We face many challenges in endurance sports; fuelling, pacing, equipment, course design – all play a major factor in the outcomes of a race.
All are very manageable and very trainable.
You can practice fuelling during your longer sessions. You can develop your pacing ability over several months. You should rehearse the use of particular equipment and you can specify training according to the course you intend to race on.
All very doable, and highly recommended.
But one of the biggest issues endurance athletes face is their ability to stay focused during a race. It goes without saying that if you cannot refine that skill during training then you have buckley’s chance of nailing it when it counts.
It’s not that we as endurance athletes do not posses the ability to execute laser-like focus (the BEST example of this is I can give is Caroline Stephen; that girl trains and races with scary focus!) it’s more that the nature of moving our body in a forward direction for multiple hours tend to lend to a latency in focus; we know it is there, but it’s difficult to dig it up on a long day.
When I played baseball focus was easy.
Everything we did was broken into innings and plays. So the required time for my attention was quite short, broken into little minutes of play with plenty of time to reset my focus after a few outs or change of innings. In training everything we did was broken down into minute movements and patterns (plays), all requiring very concentrated focus but for very short amounts of time.
You are either in the game and focused on the now or you are somewhere else; either in the future or in that past. That’s not say the future isn’t important but you need to understand what is going on in the now, so you can plan for the future with accuracy.
We are well equipped with the mechanisms to engage supreme focus. Every single one of us. It is highly trainable. But, just because you are a highly trained athlete does not mean you are gifted with supreme focus. It has to harnessed and rehearsed.
And me just telling you to concentrate harder isn’t enough. I may as well say “just ride faster” when you ask me “how do I get faster on the bike”. You need a bit more detail than that.
You have to think about the brain and how it functions with all of the tasks and information it is given each second, each minute of each hour that you race and how it segments everything in a nicely flowing way that allows you to just get on with it.
Enter the Chimp, the Human, and the Computer*.
Think about your brain in this way:
The irrational (Chimp), the rational (Human) and the automatic (Computer); all three are vital elements at certain points but ultimately on race day, we want the Computer to do what it needs to do without getting involved with the battle between the Chimp and the Human.
That is a definite art.
We all struggle with the irrational from time to time; the “what if”s”, the regression into the past about every session missed or every rest day ignored. None of that will help your focus on race day, and it is your rational thinking that has to counter those irrational thoughts. The Human, in this case is here to understand and manage the anxiety’s and questions.
The Computer just does what it needs to do.
I remember my first Ironman – lining up for the swim around Busselton Jetty…for years I had been fed the “washing machine story” and the “boxing match” story and all the other fisherman’s tales of mass swim starts. But I wasn’t worried or fearful, I was intensely focused, although (and this is the best part) I didn’t really know it at the time. I was totallly immersed in what I was about to do yet I was focused on no particular aspect of it.
I had given all the responsibility to the Computer, which meant the Human was dealing with all the fears and questions that the Chimp was drumming up. I was focused and in control.
Really that is no different to big plays I made in baseball, or any other pressure situation I have been in – sporting or otherwise.
Call it the zone, call it flow, call it whatever you like. It is very obtainable and very important to anyone who wants to race well.
It is that feeling that everything is happening, perfectly, yet you aren’t really focusing on what you are doing, consciously that is. All of the right things are happening; for that first IM swim, it was all arms legs breathing and pacing yet I din’t think about my breathing or my pacing or my arms (or anyone else’s), I just swam as the Computer told me to.
Being on autopilot is essential – we make the best decisions because we don’t let those “other two” question them. Everything just happens (hence the term flow).
Now, the trickiest part for an endurance athlete is the mastery of this.
Any race is a long one, especially when you are looking at long course, or ultra distance craziness.
That means plenty of opportunities for things to go astray and plenty of opportunities for you to correct them. It is also a bloody long time to engage you focus.
But not at all impossible.
Staying in that moment, over the course of the day is tough ask; the longer you race, the more focus you need and the more you ignore the need to focus, the more problems tend to arise.
My take on the Computer is that whilst automatic, it will always be in our nature to revery back to the Human from time to time, just to check on how things are.
That’s ok, because remaining in that state of awesomeness (flow) requires a circuitry of neuromuscular chemicals and patterning to remaining in state. It isn’t a switch, it is more like a series of switches that operate like a circuit. So you have to be prepared to go into that “zone” ride though that and then take the obligatory recovery (an essential aspect of flow), so that you can return as quickly as possible to the awesomeness – letting the computer take over.
How long you stay in that place of automation is dependant on how well you have trained to do so.
For me I like to use an aid station as a distraction – not to slow down – but a place to break the focus for a few seconds, grab what I need and get on with it as soon as I pas the last table/ volunteer.I let the Human back into the mix for a bit – it’s gong to want to ask all of its Human questions, and that fine, let it ask.
Once on the other side, it’s back to that flow – no analysing, overthinking, trying to pre-empt and predict. Just letting it all go and doing what my body knows how to do.
And I think that is the biggest mistake athletes make with focus.
They let the Human do the job for too long during a race. They rationalise with the Chimp, they anaylse the minuatae of everything that is going on.
Or worse, the let the Chimp take over, and then it’s lights out on the side of the road, a blubbering mess because, well, irrational has no place for racing.
Come race day, you have to be robotic. Don’t think do.
Of course being a smart Computer helps; adapting to situations on the fly, but ultimately when the gun goes, regardless of how long the day will be, it is a day for the Computer.
This of course means that you have to train this way. You have to refine that automation.
That means your supreme focus is going to come down to how well you let the Computer take over and let the other two muppets duke it out in silence.
Since I have been chasing more knowledge on all things Computer and Flow, I have adopted these directly into training: looking for ways to get into that flow state which is how I know that the Computer is running the show. It doesn’t always stay for long portions of a session, so I try and meld it into any efforts I am doing.
This way I am continually engaging that state, then taking a break from it. The more frequent I do this, the better chance I have of rolling through longer periods of time in it.
The plus side, my focus will be awesome.
There are other ways to bring yourself back into that place of awesome too. We spoke with both Kev Cutjar and Grant Giles during the Triathlon World Summit about using cues to help get you back into the right place, letting the automation take over. It’s all much of the same thing and how you do it should be individual to your own style.
Get out there and look for ways to find that place, think about the Computer. Don’t listen to that bloody Chimp.
*Oh and full disclosure, I am not a Sports Physiologist. I am an avid follower of some of the best SP’s out there though, which is how I stumbled upon the “Computer, Chimp and Human”. This is a model used by Steve Peter’s who is the psychiatrist for Team Great Britain (if in doubt of it’s success, please refer to the past 6 years of cycling and Olympics). The best place to read about this in the book “Faster” by Michael Hutchinson (google web it!) Steve Peter’s also has a book. Read these.
Also, I only know what I know about flow through the works of this guy. I strongly recommend that you read his books.