Sunday, June 30, 2013

Your secret weapon: a focused mind

As a triathlete I am well-versed in the tendency to research and seek out the latest, cutting edge (and often over-the-top!) technology in sports equipment: a $1200 wetsuit with 'Yamamoto Nano SCS coating neoprene panels', $4000 sunnies made from "pure carbon fibre that takes machinery a continuous 24 hours to carve out", $500 cycling shoes that are "lightweight, high-performing, and gold lining with a rainbow pattern", and a fancy aero helmet with "unique dual internal and external ventilation system" worth $499.95. You get the idea. Constantly searching for free speed while crippling your wallet (which is why quite a few of these items are not hanging up in my closet).

"Yes your honour [insert partner's name here], I plead guilty to these charges".

Here's the kicker: what if I said one of your greatest pieces of sports equipment will cost you nothing? It's true. The greatest tool that any athlete has is sitting right between your ears: your mind.

Sure, talent and physical ability play an enormous role. Running shoes and a bike are also fairly critical for triathletes. But at the end of the day it is your mind that can make or break you. By understanding the power of this hidden piece of sports equipment you'll be able to use it to improve your performance and get the advantage over your competition. 

The first 'Mental Weapon' to add to your sports kit: The Art of Focus

Mastering the mental game 101 - the ability to focus is one of the most important skills you can develop as an athlete. Consider Happy Gilmore. He lost the plot initially when taunted by a crazed fan and got into a brawl with Bob Barker (and lost). But through some help from a one-handed man named Chubbs, Happy was able to win the tournament (and the girl) by learning how to refocus despite the TV tower collapsing and blocking his putt.

While this may seem like an odd place to reference a 90's Adam Sandler comedy, it highlights a key point: focus is a skill like any other that can be learned and improved through practice. Even Happy could do it.

Focus is the ability to direct your full attention to the task at hand while tuning out the distractions. The task at hand might be body posture and 'running tall', while distractions can be internal (the voice in you head on a constant loop telling you that you'll never catch the guy in front) or external (a sign for McDonald's latest Rocklea Road thickshake). 

It's important to remember that your focus is also linked to your arousal level and physical state. For example, if you're focused on thoughts about not gaining on the person in front of you, you might get anxious and frustrated. These thoughts can lead to muscle tension which will prevent you from running smoothly and efficiently (thus running slower). 

Step 1: focusing on the present moment

Research (and personal experience) has shown that great sporting performance comes from focusing on the here and now, not thinking about what happened last time you raced or worrying about what might happen. Why waste energy thinking about stuff that doesn't matter? Here are some tips for zeroing in on now:
  • Find an object - your mobile phone, shoes, a leaf, anything really - and give it your full attention. Notice the colours, shapes, outline, texture, smell. Observe it like a curious scientist that has never seem this object before. See if you can stay focused for one full minute. If you notice your mind wandering, acknowledge the thought that caught your attention and then let it go by bringing your attention back to the object. 
  • Practice staying in the moment each day during training. Focus on the immediate execution of a skill - the catch in your swim stroke, relaxed shoulders while running. 
  • Centre yourself - pay attention to your breathing and muscle tension. Yoga is a great way to practice this as you are encouraged to be more in the moment.

Step 2: focus on what matters 

Why focus on parts of your day that you have no control over? For example, you can't change the weather or how many people are watching you, nor can you do anything about how much someone else has trained or how fit they look (you could try sneaking some weight gain formula into their bircher museli I guess).

Instead, focus on factors that are relevant and have a direct impact on how well you perform. Focus on your practice goals, rest, diet and mental preparation. Cultivate a healthy attitude and improve your understanding of the game or sport. Focus on planning your training periodisation effectively and getting the right treatments between sessions to aid recovery. All of these are factors within your control that can improve your skills and ability to perform well. 
Also, focus on the process rather than the outcome. When Pete Jacobs won the Hawaii Ironman triathlon in 2012 he reflected afterwards that being in the lead on the bike allowed him to focus on his own space, form and technique. Compared to previous years where he has been in the 'pace line' and had to divide his attention between maintaining the 12 metre draft distance between him and the rider in front, wondering if he can catch the guys in front and somewhere in there putting some focus on the process keeping efficient cycling form. 

Step 3 - know the focus points of your sport

Every sport has its own unique focal points - the stroke in swimming, pedal stroke and body position in cycling, high hips and relaxed shoulders when running. The more aware you are of your sports unique focal points, the easier it will be for you to zero your attention in on that key spot while letting go of distractions. 

Step 4 - relax

A guaranteed road block to engaging your focused mind is stress and worry. If your mind is caught up with worries about life, it will be difficult to switch them off when you are focusing on the million dollar putt. The more stressed you are the more tense your muscles will be. Not the ideal recipe for success on the sporting field. 

Find things that help you relax and keep a list. You can then use the list as a quick reference guide if you notice the tension in your body, racing thoughts or overwhelming emotions. This could include listening to music, reading, talking with friends and having a laugh, getting a massage or watching a movie. It can also include more specific strategies such as progressive muscle relaxation, meditation and breathing exercises. 


Try to incorporate these ideas into your weekly training regime and see what happens to your sports performance. If nothing else you will be able to really savour that piece of chocolate by focusing on the smell, flavour and texture. Plus you may spend less money on useless equipment (my Finis Hydro Hip is doing a great job of collecting dust).

More 'Mental Weapons' to add to your sporting equipment collection coming soon. 

Safe training and above all else - remember to have fun!


Friday, June 14, 2013

Ironman Cairns 2013 - Race Report

Ok, so this is not as cool (or short and sweet) as Canadian pro Trevor Wurtele's race reports. I think it took longer to make than the race itself took... Ha!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The week before an Ironman triathlon; sometimes the hardest part.

One week out from your Iron-distance triathlon. It has more than likely taken months of dedication, early morning's, long rides, compromises with family and friends and overcoming the little voice in your head that says 'stay in bed' to get to this point. Yet sometimes this last week feels ten times worse. The nerves kick in. Your mind drifts back to thoughts about race day every other moment. You go through the mental checklist of what to pack, is my equipment sorted, do I have everything I need? Then five minutes later you catch yourself going through the list again. 

All a normal part of the process. You've put a lot of time into getting to this point, so it's only natural that you want it to go well. For me I'm about to tackle my fourth Ironman distance event at Cairns this weekend. You'd think after having competed in Kona last year, an event many consider the pinnacle of our sport, I'd be an old hand at this. Rest assured over the past few days I have had moments wishing I was out riding for six hours and not thinking about Sunday!

As I battle my own inner thoughts I thought it appropriate to share some of my tips for getting to the start line relaxed and ready to enjoy the day. 

ONE Surround yourself with good, happy people 
Nothing helps shake the nerves like having a laugh. Spend time with friends and family that offer support and encouragement. Steer clear of those who are highly strung and wound up (or try your best Carl Barron impression to help loosen them up). 

TWO Let go of the things you can't control 
Unless you have developed some incredible skills or have a special family heritage, it is unlikely that you can influence the weather and make it a perfect day for racing. No need to check the weather report every few minutes. What will be will be. 

THREE Be organized but not obsessive 
Consider the aspects of this week you can influence. Book your bike in for a service, refer to the competitor booklet for key times such as bike check-in, write down a list of equipment you need and take the time to pack. I use my iPhone calendar to keep track of the tasks I have each day. Once it's in the calendar that's it - I check it once a day and then get on with having fun.

FOUR Don't worry about others 
Safe to say most of the athletes at the event will have put in a fair amount of training leading into the race. Unfortunately it is too easy to get drawn into comparing yourself against what others have done (or what they brag/exaggerate about doing). At this stage who cares? Focus your energy on your 'own square meter' and what you have prepared to do on race day. It's a long day that can unravel for anyone, even those who claim to train 40+ hours a week. 

FIVE Escape the world of triathlon as best you can 
Once you have gotten the day's tasks done, step away from the action. Make the time to do different things; have coffee with family, watch a movie, read a book or go lay down on the beach. The calmer you are, the less nervous energy you'll be wasting that could be better utilised on race day.

SIX Don't sweat the small things
Guaranteed something will happen that you didn't expect or didn't want. Last year at Cairns I was riding the day before the race and got a flat tubular tyre. Not ideal. Rather than run around the streets with my arms flailing around in a crazed-lunatic kind-of-way, I took a few deep breathes and did what I had to do - take it to the bike shop to get it fixed up. Things will go wrong. When they do, stop. Count to ten, and go through the motions of getting it sorted.

SEVEN Relax and enjoy it
Sit back, put up your feet and bathe in the joy of race week. Reflect on the hard work you have put in, be content with where you are and relax. Breathe in the calm deep into your body, breathe out any tension.

These are just a few of the ideas that have helped me over the past few years. Nothing earth-shattering, but it is amazing how a bit of stress can make the simplest of concepts seem difficult. If all else fails, put on some music and put on your best karaoke performance. Works every time. 

Good luck in training and racing :)