Friday, June 7, 2013

Team Q&A: Brain Matter (Part 2)

For this installment of Team Q&A, we asked everyone, "What goes through your head when you train?" Here's the second installment of answers:

Rob: In the pool, my brain is quite busy. If it's a long swim set, I'm concentrating on my pace, tracking where I am on the pace clock, trying to figure out how much is left, what's going on around me; there's just too much "noise" to let my head go. On short swims, I'm concentrating on effort and form, and how many swims are left in the set. My brain is just as tired after a swim as my body. But, since I swim in the morning, it's a great way to wake up both to tackle the rest of the day.

On the bike, I love just listening to the pavement pass below me, with the wind whipping through my ears. I can get lost in the regular hum-hum-hum of my pedal strokes. I concentrate on being as smooth as possible, which relaxes me even more and gets me into a nice flow. If I'm out with the sun rising, I have found very little other places I'd rather be.

When I run, I let my brain go. I try to get out in the morning with a fresh, clear head, and really try hard not to think about anything. When I get it right, I usually come up with ideas to fix things around the house, or find solutions to nagging issues that I've been kicking around in my head. The best ideas are when it usually just hits me. The toughest part is remembering the idea/solution when I get home. I have forgotten plenty of great ideas out training, only to remember them when I'm back at the same point out training. But, now that I'm running and pushing the kids, I'm distracted by what they're doing/saying/asking for me to get too lost in my own thoughts. That, and running by the ice cream shop gets me regretting why I didn't bring money along.

Stu: Since training is so enjoyable for me, my thoughts are often very random.  Almost all my runs take place on the University of Wisconsin campus where it is easy to get lost in the moment.  I will often start my run with a review of my work and family activities. The end of my run is usually just thoughts of enjoyment, as I enjoy the scenery of either Lake Monona or Lake Mendota.  The one constant for me is that any stress that accompanied me at the start of the run is often long gone by the end.

Michelle: It doesn't seem to matter if I’m swimming, biking, or running, the start of any workout begins with mental reorientation. Mental talk. “Now, its time to get this done. You may have 500 other things to finish up today. But this is where you’re at now.” I have to try to let all the other stuff go and think about just the workout particularly during the warm-up.

Then, it never fails, I start doing math. Anything. I’ll think about how many minutes the workout is scheduled for. Then I’ll divide that time up into chunks. How much is 10% of that time? Then I’ll focus on putting forth good effort through that time. Or another thing I might do is guesstimate how many miles I might get in with the allotted time left and see if I can beat that or be on target. This obviously works for biking and running (not swimming). But simple math problems are a biggie for me.

Usually, I also end up making mental lists. What do I have to get done after the workout is over? 1. 2. 3. 4. Then it’s what do I have to get done over the course of the week for bigger issues? I’m a constant list-maker. Obsessive-compulsive tendencies all over the place I can clearly see!!! These lists can be good if they distract me from the pain of the workout, but not so good if they are taking away my focus.

Sometimes I listen to music and I can get carried away into empty-brain-land, but that is NOT often. That’s a fabulous thing! I wish I was better at it.

Lastly, when the going gets hard and I am struggling to finish an interval or workout, I do the positive self-talk. “You can do this. Your competitors are doing it. There is only 15 minutes left. You can do ANYTHING for 15 minutes.” That kind of thing. I pull that stuff out when it gets BAD!

Chris: This is somewhat of a tall order since some of my training rides when I am prepping for an ironman can take 6 or more hours!  I will say that ability to stay focused on the moment at hand can become hugely important when racing long course. It's only those rare times where I am maintaining goal pace with seemingly little effort that I allow myself to zone out and just flow.  These periods of flow never last all that long before you need to turn your attention back to your form, or nutrition or position.  When you are in that state of flow, though, it can be magical. Flow has this magic in part because it seems to occur without thinking, without the laser-like focus that hard training sessions and racing usually require. Examining flow seems far more interesting to me than cataloging my training thoughts, so let's follow this divergence.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (say that three times fast) is one of the foremost experts on flow.  His book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience defines flow as: "the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it."  This is a good starting point for trying to define flow -athletes often call it being in the zone- but this definition seems to suggest that simple focus and enjoyment of an activity can lead to flow. Runners will talk about getting their second wind late into a race or about the elusive runners high.  Here's the thing though, if flow happens, if you manage tap into that runners high, it generally only comes after intense effort. Sure you can go out for an easy run or ride that is well below your all-out pace for that distance and you can do it almost without thinking.  It's certainly a type of flow, but not what I'm interested in. Csikszentmihalyi studied many athletes as part of his research and readily acknowledges the extremes in effort required to reach a state of flow: "...the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times...the best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile."

Flow then, is directly linked to happiness. What an odd thing. To find flow, to find this sort of happiness, we must regularly push ourselves to mental and physical extremes.  Triathlon is an excellent vehicle to do both! For a long time my e-mail signature was this simple insight from ultrarunner Dean Karnazes: "Somewhere along the line we seem to have confused comfort with happiness." There is a lot of truth wrapped up in that simple statement and flow is part of the wrapping.

The extraordinary physical and mental demands of ironman racing seem to make it easier to find flow. I've experienced some flow states in every ironman race I've done. In thinking about my experiences with flow, it is actually a track race that stands out. Towards the end of my junior year at Augustana College I was racing a big late-night invitational track meet at North Central College. I had built up good fitness throughout the season and I was in the race with a couple teammates of similar abilities.  Running really late at night under the lights made the whole experience somewhat surreal to start with. As I recall it now, it seems like the first two miles were just perfect flow.  Dead-on pacing, just sticking on my teammates Ryan Chapman and Matt Fisher's shoulders and clicking off quarter after quarter. Of course, you can't really flow through a whole race and  when reality sets in that last mile it's back to guts racing. Still, those first two miles were far easier than they should have been.

Unfortunately there is no sure-fire way to achieve flow in endurance sports. In my experience you are more likely to bonk and wallow in second-by-second agony than you are to find flow. Knowing that it is out there makes the pursuit worthwhile. Remember we are only entitled to the pursuit of happiness, not happiness itself!