Mental Periodization

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We’ve all heard the expression changing gears. We typically think of changes in force when this expression is used, but rarely do we think of changing gears in terms of our mental approach to training and racing. Have you ever considered the level of focus you bring during each phase of training? Do you have different mental approaches that you apply at different phases of your training? During each phase of training we seek different physiological responses. Similarly there should be different mental approaches to the way you train and race. Let’s face it, we can’t always walk around with race week focus and intensity. Our mental focus should peak at just the right time to give us the greatest chance of success come race day.

In each phase you should change mental gears to match the phase of training you are in. A periodization method to your mental approach to training and racing? Quickly let’s review the different phases of training and the desired physiological effects.

PREPARATION PHASE: This phase can last anywhere from 3-4 weeks and the general purpose is to get the body (muscles, ligaments, tendons, and mind) ready for the next phase.

BASE PHASE: Depending on the time of year you can have up to 3 base phases that last upwards of 3-4 months. In the base building phase you are typically working on Endurance, Force, Speed Skills (technique) and Muscular Endurance. Think of this phase as laying the foundation of your home.

BUILD PHASE: Build phases typically occur within 6-8 weeks of you’re races. During this phase you continue to emphasize Endurance, Force, Speed Skills and Muscular Endurance while incorporating Anaerobic Endurance and Power. The intensity of your workouts increases while the duration typically decreases.

PEAK: Some people call this a taper but peak is a better terminology. If this were Covey’s 7 habits it would be referred to as sharpening the saw. In this phase you touch on all of the abilities in the Build phase and add some power to your workouts. Typically a peak phase lasts 1-2 weeks.

TRANSITION: This phase is all about giving the body and mind a rest. It allows the body to recover from all the stresses placed on it in training and racing. Look at this phase as your vacation from triathlon.

So let’s adapt our mental energy and focus to each periodization phase.

Preparation Phase: Your focus should shift to the season ahead. During this phase you should finalize your race plans and goals for the year. Establish both your short and long term goals for the season. Goals can be as broad or narrow as you like, however they need to be measurable, within your control and objective. You begin to prepare mentally for the season ahead. Begin to think about ways to control your focus, practice self control and envision what a successful race season is for you. Write your goals down and have them visible (bathroom mirror, car dash board, next to your computer at work). What focus will you bring to training and racing this year? How will you evaluate if you are on track? What areas do you need to improve on? This will help you stay focused on what mattes the most.

Base Building phase: The mental skills necessary for successful races are practiced well in advance of race day. During this phase you begin to define the mental focus you will carry forward into the season. As we all know, the base building phase requires commitment and persistence. How often have you deviated from the plan out of necessity to fulfill your ego? During this phase you should learn to establish self control. When your workout calls for a zone ½ run do you find yourself having self control?
You will also begin to establish your distraction control in this phase. On race day you will need to stay focused during extended periods of time. There are potential distractions around every corner. The distractions you face in training can be different than those you face on race day but they help form how you will approach distractions on race day. How do you handle a last minute request from your boss to work over time when you had a ride planned? Does the request send you over the edge and you end up missing the workout? Or do you react calmly and put an alternate plan in place to allow peace to be reached on all fronts? As you build the foundation of your training, you establish the foundation of what type of mental approach you will bring to the rest of the season. Identify those moments that make you anxious (open water? the swim start? nutrition? Race week?) and develop key phrases or actions that will bring you back to a quiet state of mind. Begin developing your mental strategy and your re- focusing plan.

Build/Peak Phase: During this phase you should begin brining your race day focus to the key parts of your workouts. Challenge yourself to mentally stay in race mode during the harder parts of your workouts. During this phase you will fine tune your distraction control. What focus are you bringing to your workouts? Your race day focus is fine tuned during this phase. Are you maintaining a high level of focus during your training or are you easily distracted? Begin to write down the mental strategies you will incorporate on race day. Incorporate positive mental imagery during this phase. See yourself being successful in all three disciplines. Learn to relax focus and allow your body to take over. Prepare mantras that will bring you back to focus should you become distracted. Phrases such as relax, breath, focus, smooth and efficient etc. Develop something that brings you back to a proper state of mind.

Race Day:

If you have taken the necessary steps to prepare, race day focus should come naturally. Your goal on race day is to bring everything together and take what ever the day gives you. Remove yourself from the other competitors before the race and find a quiet, focused state of mind and stay there all race long. Your goal on race day is to allow the body and mind to take over. Strive for a mind that is in the moment and focusing on performing efficiently.
With a little extra attention you can make a drastic improvement in your mental training and racing. It may well be the extra edge you need to beat your competition. Keep in mind……….. How You Train Makes the Difference!!!

Written by

Pete Alfino is a level II USAT certified coach and the owner of Mile High Multisport. An accomplished triathlete who has completed 4 Ironman races, he has successfully coached triathletes of all ages and abilities from sprint to Ironman races. You may contact pete at to learn more about the triathlon coaching services he provides via Mile high Multisport.