A Psychological Model to Empower the Triathlete
“Losing focus” is a term often used by triathletes and coaches when an athlete makes a silly mistake, misses a break or makes a technical error. Fact is, focus does not disappear, it either goes to a place where it is effective and good decisions are made by the athlete, or it drifts to an area where it does not promote performance and may even derail the athlete’s chance at success.
Endurance events are lengthy by their very nature—an ITU-style race takes over 100 minutes, an Ironman race over 8 hours. This means that intense task oriented focus is not possible for the entire period of the race. Athletes succeed when they plan their focus periods and regulate concentration intensity. Triathlon, being a sport of 3 different repetitive movements, also contains the need for habituation, i.e. performing swimming, cycling and running without thinking about the action itself. The same holds true for transition activities. Where then does the mind go? The athlete better know! Recognizing internal dialogue and altering it if needs be, is a prerequisite for great performance.
It is important to also know that “being in the zone” is a state of mind more predicated on rhythm which as an objective observation may be mistaken for “checking out”. However, rather than checking out, this is the preferred state for optimal performance & shows up as an unconscious driving at optimal intensity & highest efficiency. This tapping into the “beat” of whatever you are doing & not involving any cognitive intervention is a product of clever training & highly habituated movement skills with their associated fitness levels. Effective focus on the other hand is the ability to objectively observe performance & external & internal situations & act proactively so as to ensure peak performance. This focus will not disrupt flow & govern the management of choices that best impact occurrences within a race that may not fall within the scope of the flow state to handle.
A number of studies of endurance events have shown that pace is slowest or slows somewhere between 75 and 90% into an event, whether that be an 800m running race or an Ironman event. I believe that the mechanism at work here is more mental than physical. See Diagram.
Studies (with weight lifters) have shown rather conclusively that output decreases when focus is drawn away from the process of performing the activity. This was confirmed when a further study illustrated that athletes who watched TV, read or listened to music while running on treadmills or riding stationary bikes recruited less muscle and used lower levels of their aerobic capacity, than athletes who were able to focus only on the activity without distractions.
Clearly focus is being lost in this area that can be defined as the “focus zone”. The triathlete begins to consider the effort that has been expended and how this might have affected him/her up to this point and how these past stresses might affect his/her ability to finish strongly. The finish is still too far off to have the athlete begin the drive for home. This clearly shows a crucial shift of focus – a focus removed from the task at hand. Concentration is placed on factors that are not relevant to the present situation. Not being in the moment “switches the body off”, as the mind dwells on past and future events, where the athlete cannot physically “do” anything. Power is lost & muscle recruitment diminishes.
The athlete can replace this ineffectual period of concentration, by being aware of this zone and training not to loose focus. Divide swim, bike and run workouts up into these phases—the first 75% (1.), 75 to 90% (2.), and 90% to the finish (3.) See Diagram.
Triathletes should be encouraged to really do what it takes to stay present and focused in this area. Develop a habit of knowing when the mind drifts to the past or future and learn to drag it back to the “now” – a place where the athlete can bring all the ability that he/she does have, to bear on the next stroke, pedal stroke and stride, moment by moment until the finish.
Good luck - see 1st how you do use focus, assess whether it could be better & then habituate a focus pattern that becomes automatic & allows to to be the most efficient athlete you can be.
PS: My new running mechanics & drills DVD has been released - check it out on my website