Triathlon and Mental Health: How To Cope – Part 1

We’re hugely grateful to Tom Ward from Passion Fit for this article on triathlon and mental health. He touches on the prominence of mental health issues within sport and shares actionable tips on how to manage stress and triathlon training.  In fact, Tom have provided so much information that we’ve split it over two blog posts. Part 2 will come next week.

The modern world creates many challenges that we have not evolved well to deal and, in turn, this frequently leads to increased stress. Ultimately it may even lead to depression. When a person experiences these debilitating conditions they can feel that they have no motivation to do anything and can lose their way in the sport they love. Worse still the sport itself can create stress and pressure that they aren’t equipped to cope with.

Despite coming across as ultra confident, I personally suffer with extremely low self esteem and anxiety at times.  My mood is deeply affected by the build up to a race. Despite my lovely wife’s reassurances I stand in transition with a deep belief that everyone there is better than me. I never feel as if I have trained enough or that I am ready to achieve my goals. The self-doubt can be overwhelming. Long triathlon events require year long dedication and during the winter months finding this level of commitment consistently can be more difficult than we expect. Over the years I have used many techniques to help me stay focused, positive and motivated. This ultimately resulted in me setting up my own business and race team designed to support others on this journey.

It is worth noting that I am not a medical expert in mental health or a psychologist but I have experienced challenges with my own mental health in recent years that originated from experiencing domestic abuse while growing up. I also work with a number of athletes who share similar challenges with anxiety, self esteem and depression.  Here are my top tips to a more successful and enjoyable tri journey:

FOCUS ON THE PROCESS NOT THE OUTCOME – Success is not defined by the result of your race or training sessions or how well you did compared to others. Focus on the execution of the race and training sessions and you will find that there are more positives than negatives. Even better, set out clear process goals before the race and practice these before the day so you feel confident. Review your goals regularly and remember that not achieving them is not failure if you followed the process you planned. Make sure the goals are SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time). If they are vague then it will be hard for you to plan and also to celebrate mini successes. Have a plan to follow and break it down. This way you will feel a sense of accomplishment each time you complete part of the plan. Set short term targets, maybe even daily goals. This way the long-term goals won’t become overwhelming and you may feel less anxious when you think about your short term goals rather than the final goal. Even if you just get faster by the blink of an eye each day, eventually this will add up to a big improvement in speed.

DON’T WORRY ABOUT WHAT YOU LOOK LIKE – the media imposes the perfect body image on us. I get fed up of seeing ‘beach body’ nonsense everywhere. Remember that most media images are photo shopped these days. Athletes come in all shapes and sizes. Triathlon is inclusive and open to all abilities and body shapes. Size does not necessarily dictate ability and you don’t have to look like a stereotypical ‘athlete’ to be accomplished.

SURROUND YOURSELF WITH PEOPLE THAT WON’T JUDGE YOU BY THEIR OWN STANDARDS (find a support network) – One person’s success is another person’s failure. Anyone who judges your successes by their own standards is not worth being around. There is nothing wrong with someone helping you to see your true potential and encourage you to reach for that. There is also nothing wrong with others encouraging a certain way of conducting yourself. However, judging another athlete’s success based on your standards is just plain wrong. If you suffer with mental health challenges you will also know that the way you act or react outwardly is not always how you feel inside. Make sure that the people you surround yourself with are people who understand this and who will stand by you and support you while you try to realign your inner feelings with your outward behaviour.

ARRANGE FOR OTHERS TO TRAIN WITH YOU – This is one of the best motivators you can find. Knowing someone else is meeting you for a session or race can be a huge incentive to go. Afterwards you know you will feel empowered by the session.

CONTROL THE CONTROLLABLES – You can’t control everything so focus on the things you can control and stop focusing on the things you can’t. This will keep you calmer and less anxious. For example, at a group swim you can’t control how fast everyone else is. Try to focus on you and your session. In the gym we all worry about how we look but in reality everyone else isn’t looking at you – they are more often than not looking at themselves.

GET INTO COACHING – helping others is inspirational. There is simply nothing more motivating than helping someone else on their journey and seeing them succeed. It is also a great way of getting your training done if you can train with them. You will be amazed how much you learn about yourself when you coach others too, you will become so much more self-aware and confident. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to go off and do a coaching course and sign up to help at a club. It may just mean guiding a friend on a journey you have experience of yourself.

VOLUNTEER AT RACES (this helps you feel privileged) – Racing is a privilege and we often forget that. Go and volunteer at a race and you will appreciate the sport so much more. For me the best part of any Ironman is not watching the pros finish or my own finish but watching Heroes Hour from 11pm-12pm.

SHARE YOUR JOURNEY – write a blog or share on social media. Yes, there will be ‘haters’ but they are normally just jealous.  Sharing your journey is exciting and can make you feel proud. You will also be inspired by the feedback you get from others. However, don’t do it to fish for compliments or self promote, there is far to much of this going on these days and it is juts plain annoying. Do it because you genuinely think others will gain something from reading it otherwise keep it private. You never know who maybe experiencing the same struggles you are. You may inspire someone without even knowing it.


PassionFit is a fitness coaching and personal training business based in Cheltenham. They offer a variety of services and work with athletes from total beginners to elites.