an hour to do as many laps as we could in the craziest course possible. Nobody really counted the laps, someone just got off their bike and rang a cowbell around an hour. I think we all knew who had the most laps, but we never talked about it. We normally talked about who had the best outfit: the guy in the pink tuxedo shirt, the guy in pink spandex suit or my friend Paul(pro mtber) who dressed like an elf. We raced hard, but the person with the most mud on the them or dirt in their ear would win the trophy. Now, including myself, are taking this way too seriously with logos, cool bikes, and triathlon expos that we’ve gone way away from the roots, hence, needing psych sessions to let us know that everything is ‘ok’ if we didn’t win the prize. I think it was yoda who once said, “the journey it is, not the quest we yearn.” Or, maybe that was me making up a yoda quote, never sure.

    1. Camelback Coaching Post author

      These are great memories! I think most people comment to me personally through email rather than here, and that’s ok. Thanks for bringing Yoda into the discussion. That will always make me smile!

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