Learning how to manage our attention and what we think about while training is a vital skill to master. Most of us can use improvement in this area. Benefits include more focused skill development, more concentrated interval training, and an enhanced ability to find that “runners high” that many athletes crave.
If you had a plan to follow that could teach you these things, how much would it be worth to you? I’d like to share with you a story of how one triathlete, David, put these skills into practice when it really counted…during the swim leg of his first practice triathlon.
It doesn’t matter if your a new swimmer like David, or a seasoned racer like Lance. Knowing how to control your emotions and convert nerves, anxiety and fear into positive emotions is knowledge that everyone can benefit from. Here is David’s story.
David’s First Ocean Race
This April I participated in mini triathlon as a swim angel for a new triathlete at the end of one of our training camps. The mini triathlon consisted of a 500 yard swim, 3 mile bike and 1 mile run. David’s new swim skills looked great in the pool and on video but had yet to be put into action in a race-like setting…with wetsuit and in open water.
I began the mini-race next to him as we let the main group go ahead. Even before the first buoy 20 yards from the beach I knew that his energy was not going to last. His stroke deteriorated to a high-turnover-clawing through the water, head up with an unspoken mission of “I don’t want to get left behind”.
I hoped David would “settle in”, but “settling in” of course, is a learned race technique. After about 100 yards of this effort he resorted to breaststroking then freestyle, back and forth. But even his breaststroke was wasting energy.
With every breath he took I saw him firmly fixated on something far in the distance…perhaps not even the exit point but perhaps some mirage on the tropical horizon. He was far outside of his body in a mental sense. He was “over there” and he needed to be “right here”.
David seemed to me to be on the verge of panic. He’d finally paused in this struggle long enough for me to offer some words of encouragement. Relax your neck, lengthen your stroke, feel the streamlining with each stroke. These words helped a little bit. I encouraged him to roll over on his back to get a few restful deep breaths rather than continuing to struggle in breaststroke.
Finally, he calmed enough to begin focusing on technique as if he were in the pool. We swam in short thoughtful intervals. First I asked him to count twenty strokes then roll over on his back for a short rest. We went from twenty to thirty strokes. Even the simple act of counting allowed him to control his energy and emotions and return to being inside of his own body and in control.
For the final 50-100 yards he swam on his own, guided by short repeats of 20-30 strokes followed by a few breaths on his back. Finally, all of his technique work from the previous week finally came through. Longer smoother strokes, relaxed breathing, forward movement without churning the water. He looked like a swimmer. No…he looked like a triathlete! He exited the water smiling…a big relief for me!
Process Oriented Training & Racing – How David’s Swim Could Have Unfolded
This swim was a real learning moment for me about things I take for granted. David used up all sorts of physical and emotional energy at the beginning of the swim, but was able to relax by the end. What if he had reversed his energy going into it? What if he’d started the race with his calm quiet focus, swimming 30 strokes with a relaxed neck, rolled over for a few breaths and continued until he was in tune with the water? If he’d focused on the process of going from start line to T1 instead of focusing on the other swimmers and the exit point?
Let’s do a short visualization. The starting gun goes off and instead of charging into the water with a flurry of stroking and kicking, he decides ahead of time that he’s going to wade in, take several deep breaths and make his first entry into the water in a relaxed superman glide position…focusing only on relaxing his neck.
He glides for a second or two feeling the combined buoyancy of saltwater and his wetsuit allowing him to glide forward without using any energy at all. Around him others are still storming into the water creating waves, splash and bubbles, He takes his first strokes easily and then his first breath. He continues to feel relaxed. He tunes out the noise of the other swimmers and counts 20 smooth strokes before focusing again on making sure his neck is relaxed. Swimming within his own body, he begins to really enjoy the swim…not at all like his last race!
Midway through the swim he’s feeling confident and shifts his focus to another focal point. He again counts out sets of 20 strokes enjoying further focus and amazingly, he feels as if he may be moving a little faster through the water. He is surprising himself! He lets go of any concern about where the other swimmers are. Energized, he wonders if he might be able to push himself just a little bit.
He focuses on a slightly faster stroke while continuing to extend into a streamline. It seems to be working. Slowly he starts to pass struggling swimmers who look frantic, tired, and longing for the swim to end.
Before he knows it, he’s at the beach, smiling!
Practice Process Oriented Focus Now – and Benefit on Race Day
As race day approaches, now less than three months away, begin practicing this shift in focus for yourself. Remember how I said that “settling in” was a learned strategy? You’ll need to practice the process oriented approach in training in every element of the sport. Practice it on your next swim, your next bike, your next run and even when practicing transitions.
Practice focusing on the things you have in your immediate control and stay within your body while training…especially during interval workouts and long rides and runs. Those times when you find your mind shifting it’s focus to dinner, work, or family are the moments you can best practice shifting back to the process of moving, of training, of being mindful within your own body.
Come race day at the end of July, you may surprise yourself by turning out an enjoyable and faster-than-expected race.
Suzanne Atkinson, MD, founder & head coach of Steel City Endurance, LTD is a Level 2 Certified USA Triathlon & USA Cycling Coach. She is leading a series of clinics and free training programs for registered participants of the 2012 GNC Pittsburgh Triathlon. Click here for an overview of all the triathlon training events and clinics for the 2012 Pittsburgh Triathlon