LifeSport Coach, Alister Russell
Triathlon; a word that conjures up a long period of physical effort. Not only is there extended physical effort in triathlon, there is also the, very often overlooked, mental effort involved. Many athletes find that after a triathlon, they are very tired physically, but are also very tired mentally as well. To race fast over an extended period of time requires concentration. When we have to concentrate intensely for a long period of time, as in a triathlon, we drain ourselves emotionally as well as physically. Sometimes late in race it’s the lack of emotional energy that causes us to slow down, not a lack of physical energy. In other words, we lose focus on the task at hand and our pace slows.
The good news is there are techniques that can aid in our concentration and in turn, allow us to conserve energy, both mentally and physically, for latter stages of a long race, just it’s needed most. To better understand the strategies to help concentration we need to first understand just what concentration is. The word focus is often used to mean concentration. There are a number of different types of focus. Most people associate focus with an external focus such as focusing on what you’re doing in a game or what an opponent is doing. This is only one type of focus however. There can also be an internal focus where we focus on ourselves and how we feel. Both internal and external styles of concentration can also have another component. The focus can be broad, where you are actually attending to many things at one time, such as reading while watching TV, and at the same time keeping an eye on your children. The focus can also be narrow as when you focus on only one thing, like being totally engrossed in reading a novel and you are unaware of anything else.
All of these types of focus are useful and all have their time and place to be used. However, learning to use the appropriate style of attentional focus at the correct time is critical for optimal performance. Triathlon and particularly the run can present unique demands on concentration skills.
Many people feel that running for a period of 20 minutes to five hours(!) wouldn’t require a very high level of concentration. However, triathlon is unique in that you start the run in a state of relative fatigue. And so triathletes need to have very specific skills in terms of focus.
Research that has looked into the thinking strategies of elite marathoners has found that the most successful marathoners use a combination of what is known as association and dissociation concentration strategies. Association means the athlete is very much in tune with their body, monitoring things like breathing, heart rate, and muscle tension. On the other hand dissociation means thinking about other things such as the scenery around you, or what you may do after the race, etc. Association would be considered a narrow-internal focus while dissociation could be considered a broad-external focus.
The big mental skill needed for triathlon running, concentration, would appear to be the ability to know when to use association and when to use dissociation. Research on marathoners in the mid-80s found that increased running pace was accompanied by an increase in associative concentration. Good racers need to be able to shift their focus during a race between internal and external in order to run their best. Usually the shorter the race the less dissociation strategies can be used. Just think if you daydream for very long in a two mile or 5K race, the race will be over! A lapse in focus during a short race can mean a break in contact with other runners and a definite slowing of pace, both of which will negatively impact place and time.
A long race, like an Olympic distance race or longer, will require more of a shifting between association and dissociation. Less successful athletes have been found to use almost total dissociation when racing. What they do is simply think about things other than running during a marathon in order to try to forget about feeling tired or being bored. While this sounds like a good idea to run faster, it’s actually an ineffective strategy to race your best. On the other hand trying to maintain a total narrow-internal focus for more than three hours may not be effective either.
For long races like a triathlon, try and use what I call the “funnel approach.” Early in a long race you usually feel pretty relaxed, energetic, and comfortable. During the beginning stages of a triathlon it’s very critical to stay relaxed and conserve energy. Triathlon can be described as an “energy management event” or, in other words, you need to generally need to race conservatively early (in the swim and bike) to ensure that you are effective in the later stages of the run.
A good way to conserve energy early on is to simply swim and bike as relaxed as possible (remember, that’s relaxed NOT slow!). One way to do this is to dissociate. Talk to someone as you run, look at the scenery, notice the spectators. Simply relax and move forward at your race pace with as much ease as possible and conserve energy. As the race progresses, for example at the start of the run(!), you will probably feel somewhat fatigued and the goal pace will seem harder than if you were fresh. In order to maintain your pace you will be forced to concentrate and associate more than you did earlier. Dissociation here could mean an extreme slowing from your goal pace. On the other hand, later in the race you must also associate more, so as not to push too hard. You will need to monitor your body in order to stay below your lactate threshold, so as bonk late in the race.
Late in a triathlon, your focus will be very narrow. In order to maintain pace all of your energies must be focused on turning your legs over, trying to maintain your pace, and getting to the finish line. No time to daydream now, it’s total concentration on finishing the best you can.
By now you may have noticed that your concentration pattern in a long race will resemble that of a funnel, very broad and wide at the top and very narrow and focused at the bottom. Keep this idea in mind during your next long race. Stay relaxed and let your thoughts wander early, but when crunch time comes, narrow your focus to the task at hand: racing your best!
For the last 20 years, LifeSport coach Alister Russell has been coaching endurance athletes and formerly was as a National Team Coach for Scotland. He has coached athletes from beginner to world champion at all distances.
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