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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, September 6, 2001

Try & tri-again
Keep pre-race jitters in balance

Editor's note: Writers Vicki Viotti, a novice athlete, and Katherine Nichols, an experienced competitor, are training together for Sunday's Niketown Na Wahine Sprint Triathlon. In this weekly column, they share insights from experts, other athletes and their own training regimen, aimed at helping readers push their own boundaries — physically and mentally.

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

Illustration by Jon Orque • The Honolulu Advertiser
It starts with that distinctly sickening feeling that everyone has romanticized with the expression "butterflies in your stomach."

If you're not careful, pre-race jitters can snowball into what can only be called "the screaming meemies." There is no way to romanticize this phenomenon.

And the rush of adrenaline can make you do crazy things, veteran triathlete Debbie Hornsby told a crowd of women at a seminar previewing the Niketown Na Wahine Sprint Triathlon.

"If you're going to put on a jersey (after the swim), don't put on your bike helmet and try to put the jersey over the helmet — not that I've ever done that, of course," Hornsby said. Then she rolled her eyes, as if confessing, "Yeah, I've done it, too."

"The consolation has to be (that) everyone is in that state of hyper-nervousness or tension," Hornsby added later. "Just knowing that you're not the only person in this conundrum can be very soothing."

Today marks T-minus three days until the triathlon, and everyone — from newbie to elite athlete — is feeling something. And, said Jan Prins, they should.

"A little apprehension is good," said Prins, a former University of Hawai'i swim coach with a background in exercise physiology. "It raises arousal and awareness. Show me somebody who's perfectly calm before a race and I'll show you somebody who's not going to perform to expectations."

Physical stressors (and even nonphysical challenges, like public speaking) produce what's popularly called "fight or flight syndrome," and there are real physiological changes aimed at helping you cope better, Prins said.

Adrenaline-type hormones, known as catacholamines, flow through the bloodstream, and they have some radical effects. The heart rate and blood pressure increase, he said; blood is diverted from the skin (thus the familiar cold clamminess) and from the gastrointestinal tract to better supply working muscles (thus the upset stomach if you eat the wrong foods beforehand).

The trick is keeping stress levels just high enough to sharpen your focus on the race but not so high that they careen out of control. People generally develop their own approach over time — practice makes perfect, Prins said — but the experts have some general advice to share.

One is simply good health practice. Since your digestive system is under stress, it's smarter not to eat something fatty or something to which you're unaccustomed, said Glenn Beachy, a trainer at Punahou School. Race day is not a time for experimentation; try out different meals before a training run to test your reaction, he said. Drink lots of water the week of the race, and get plenty of rest.

"So many of our kids are Type A personalities," Beachy said. "They're really motivated and they want to do everything. They never think of the importance of rest and letting your body recover and build."

But physiology is only part of the issue. So much of the challenge lies in getting your head on straight. Honolulu performance coach Brad Yates advises clients to practice relaxation, focusing on body parts and consciously relaxing them, breathing deeply. The better you get at these skills, Yates said, the better your "mental toughness." This, he explained, is "the ability to relax under pressure so you can give your best effort."

Positive thinking is very helpful; even scripting out your fears, and the thoughts that will "reframe" them, is a good idea, Yates said.

"This would be like showing up at the race and saying, 'Wow, this is an opportunity,'" Yates said. "It's the fear that's causing the jitters. The reframe is, 'Wow, I'm really happy to be here, and what a great day.'

"Usually the start is real important. You want to have a particular level of energy. I have (the athlete) describe the energy they want at the start."

Hornsby has used visualization to get herself through the highly stressful transitions from swim to bike or bike to run segments. She pictures herself moving through each step, donning her shoes and socks for the bike ride, removing her helmet for the run.

The best de-stressor, Prins said, is experience. You've got to expect that the first time will be a little rough.

And even the novices can bolster their confidence with a trial tri. The Na Wahine training group recently held a practice triathlon, with slightly scaled-down distances. Afterward, the participants basked in elation and relief.

"This is the biggest thing in preparation for the race," said race director KC Carlberg. "Now, you know you can put it together."