The 4 Mental Mistakes Every New Triathlete Makes

I just want to get this damn race over with.

I’ve woken up in a cold sweat every night the last two weeks.  Insomnia and burnout picked the wrong time to pick on this chump NMA.

I have no freakin’ clue why I’m doing Ironman Wisconsin anymore.

The funny thing?  When I turned to our NMA-approved cycling coach, Josh Powers, for help, he wasn’t nearly as surprised as I was.

All Triathletes Make the Same Mistakes

Josh saw my burnout coming.  He’s seen these mistakes with every triathlete he’s ever worked with.

And guess what?  So has almost every coach. We triathletes tend to build up the exact same brick wall and hit our heads on that wall over and over and over again.  And at the foundation of that wall are four mental mistakes that almost every triathlete makes.

Mental Mistake #1: We’re a bunch of Type-A pain-in-the-asses.

Face it, triathletes: We obsess over little things more than most. We thrive on structure—a good thing in moderation only.

We get upset when the race doesn’t go the way we planned, we complain when we train too much and don’t recover enough, and are quick to lay blame far away from ourselves. It’s never OUR fault.

It’s always the heat, the wind, the swim coach, the neighbors, the orange juice, George Bush, El Nino, or the cast of “The Jersey Shore.” We really suck at taking responsibility when things don’t go the way we envisioned.

The Fix: What we should be doing is anticipating that things can and will go wrong. Depending on where you fall on the Triathlete Type A spectrum, you can employ different strategies.

  • If you’re Type A Minus: You can teach yourself to plan what you can with the realization that shit happens, and whining will not fix it. All you can do is put on our big-kid pants and deal with it.
  • If you’re Type A Plus: You can plan, anticipate anything that could possibly go wrong, and have a backup plan in place for how you’d deal with it.  Type A triathletes that will not rest until they’re assured they’ve thought of everything ahead of time, so do exactly that.

Mental Mistake #2: We forget the Law of Averages.

Triathletes have three disciplines to worry about. We try to rock three sports, and that can be exhausting.  When we’re training in one, we’re usually thinking about the other two.

People tend to gravitate toward what they’re good at.  Maybe swimming comes easier to us, so we’ll spend more time in the pool because riding that bike is just so damn frustrating sometimes.  Or we’ll lace up the running shoes because we know we won’t get tired and frustrated after 400 meters of running…unlike that OTHER discipline.

The Fix: Triathlon is a sport of averages. You have three sports, but ONE finishing time. Rather than being a really good swimmer, a crappy biker, and a mediocre runner, train your weaknesses and try to bring up your average. If you spend more time training your weaknesses, you can bring your performance up so that you have more consistency across the board in your disciplines.

Mental Mistake #3: We lack patience.

The typical training plan for a triathlon, depending on the distance, covers many, many days. Nobody’s going to ride their bike a couple times and suddenly be able to finish an Ironman.

But when the results of our training are slow to reveal themselves, we assume we must not be doing enough or working hard enough. Rather than trust the plan designed to get us to the starting line weeks and months away, we modify our plans in our own way, right now: We add an extra mile or two to that run, or an extra swim workout when we’re supposed to be taking a rest day.

Our logic? If’ a little bit of work is good, a lot of work must be even better!

The Fix: Silly triathletes! Overachieving is for idiots. Training is a gradual process designed to bring us up to peak performance on race day.  Don’t try to get to race-day levels three months before your actual race.  Train smart.

Mental Mistake #4: We ignore the signs.

Remember how I said Josh saw my burnout coming?

I asked him how he knew, and his explanation was simple: I was a textbook case of burnout!

Every little thing set me off emotionally. I’ve cried at every sad song on the radio lately, thrown a remote control across the room because it wasn’t working (note to self: buy new batteries), and been very, very short with the people I love.

I haven’t slept well, even though I’ve been exhausted.

I have cuts that are slow to heal up and I came down with a really bad ear infection that cut a long training ride short due to pain and dizziness.

And I lost my energy and zeal for training—the other day, just looking at my bike was enough to send me into a fit of tears.

I was so focused at hitting all my training goals in my plan (see “Type A” above) and falling victim to my own poor logic (see “overachieving,” also above), that I never once considered that I was dissolving like a popsicle on a hot summer day. I never once considered that maybe, just maybe, the symptoms I had been exhibiting were from training too much and not recovering enough.

I’m not the only one. It happens to all of us. Of all the mistakes triathletes make, this is probably the most common. If it’s not training too much, it’s something else: Not recovering enough, not eating right, not prioritizing sleep…in short, ignoring the basic and essential things we need to make the training we’re doing work for us.

The Fix: Quit thinking you’re immune to burnout. We’re so quick to give advice to others about how to avoid burnout and overtraining, yet we seem to have this mentality that it’s something that happens to them, not to us. Ask your training partners, family members, or colleagues to keep you in check. When you start to exhibit any of the signs of of burnout, take a step back and assess what you’re doing. Are you truly balanced? Your sleep and nutrition should be just as high a priority as hitting your lofty training goals.

The good news: You can shatter that brick wall.

The first step to recovery is to admit that you have a problem. Don’t be shy. Imagine you’re sitting at a support group meeting with the rest of us. All of us are in multi-colored unitards with padded shorts and bike shoes, staring at you encouragingly. You look down at the floor, and through tears you admit:

“My name is ____, and I…I’m… A TRIATHLETE!”

Hi. Welcome to recovery. Now that you’ve committed these errors and how to fix them, let’s make a promise to ourselves that we’ll never make these mistakes again.

Here’s to a happy, healthy, and burnout-free triple-sport lifestyle, NMAs. We can do this.

This post is part of a six-part guide designed to help the beginning triathlete get started (without screwing up too badly).  Check out the entire series!



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  1. Splendid post! Realistically, symapthetically acknowledges the truth and provides guidance and inspiration. Thanks NMA!

  2. Hey Susan,

    Great article and very good advice! I live outside of Madison and did IM WI last year and am a firm believer that IM is 75% mental (IF you’ve done the training, that is). I freaked out quite regularly that month prior and it turned out to be all for nothing as I had a great day. You’ll do fine!

    Also, forgot to thank you for the Anti-Chafe cream you sent (that I won in the raffle). It works wonders…that is if you apply broadly to all “sensitive areas”. I learned this the hard way on my 20 mile run this morning where, much like sun tan lotion on a sunny day, the cream is only effective for as far as it is smeared! Lesson learned!

    • Kevin, it’s always good to hear from people who have done IMWI and have more perspective. If you have any last-minute advice or insight on the course, feel free to e-mail it to me…otherwise, if you’re in the neighborhood on September 12, maybe I’ll see you there! Don’t forget to wear your NMA t-shirt! 🙂

  3. GREAT post! can apply to the single minded athletes as well i.e. marathoners like myself…

    • Absolutely! I find that marathoners tend to be much more laid back, but they still make some of the same mistakes (especially with regard to overtraining/underrecovery).

  4. You really hit the nail on the head with this one:

    “I haven’t slept well, even though I’ve been exhausted.”

    Even though I’m probably a bit atypical because I always love to do one of the three sports, or even two in one day, this how I know I’m overtraining to the extent of burnout: I can’t properly sleep. The second sign of burnout is when my times start getting slower and slower, or when I can’t keep a good pace anymore. Like, I’ve run 6 days in a row. Or in a more typical case (yes I’m a little psycho) I’ve trained for x amount of days in a row, so many I can’t remember what a day off was like — although if I stop and really think hard then maybe the “day off” was “That slow swim” or that “40 minute light job” or “an hour of yoga” two weeks ago. Either way, my times suck and my sleep is poor: not only might the sleeping pattern be crap (5-7 hours per night max) but then I can’t even fall asleep after a day where I’ve done 2+ hours of solid training, often in more than one discipline… Sounds nuts, but that’s when I know I need to take a day completely 100% off (except maybe a walk around town to get some lunch!).

    • I know EXACTLY what you mean! EXACTLY!

      There’s been more than one time when my coaches have wanted to smack me around and scream, “Susan, eight miles is NOT a recovery run! Swimming for an hour does NOT count as a rest day! Follow the damn plan!”

  5. Absolutely love this series! Great post!

  6. Great stuff. So very true – it’s easy to fall into the trap of working on the discipline that one is better at, rather than working on the one that they’re not. Balance, balance, balance. As a collegiate swimmer, I can at least say that I focus more on running and cycling than I do swimming (although not enough speedwork at the track)

    And as a Type-A (not sure if I’m a minus or a plus) a lot of the pitfalls are common. Yes, “…I’m Dave and I’m a Triathlete”

    • Hi, Dave! Welcome to the group. We have cookies and punch. Okay, not really. But we do have punch-flavored Gu. 🙂

      It’s good that you recognize the importance of training your other skills. Where I began, I needed to develop different skills in all three disciplines, but as training has really developed me into a true-blue triathlete, it’s already been determined that my weak sport is the bike — so in the off-season, that’s where I’ll be doing the majority of my training.

  7. That’s an interesting post there. My husband has taken to training in all three sports and is toying with the idea of trying a triathlon. I think I can recognize some of the traits you mention in him.

    • Anne, share this article with him…and tell him you’re doing it out of love. LOVE. Triathletes can sometimes be a wee bit defensive if you call them “Type-A whiny overacheiving buttheads,” which is exactly what this article is saying, but I really do point this out to help y’all. I promise.

  8. Sorry about the burnout. I didn’t realize you were doing IM Wisconsin. I live in Madison and I’ll be one of the folks braying at folks in donkey jerseys out there, and you may even see me in MY carrot costume, screaming and yelling for folks. If you see a carrot out on the course, know that it’s me!

  9. Avoiding burnout! So easy to tell others yet so hard to avoid yourself!

  10. This post makes me kinda glad I’m not a triathlete… hang in there!

  11. Vanessa Ryden says:

    Oh my God! Thank you for this. My friend posted it on my wall after I told on myself via facebook that I was DONE! Finished! OVER THIS STUPID TRIATHLON BUSINESS! (Another A-minus factoid – if I can’t do it perfectly, I won’t do it AT ALL!! – LOL)I’m a classic case and today, after reading this, I will be a bit kinder to myself. Oh, and I will swim – my weak link)

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