Mental Attitude for Ironman – particularly for my Vineman peeps!

Mental Attitude for Ironman

from Triathlon Training

In the final days before you race an Ironman it is essential that you keep a few things in mind.

Ironman essence – Gratitude

The Ironman hype in the final week before race day often makes you forget the reason you are racing in the first place. Excitement is running high. Triathletes are everywhere, discussing race goals.

This is a good time to remind yourself why you started in this sport. It is very likely you were attracted to triathlon, Ironman, because of the lifestyle it provides you; its health benefits; the opportunity to visit the great places around the world where triathlons are held; and for the unique friendships that develop between athletes.

Ironman is a way to celebrate life: it is a gift to the have time, the health and the finances to take part in such a unique event.

Remind yourself of the above in race week and try to focus less on your splits in each discipline, age-group placing or Kona slots: those are only consequences of a great race execution, based on your fitness and mindset. 

Setting goals

Crossing the finish line is always at the top of the list.

Then you have secondary goals that are usually linked to finish times and/or improving splits in each discipline.

Be careful how you set them and what benchmark you use. Always keep in mind that race day conditions are unique and hard, if not impossible, to predict. If you want to improve your finish time of the previous year, or from another other race, you have to take into account that the conditions such as wind, temperature and currents will most likely be different.

Another problem with predicting finish times, especially for first-timers, is using times done in training: unless you have done an Ironman simulation it is impossible to know how you will react during the final half of the Ironman run. The result window is massive: you might have a solid day and run those 21km in 100 minutes or less, or if you may get cramps and take 3 hours, or more.


Maintaining confidence in your training and race strategy in the final days before Ironman can be a challenge. As soon as you arrive at the race venue you bump into all those sponsored athletes walking around in and with the latest equipment, showing off their lean and vascular legs. Such sights can be quite intimidating to the first timer or beginner athlete.

Remember: before a race everyone looks like a champion – don’t let this hurt your confidence.

Another common thought on race week is: “I should have trained harder!”

You have already done the best you could. Perhaps you had to take a week off training due to work, family or health issues but those are situations we all face. Every single triathlete on the startline of an Ironman had to overcome some sort of challenge during their preparation so don’t worry, you are not alone.

Be realistic

One of the biggest differences between the short races and Ironman is that the latter provides a better opportunity for the athlete to perform according to ability. Never forget this on race day. If you are not feeling great in the swim or the early stages of the bike, stay calm: there is a long day ahead and you will have the opportunity to get into your rhythm as the race progresses.

Other examples are a slow transition or a flat tire: unlike the short course events where your race would be over due to those setbacks, in Ironman you can still catch up on the lost time.

There is no such a thing as having a great race based on experience or “luck”. At best you minimize potential problems by going under-trained into an Ironman but no miracle will happen. Your best choice is to adjust your goals and expectations to avoid frustration.

Rational vs Emotional

Keep your emotions in check on race day: don’t let them take over your race strategy. Adrenalin released in the first few hours of the race, with the type-A and competitive personality of each triathlete, plus the fact that everyone is well-rested and tapered is a perfect recipe for disaster.

The main mistakes happen in the cycling leg, especially during the first hours, when athletes are excited and forget a very long day is only just beginning. As a result, people start to race each other or just ignore their nutrition plan.

Another common mistake that results in an emotional, rather than a rational, approach is after a setback such as a flat tire or a penalty is that athletes tend to “make up for it”. Don’t. Stay calm and be patient in those situations instead. Ironman is a long race and you can slowly, over the next hours, catch up on the missed minutes. Please do not try to do it within the next 60 minutes.

Positive attitude

It takes between 8 and 17 hours to finish an Ironman. That is a lot of time for everything to go as planned, especially considering the myriad of factors the athlete can’t control. It is very likely that something will go “wrong” at some stage during the race.

After I wrote an article about the mental attitude towards the race day challenge last year, several athletes came to talk to me after finishing their Ironman and mentioned that already in the swim leg their race wasn’t going as planned: they couldn’t see the buoys and went off course.

Ironman is all about overcoming obstacles. The challenges start with your training routine, how you manage your work and family commitments with those long sessions that take a lot of your time and energy. The training is 90% of the Ironman experience and is the biggest challenge. Race day is only the celebration of getting to the start line. You will still be tested during the event, be it physically or logistically, but with your Ironman determination you will find a solution and make it to the finish line. 

Have a great race!