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Back 9.21.2017

Gearing up for Kona – the Importance of Mental Fortitude

We talk with pro triathletes Sebastian Kienle and Annabel Luxford about mastering the mental side of triathlon.

Top Zipp athletes Sebastian Kienle and Annabel Luxford reveal how they’ve trained their brains for the rigors of long-distance triathlon.

The airline lost Annabel Luxford’s bike, but she didn’t lose her cool.

Never-mind that the bike (full eTap and Zipp wheels!) went missing just three days before the 35-year-old Australian was set to compete in the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Chattanooga, Tenn. Luxford was more serene than stressed. “Your natural instinct is to want to stamp your feet,” she said, “but there are 100 other passengers who are missing things. I tracked it, put in a form. That’s all I could do.”

The bike showed up the next day, not a Blip or Zipp out of place. That’s not to say the incident didn’t cause any disruption – triathletes famously follow specific training schedules. Yet Luxford knew her meaningful training to prepare for 70.3 Worlds was already done. If she had to spin on a stationary bike or run instead, so be it. 

NEW ZIPPCAST: More from Sebastian Kienle on developing an iron will. 

“When you’re younger you kind of stress out about those things more,” Luxford said. “As you get older, you realize there’s no point wasting energy, as cliché as it sounds, on stuff you can’t control.”

Around the same time Luxford was getting back her bike – fully checked over the SRAM tech –Sebastian Kienle was in full pre-race taper mode. Dressed in a tracksuit, the 33-year-old German rested on the big soft couch in his host family’s Chattanooga home. He flipped between cable sports channels searching for NFL news (we’ll talk more about Kienle’s love of American football, and why it matters, later).

Most athletes or performers know that anxious time before a big race. There’s nervous energy, but nothing to do. “It’s definitely not the favorite days because you can’t really do anything anymore,” Kienle said. “You can just mess it up.” Kienle and Luxford’s insights into how they’ve honed their mental approaches include training and competition as well as dealing with success and setbacks.

Ironman isn’t a Sprint but a Mega-Marathon

Both in their 30s, Luxford and Kienle have gained perspective and confidence from their many years in pro triathlon. This allows them to trust themselves.

“Probably the biggest thing is that sense of confidence that you get knowing your own body and just trusting your instincts. So, in the past if I had a little niggle or injury, I would feel as though I had to try to push through it,” Luxford said. “Now I’ve got the confidence to say, ‘You know, I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve got a good lot of training in the bank. I’m just going to give this a rest.’ You can’t rush the body, and nine times out of 10 within a couple of days things are resolved. Whereas if you try and fight it, it almost always backfires.”

Kienle looks to use the intensity of training to prepare his mind as well as his body.

“I think a lot of people, they like to go running with music and like to have distractions, so they’re not feeling the pain of the training,” he said. “You don’t always need to be aware of what you are doing. If you’re riding endless hours on the bike sometimes it’s the best thing to just switch off the brain and do the work, but I also try to switch on the brain and do the work and work with my brain at the same time. You could always be mentally strong if you’re lying on the sofa. But it’s a different thing to be mentally strong when you’re in a situation that you will probably experience during the race. I often have sessions that are not as hard as the race but are basically coming pretty close to that. It those sessions, I am trying to be very aware of myself and trying to guide my thoughts.”

Ocean Waves and Brain Waves

Swimming is Kienle’s weakest of the three tri disciplines, which means he’s often behind top rivals out of the water. He puts a positive spin on this.

“I learned how to transform this into an advantage. Of course, it’s not an advantage, that’s for sure. But on the other hand, if you’re racing from behind and, I’m a strong cyclist, you start to catch up with people, that gives you a mental boost. You know that probably your weakness is already over,” said Kienle, who works to battle negative self-talk: “You often think if I would have swam 1:30 minutes quicker, probably I would have made this pack and I could have relaxed in the pack and save so much energy vs. like going on my own…

“But then, that’s what triathlon is all about. It’s three disciplines and not all of them you are equally strong. That makes it interesting in training and also, of course, in racing.”

Luxford has been swimming since she was a child. “It’s almost like my mind sort of switches off. Maybe it’s too long of looking at a black line and being hypoxic,” she said with a laugh.

Riding and running, she said, brings a different sort of mental challenge.

“It feels like it goes for such a longer amount of time that you can oscillate between feeling good and feeling average and feeling terrible and feeling fantastic within one race. So, to take note of those sensations because they could be good queues, maybe I am pushing the pace too much or maybe I am being too conservative, or maybe I need to drink more. If I feel like I am taking in and making good decisions about those things.”

But she also is mindful not to get too caught up in those sensations and to simply focus on the factors within her control – hydration and pacing.

Lessons from Race Day, Win or Lose

Kienle has lived the glory and challenges of Kona. In 2014, he was world champ. Then fellow German (and SRAM, Zipp and Quarq athlete) Jan Frodeno won in 2015 and 2016.

“There are always two different ways to measure your performance,” Kienle said. “The first way is, of course, to win the race. It doesn’t matter how you won the race. …. The sponsors, the media, and your bank account probably don’t care if you won the race by 2 seconds or 2 minutes or 12 minutes.

Then there are races he doesn’t win.

“It’s your personal progress…. If I’m still able to progress and to be better and getting better, that’s a good thing. Sometimes I end up in fourth place, but I need to be happy with my race because it was a very good race and I performed the very best. Of course, for the perfect race you have both things at 100 percent – you won the race with your best possible performance.”

Luxford balances her tendency for self-criticism with a wider view of life beyond sport.

“I’m definitely my harshest critic like probably most of the athletes who are racing here. We all race for different reasons, but I think a universal reason is we all want to have our best day, especially at a world championship event,” she said. “I sort of just remind myself of a few things, ‘ I’ve done some good work, I’m facing the same conditions everyone is facing, also whilst it is my livelihood and it’s something I really want to achieve at, it’s still just sport. I kind of remind myself that, yeah, my partner is still going to be there. My family is still going to be there. The people who are important, I work with some great sponsors who know that an athlete’s worth is not just tied up in one single day.”

An Ironman who Loves the Gridiron

If you want to see Kienle’s face light up, start talking American football. The German finds his passion for the NFL a perfect distraction from the taper and stress in the weeks leading to Kona. In Hawaii, he can watch the games finishing late on the East Coast and still get to bed early.

“For Kona, you’re not moving very much outside of training. It’s basically eating, sleeping, training, and having naps in addition to sleeping. Then watching TV and reading, that’s pretty much it to be honest. I have to say that I love to have this distraction,” he said of football.

That sounds like a perfect game plan.

Kienle finish fourth and Luxford sixth at the recent Ironman 70.3 World Championships. Kona is next up for both of these Zipp athletes.

Photos © BrakeThrough Media