If you've trained hard to prepare for a race, there comes a point when there's no benefit to continued hard training. It takes weeks to turn hard work into increased muscle and power, and overdoing it during race week can cook your goose.
However, there are a few do's and don'ts that may give you the extra edge needed to let it all hang out on race day, with nothing left over and no haunting regrets.
The following techniques are culled from the habits of the greats. The amount of value each has for you depends on your personality, and each will need tweaking to conform to your particular needs. But once tweaked, following these measures will help you avoid the usual pitfalls and happily pop the cork on race day.
1. Fully Prepare
One thing about a triathlon: If you don't come prepared, there's no chance you're going to luck your way through it. The true road to the best psychological preparation for an endurance event is to have thoroughly and relentlessly prepared. By suffering in your training, you'll be better able to handle race day. Here's a mantra for you: Work so hard in your training that racing feels like a breeze.
The corollary, of course, is this: train too little or too easy, and race day becomes an inescapable drag. Go prepared. Other natural by-products of having completed a rigorous training program include confidence and an excitement for the race born from anticipation. Coming unprepared breeds dread.
2. Arrive Rested
One challenge that consistently hard-working triathletes often face—particularly those falling under the banner of a "Type A" personality—is of knowing when to gear down the training.
If it's a minor race you have before you, a stepping-stone in other words, then training through it is appropriate. You'll still need a measure of taper before the event and recovery days after it (the exact number depending mostly on the length of the race), but you probably won't want to execute a three- or four-week taper.
This is an area best worked out with a good coach. If you're self-coached, or don't listen to your coach, then consider this: whether it's a full taper or an abbreviated taper, if you're a hard-training triathlete, don't let inner demons drive you into training like a madman all the way to race day.
It's not like a final world history exam where last-minute cramming can score you extra points. In triathlon, last-minute cramming will leave you weak and empty on race day. And then, after a horrible day, the typical cycle is to reproach yourself for not having trained hard enough, and then do it all again. Only worse.
Bottom line? Trust your training and trust the need for a good taper, especially for the race that has the big star on your calendar.
3. Set Goals That Are Challenging but Not Out of Reach
This is another necessity in coaxing out a best effort on race day, and another area where having a coach is very helpful. A good coach will be able to look at your training and choose a race goal that's doable; a goal that can be broken down into digestible splits, and that the athlete can mark during the race.
Keep the carrot in view during the swim, the bike and the run, and rest assured you'll have an extra edge of energy throughout the day, an invaluable bulwark against the bleak moments of suffering. If the goal is set too high, and you realize there's no way in hell you'll ever come close to it, then the reverse happens. You may suffer an energy drain and a hailstorm of thoughts trying to get you to drop out.
4. Know the Course and Break it Into Small Bites
If you want your best race, know the course. Study the course maps, the layout of the transition area, and if at all possible, ride or drive the bike course and run course at least once.
Know the direction and geometry of the swim course. Being unfamiliar with the map adds the stress of uncertainly to your day (not to mention the possibility of going off course). Knowing the course gives you confidence in sensing how hard to hit the gas pedal. After studying it, break it into small segments.
During the race, concentrate only on the segment you're in (for example the first loop of the swim, or the first 15 miles of the bike). This technique comes in especially handy during long triathlons that can overwhelm if thought about as a whole, and increases your ability to focus and stay in the moment.
Rather (using an Ironman as an example) than think of the bike leg as 112 miles, break it up into four 25-mile chunks with a final 12-mile chunk at the end. When you're riding the first 25 miles, contain your thinking to riding those 25 miles with efficiency and smarts, staying on pace and carrying out your nutrition plan. Forget about the rest until you get to it. Nail that segment. When you do finish the segment, take up the next 25 miles and repeat.