This article is written for the obsessive competitive streak in all triathletes and runners- that little voice that tells us that, surely, we can go a little bit faster next time.

Every athlete putting in dedicated training to a well thought out plan will eventually approach their physical limits for that season of their athletic career. Getting this far along is very commendable, but having invested so much time into their pursuit of peak physical potential, many athletes begin to dream big about breaking through to their next level. It could be a sub 5 hr half ironman, 4’30 marathon, 2’30 Olympic Distance Triathlon- deep down, everyone has THAT time that they would love to beat.

In looking for that last 8- 10%, many make the mistake of hammering away at harder and higher training loads.  This would probably work if you have the luxury of ample training and recovery time, coupled with sound guidance from a good coach. For the majority of us, time-crunched athletes, the extra time required is simply not available and the “cherry on the cake” towards a truly satisfying race performance may feel so close yet so far away.
Think back to the last race that you raced a PB’d. You’ll need to run that race again- and then some! Where could you have pulled back precious minutes and seconds? Chances are that you could have made significant gains from handling the “low – energy” patches of the race better. The moment when you decided to ease up 3/4s the way through the run and it became a whole lot less painful, or when we couldn’t find it in our legs to keep up with the bunch that you had been riding with. Regardless of how fit you are, there comes a point in every race when we have to decide whether to bite down, suffer more or whether to ease up and “cruise for a bit”.
Between 2 identically trained and fit athletes or 2 versions of yourself, the one that is able to stay focused and push through the body’s signals of suffering is the one that will cross the line 1st. That sounds obvious because it is. Yet I often get this question from my athletes, “How do I tap into the mental edge.”

“Focus” is the uninterrupted connection between the athlete and their task; that trance like state of deep concentration, when you are aware only of the things relating to your performance; that sense of effortless control and a total absence of self consciousness, when the boundaries of self and task have melted away into one seamless activity. Some athletes refer to this as “flow” or being “in the zone”.

“Focus” should be practiced by tuning into your body and body movements while training and competing. This will result in an awareness of key feelings when things are going well. Think back to the last time that you were able to push hard, perform well and really enjoyed yourself. You may have experienced this for a few seconds or a few repetitions or if you have been practicing, for the whole training session. Yes- Focus can and definitely should be practiced whenever we are out there.

Practice controlling irrelevant and distracting thoughts (dissociative thinking) during training and competition. Replace them with task oriented and positive thoughts. Consider your form, breathing pattern, stride rate, hydration/ nutritional state, race strategy and redefine your perceived effort to perform more effortlessly. This is known as associative thinking and the tougher the going, the more it’s required to stay competitive.


Here are a few tips to help you stay focused:

·         Relax. For the 10 – 15 mins before training, as you’re making your way to the track/ pool/ setting up your bike on the trainer, clear your mind of the daily distractions , You only have this slot in the day to get it done so make it count and put aside those first/ last few items your to do list. Meditate, on the coming task. How did you perform it last week? How could it have been improved? Remind yourself of what it feels like to swim/ bike/ run with good form. How your arms feel in the water catching a good pull, how you ride better turning perfect circles, what it’s like to run “tall” and “light”. Don’t simply rush through the warm up (or worse still, skip it) and charge headlong into the set thinking, “I’m going to smash myself/ this set.” Ask yourself what it the purpose of this set. Is the focus on strength building / Leg turn over/ spending time in threshold or just getting some volume distance in. Taking a step out of the “training tunnel” and studying the big picture for a while will help you align your training efforts with the intended purpose of the task at hand.
·         Have a mantra. Repeating choice words will direct your mind away from negative/ distractive thoughts towards a positive experience. An effective mantra addresses what you want to feel and not the adversity you want to overcome. Use short, positive and instructive words to transcend the suffering that you’re feeling. Choose one word from each column to create your own verse. Have a few favourites to get you through different sections of you race. I would love to hear what mantras you use ! : )
·         Performance checklist. It is important that you are able to access how you’re doing in that moment, while on the go. Practice going through this list to make little adjustments to improve efficiency. While running- starting from the top down:


  •  Is my face relaxed? Try it. You will automatically feel a lot more relaxed.
  • Is my head bobbing around? Fix your eyes on the next point you are running too and hold a stedy gaze.
  • Are my shoulders relaxed? Drop your shoulders to save energy and release tension.
  • Are my arms swinging smoothly back and forwards? Try to minimise side to side rotation form the shoulders.
  • Breathing- Is it regular? Can I exhale a little deeper while still keeping a lid on it? Am I gasping for breath? Is it getting ragged? Am I breathing deep from my diaphragm?
  •  Form- Am I running tall and relaxed? Is my trunk engaged, pelvis stable, glutes firing nicely
  •   Stride Rate- If you don’t have a foot-pod device, take a count. Is it up there at 90 strides per minute
  • Foot strike- Am I striking under the hip? Are my strikes light and powerful, so that I am spending minimal time in contact with the ground?
  •  Pacing- How far am into my race?  How do I feel? How should I pace myself of the rest of the run? Does my perceived effort match my race strategy? How much futher before I can confidently “let the hammer drop” and I can push ALL OUT for the finish.
  • Nutrition and hydration- How long ago did I last take in some fluids? Do I need electrolytes or gel? How does the stomach feel?


What about swimming or biking? Maybe you could share with me what thoughts keep you focused while out there on the road and in the pool?
When the all the physical training is done, it’s the psychological factors that most affect our performance. Think about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

Enjoy your training.

Shem Leong

Shem Leong


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image-2132.jpgShem Leong is our ironguides coach in Singapore. He has been hooked on triathlon ever since winning his age group in his first Olympic-distance race. Many top performances later, Shem still enjoys the challenges of training and racing at a high level, while balancing this with work and family. He is a firm believer in the benefits of an active lifestyle and loves being able to positively affect his athletes’ lives in this way. In the four years that Shem has worked as an ironguides coach so far, he has helped more than 60 athletes achieve their goals. They range from newbies hoping to complete their first sprint race, to 70.3 podium contenders, to seasoned Sub 10-hour Ironman athletes. Shem’s care for his athletes and his attention to detail set him apart. He completely understands the varied pull factors of life’s demands as well as the fiery motivations that drive everyday age groupers and is able to craft sustainable, effective training plans for their time-crunched schedules. An Honour’s Degree in Health Science has given Shem the knowledge to explain and expertly administer The Method. This, in turn, helps his athletes understand how each session contributes towards their ultimate goal; as a result, countless personal bests have been improved upon as his athletes continually get fitter and faster.


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