Overcoming Anxiety or How to Train to Control Uncertainty

Many of us train long hours in the hope of becoming faster. Then, on race day, despite the progress, we deliver a sub-par performance. It is normally difficult to analyse the true reasons for failure. Executing trainings is not synonymous to executing a perfect race, where you move from a controlled environment with known constraints (training) to an environment where everything is uncertain – (racing). Be it the adversaries’ behaviour and/or their level as an athlete, weather conditions, your emotions and sensations: all of this will have an influence on your performance. Here’s a perfect example: during a track session, my coach was behaving mysteriously. The instructions were clear; follow the group at a tempo pace. However, having probably been distracted, he had given different instructions to all of his athletes.

During the track session, one athlete suddenly accelerated and another would then take the lead a few hundred meters later. Although this became predictable, we could see how some athletes became very anxious. At the end of the session, the result was very surprising because some of the faster athletes had been dropped.

The session illustrated the importance of the psychological aspect of the sport, where an athlete will suffer the consequences of his loss of control over his destiny.

This phenomenon is frequently observed during the world series. At the start of the run, we can see the apprehension felt by athletes wanting to stay with the leaders over the first kilometer that we can clearly observe athletes which are incredibly tense. This anxiety encourages negative thoughts, acting as a catalyst to accelerated mental fatigue. When the perceived effort isn’t adequate anymore, the athlete is destabilised and loses hope of delivering a performance which reflects his potential.

For the age grouppers, the phenomenon is identical. If you are regularly training in a damaged/bumpy bike environment, you might develop fears in this respect, e.g. the fear of crashing from going through a potehole. This apprehension has high odds of transforming itself in negative thoughts and will harm your performance.

We often talk of course specificities of a certain race as a determining factor for race dynamics and technical requirements. Both of these things are relatively simple to acquire/master, however fighting anxiety is a problem which is often inappropriately approached since we usually think that we need to consult a specialist on the matter. Actually, we need to train in a consequent matter, addressing the anxiety.

The way we see it, this is the reason why the level on the ITU circuit isn’t as dense as it should be. With a number of races where the stakes are diverse, athletes are very anxious and uncertain regarding being able to face the racing dynamics or of not making the pack. We can safely say that the best athletes put a lot of effort in cultivating these emotions in their competitors.

How can you train to adapt yourself to these challenges?

Reproduce the race environment

Swimming in the pool does not mimick the open water racing conditions where hundreds of athletes are present. You should therefore do open water swims as well as swim with groups as often as possible in order to simulate race conditions. This applies to cycling and running: replicate the race conditions while training on courses similar to those on which you will race.

Create uncertain conditions.

Instead of having your coach give you the instructions for the training session at the start of the session, have him feed them to you progressively during the workout. For example, if you aren’t aware of the number of intervals you have to do, you will face uncertainty. This will force you to focus your energy on the ‘here and now’ rather than be concerned with the reps outstanding.

Study the particularities of a course and plan accordingly.

To avoid being anxious when faced with the challenges of a course or a distance, it is primordial to better plan your effort. You need to know how you to spend your energy based on the challenges you will encounter.

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