This article is written for the obsessive competitive streak in all triathletes and runners. 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-5:00 half ironman, a 4:30 marathon or a 2:30 Olympic distance triathlon—deep down, everyone has that time they would love to beat. In looking for that last 10% of performance improvement, many make the mistake of hammering away at harder and higher training loads. This would probably work if you had the luxury of ample training and recovery time, coupled with sound guidance from a good coach. However, 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 you did a PB. 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; such as the moment you decided to ease up three-quarters into the run so it became a whole lot less painful, or when you couldn’t find it in your legs to keep up with that bunch you had been riding with. Regardless of your level of fitness, there comes a point in every race when we have to decide whether to bite the bullet and suffer more, or whether to ease up and cruise for a bit.
Between two identically trained and fit athletes, or two versions of yourself, the one who is able to stay focused and push through the body’s signals of suffering is the one that will cross the line first. 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 you were able to push hard, perform well, and really enjoyed yourself. You may have experienced this for a few seconds, 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:
For the 10-15 minutes before training, as you’re making your way to the track or pool, or are 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 thoughts about those last few items of 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.” Remind yourself of the purpose of this set. Is the focus on strength building, leg turnover, spending time at 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 or distractive thoughts towards a positive experience. An effective mantra addresses what you want to feel, not the adversity you want to overcome. Use short, positive and instructive words to transcend the suffering 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 your race.
A B C D
Run Strong Think Power
Go Smooth Feel Speed
Stride Quick Pull Brave
Pedal Light Be Steady
Be Fierce Hold Courage
Performance checklist. It is important that you are able to access how you’re doing in that moment, while on the go. Practise going through this list to make little adjustments to improve efficiency. While running, start from the top down:
- Is my face relaxed?
- Is my head bobbing around?
- Are my shoulders relaxed?
- Are my arms swinging smoothly?
- 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?
- Stride rate: If you don’t have a foot-pod device, simply 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 for the rest of the run? Does my perceived effort match my race strategy?
- 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 some thoughts that 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, Certified ironguides Coach – Singapore
Article reprinted with permission for SWIMBIKERUN.ph