Mind Vs Body
by Tamsin Lewis
September 15th 2010
teamTBB athlete Tamsin Lewis has been struggling with mental training demons of late. It is a symptom we are all very familiar with. Problem is when triathlon is your job understanding how to combat those demons that keep creeping into you usually steadfast focus is imperative. Read on for some great thoughts and insight into handling those negative demons…
From Tamsin’s Blog:
I was reflecting on the negative self dialogue that I’d been struggling with of late trying to change it, refocus and well HTFU. Flicking through this months’ article of Triathlete Magazine, I came across an article entitled:
Definitely worth a read… He begins talking about one of the most spectacular bonks in triathlon history at the 1995 Hawaii Ironman. Paula Newby Fraser having already won the race seven times built a seemingly insurmountable 11-minute lead on the bike. But Karen Smyers came after her hard on the run, chipping away at the gap at more than 20 seconds per mile, mile after mile. With 10K to go, Newby Fraser still had three minutes in hand, but seeing how close Smyers had drawn, she panicked and began skipping aid stations. In the closing miles of the race her stride slowly tightened up, and then it fell apart. AS she descended the famous hill on Palani Road with scarcely two kilometres left to cover, she began to start weaving like a drunk driver. She told journalists after the race:
“ I stopped at one point and said: “I can’t finish’. I was starting to lose consciousness. .. Why couldn’t I have kept going another 200 yards? But there was no way. I actually thought that I had given my life to this race and was going to die. When I sat down on the road, there was no way I could move. I said to myself ‘just take another step’, but there was no way I could do it”
Moments after Smyers passed a stationary Newby-Fraser(NF) on the homestretch, the utterly defeated champion collapsed, staying on the ground for 20 minutes before she recovered enough to walk to the line, now in fourth place.
Newby-Fraser posed an interesting question. Indeed, why couldn’t she have just kept going another 200 or so yards to the finish line? One might speculate that slipping those last few aid stations caused her muscle energy stores to run dry and they shut down; or that feeling the pressure of the chasing Smyers had caused her to overreach and overheat or that 10 hard years of triathlon had taken a toll on her body, which could no longer go as long and hard as it used to.
Exercise physiologist, Samuel Marcora would offer a rather different explanation for NF’s implosion within sight of the finish line. He would say she just plain QUIT. Her muscles were perfectly capable of getting her to the finish line ahead of Karen Smyers. The feeling that she was physically incapable of taking another step was an illusion. She just couldn’t take the suffering anymore and over and over she told herself she couldn’t go on.
See it here!
So…… (and I know Doc will love to read this!) Fatigue is all in your head. That is easy to say, but harder to convince yourself of when your legs are cramping and the pace has slowed to the trademark Ironman shuffle. But really, there is a theory in endurance sports that suggests that fatigue is not a product of bodily shutdown, but of the brain.
The traditional model of fatigue focused on peripheral factors. The idea was that the muscles in the legs and arms begin to fail due to lack of oxygen, glycogen or electrolytes and so we slow down accordingly. Tim Noakes, professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, was credited with pioneering a new model of fatigue, referred to as the Central Governor Model (CGM). This model asserts that physical exertion is controlled by the brain and not by the peripheral muscles. When the brain senses that reserves are getting low, it begins to shut down muscle fibre recruitment in order to protect the heart from damage done by lack of oxygen. So it is not your quads giving out underneath you, but it is actually your brain telling your muscles to take it easy to avoid a physical catastrophe. You’ll experience this reduction in neural recruitment as fatigue, but there is actually always an “emergency reserve” maintained in the muscles. It is similar to the fuel light coming on in a car: It motivates you to take precautions against running out of fuel, but realistically you can still drive a fair way on “empty” due to the buffer built by manufacturers, who know that a certain gender is hardwired to ignore the first few warnings and drive around on “E” until the situation gets really desperate. There are always a few athletes who can override this internal regulator—we have all seen images of athletes crawling to the finish, having ignored their bodily signals for so long that a peripheral breakdown really does occur.
Samantha McGlone, writing for Triathlete Europe suggests way of overcoming the fatigue demons: “I find the Central Governor Model comforting. It’s good to know that all that pain I am experiencing in a race isn’t actually doing irreversible damage to my muscles and systems. The pain is merely a strong suggestion that I might want to slow down and get some fuel and fluids in ASAP. With that knowledge, it’s easier to push past the comfort zone and well into the hurt locker. If you stop considering that pain is a bad thing, if you can remove yourself from the immediacy of the sensations and look at pain as an objective signal, like that gas indicator light, it becomes much easier to just grit your teeth and get to the finish line as fast as possible, which is really the best motivation of all’
Instead of the pain, try focusing on these five things:
1. Form: It’s hard to run properly when your legs feel like lead, but thinking about form cues will increase efficiency and help recruit the strongest muscles for the job.
2.Fuel and fluid: It seems obvious, but slowing the pace a little and fuelling at each aid station can bring a racer back from the brink. The brain runs on glycogen, so motivation requires a steady stream of quick sugar.
3. Count steps: Sometimes it’s all you can do just to put one foot in front of the other. Try just counting strides to 100 a few times and voilà—there goes another mile. Up for a challenge? Count backwards.
4.Think about why you are racing: Personal achievement, charity, family, friends, a bet, etc. Knowing that someone else is counting on you makes getting to the finish line all the more pressing.
5.“Pain is temporary, pride is forever.” Kind of corny but oh-so-true.
So if you can control your mind, you can control your race. As we have to physically train for a race why not give mental training a shot too? Having a mantra…a positive motivational phrase to repeat to yourself daily.
For example: Sports psychologists use the “If … then” model. e.g:
1) If I feel tired then I will focus on good technique. (e.g attentional control).
2) If I feel low in confidence then I will visualize myself performing at the top of my game.
The key to using psychological strategies is to REPEAT them - (5 times a day!), this reinforces their implementation and conditions the response so that when it is needed it is automatic.