Have you ever looked around you at a race start line and observed the actions of others as they face the gravity of what they are about to face?
It makes for interesting observations.
There is aways a mixture of elation, nerves, anxiety, excitement; strong emotions that can affect how the day plays out.
It can be a stressful time – but there always seems to be one or two people that just seem like they are in a zone. Its as if they are staring right through everyone and everything around them and are completely void of any emotion or reaction to the ongoing carnival around them.
For years these people really bugged me. Why were they in such a different state to the rest of us? What made them so different? It wasnt the physical – I have observed people of all racing abilities in this state. They were facing the same long, hard day as the rest of us, but seemed completely un-phased.
After some years pondering this, I gave up and simply accepted that this was a better state to be in and made plans to follow suit. I didnt have anything to substantiate this with – no science or understanding as to why I needed to be in that place.
But common sense told me that if I was going to push my body for the better part of a day, then I needed to start off in a pretty calmed state.
What I have now learned over more recent years is that whilst join the outside these people (myself now included) appear über-zen but in actuality their biology is behaving much the same as everyone else.
Their hearts might be beating 2 or 3 beats slower, which is a good thing, but they are still producing the same chemicals in the body that will enable them to prepare for the day ahead.
Racing is a stressful environment: it begins with the physiological and psychological stressors of preparedness and as the day goes on the stress increases as we battle fatigue.
There are simple ways to mitigate some of these stressors: dont eat foods that will shut your body down, dont ignore the need to remain truly hydrated, dont pace yourself too hard too early, dont throw in the towel when things dont go your way .
If you think about it, you could make a pretty good list of stressors I can manage. Or, as I like to put it: Shit that I can control.
What separates those calmly focused individuals from those yo-yo-ing through the various levels of panic (from indifference to Holy F$%k what am I doing) is not simply ones monk-like approach to life. I am definitely not that person (though I do try, honest), but there is a method that we can adopt – each and every one of us – that will enable us to face the challenge of a race with a better approach.
Will it mean that will race faster? Potentially. Will it mean that we will enjoy the process? Absolutely.
The strategy is acceptance. Not just of the challenge, but of the stress itself.
See for years we have been taught to fear stress. It is harmful to our health – physical and mental. It is harmful to our performance. Basically, stress sucks.
Or does it?
We know that measured doses of good stress can have a positive affect on the body. If we apply the right amount of stress at the right times, our body responds accordingly by releasing chemicals that enable us to overcome that stress. To put it quite simply: this is how we can climb steep gradients, and swim in shark infested waters.
When faced with stress, our biology responds.
And there is some pretty amazing new science investigating this is leading to a re-thinkning of stress.
Rather than try and explain it, I would rather you spend a short, but highly valuable amount of time watching this TED Talk by leading health psychologist, Kelly McGonigal. Go ahead and watch. I will wait here.
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So as Kelly explains, we can allow stress to become our friend; if we accept our stress – whatever it is – then we are actually preparing ourselves to better deal with it.
Now, obviously this doesnt means we shouldnt look to add more stress just for the sake of it. A smart athlete knows that in order top perform well, they need to control the controllables. Chronic stress is BAD for you – if you dont know how to respond appropriately.
As Kelly explains, by accepting our stress, we can then plan to better manage it, by understanding how our body is designed to respond to that stress. Again, if we have multiple stressors coming from different directions (training, life, finances, work, etc), then we still need to make efforts to minimise what we can control.
And of course, if you can learn to control your stress in a race, then you can use that same strategy for other parts of your life (and vice-versa).
A really interesting insight that Kelly makes is that our biology is programmed to release chemicals when under stress that allow us to feel compassion. Perhaps this is why triathletes tend to be super nice during a race; high-fiving random strangers, sharing nutrition, just generally being super supportive of their fellow competitors.
And this is probably why we can do what we do in an Ironman – because that slight exposure to stress is enough to produce a positive biological response which then enables the body to get through the day. We are designed to handle stress. Knowing that is actually very empowering .
Those über calm people, know it intuitively. They have become great at accepting the stress as necessary.
Regardless of the stress you can re-think your approach to it and create a real strategy to manage it.
Seriously. Watch Kellys talk.