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Doing – not trying

8 April 2013 15 Comments

I must have said a hundred times, an Ironman triathlon is seventy percent mental. Of course we have to train our bodies so that we can physically handle the distance. Every training session is a chance to work on developing the skills to get into “the zone”. There’s been lots written about “the zone”. Many athletes have experienced times when they were in the zone, but have not known how they got there, and have little chance of getting back into this special mental state where everything happens easily.

The worst thing you can do when searching for the zone is “try” to get into it. The act of “trying” is the opposite to being in the zone. So the harder you try, the less likely you are to ever find it. If we think back to when everything clicked for us, when the planets all aligned and we found ourselves performing really well, without effort. We were not searching for this phenomena. It just happened, or it found us.

Endurance sport is very different to the power sports. A completely different mindset is needed to explode out of the blocks and blast down a one hundred meter track in ten seconds, to what is needed to ride for 180km and then get off and run 42km. It’s possible to power down a one hundred meter track with agression. But it’s just not possible to be powered by aggression for a whole day. You wouldn’t want to anyway, it would wear you down.

The ideal mental state for an event which takes all day is one of peace and calmness. No wasted energy on getting angry. If something comes up that’s not in our perfect plan we simply accept it, adjust to it and move on as efficiently as possible. If we could draw a graph of our emotions throughout an Ironman triathlon, it would have a high point at the start for about two or three minutes, then it would settle down to a pretty straight line through to the last one hundred meters, where it would spike up again. Our energy output would follow a pretty close curve, if we put together a perfect day.

The close alignment of these two curves is no co-incidence. The best races are going to be an exercise in conserving physical and emotional energy, and spreading them evenly across the whole day. I don’t mean taking it easy, I mean going as hard as you can all day without physical or emotional spikes in the graph.

If the goal is to flow through the course, as evenly as possible. From the swim to the bike, without panic or rushing, controlled haste, aiming at maximum efficiency at all times. Then when on the bike aiming to apply a similar amount of effort to the uphills as the down hills and flats, so that we’re not “burning too many matches” too early. It’s a long day and half way through the run it won’t matter who won that hill back there.

If we can ride over the hills without too much trying, simply doing what we do as well as we can do it, the hill will have little impact on our energy reserves, and a little later, we’ll probably ride past the guys who smashed past us on the uphill.

In an Ironman race the winners come to the front in the run. It pays to pace ourselves throughout the swim and bike with the intention of bringing our best game to the run. In our running training we have practiced the perfect race day run pace. We’ve practiced it over and over. We own that pace. All we have to do is get off the bike with enough energy and freshness in our legs to be able to slip into that perfect pace.

As we do our training runs we have an opportunity to own the concept of “doing, not trying”. We have a pace we’ve trained at. We can run that same pace pushing ourselves, which creates muscular tension. Or we can simply let it happen, which allows the muscles to relax. You’ll find the pace is so close from pushing (trying) to relaxing (doing). The extra muscular tension caused by trying to stick to a certain pace per km, or to try and beat another athlete we’ve marked as a target, will cost you over the course of the marathon.

It’s no coincidence that the best athletes “make it look easy”. It is easy. They’re still at the limit of their aerobic capacity, but they’re not making hard work of it. This is not an easy concept to sell. Most of us link faster with harder.

I’m suggesting that before the event, we run on a familiar course at our projected race pace. I suggest we “let it be easy”, instead of pushing as though we’re running through shoulder high grass, run as though we have a slight tailwind. We concentrate on maintaining faster leg turnover, just slightly faster. We monitor how the ground feels under our feet. We flow across the ground. We’ll find that our heart rate remains lower, our muscles no longer threaten to cramp, and our feet are quiet on the road.

We all know what good running technique should feel like, or we should seek out the advice of someone who can explain it to us. Now if running like this, and maintaining a pace which has us close to our aerobic threshold, is “doing”. (doing the job as efficiently as possible)

Once we have experienced this feeling we will know as soon as we start “trying”. Trying will cause muscular tension, it’ll cause emotional exhaustion, way before you reach the finish line.

Doing is faster across an Ironman course than trying.


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