Our brain is an incredibly creative organ, even when we use it far below it’s full potential! Very often our mind doesn’t seem under our control, and we end up allowing our attention to focus on many factors that we don’t actually want to happen. This is especially true for endurance running, where we have so much more time available for our mind to wander to places that we really don’t want to be visiting!
Like any other component of our training, we only improve our mental focus if we give ourselves the opportunity to practice. So many athletes leave mental training until the day before the race, and then wonder why they are not that effective at focusing. I learned how to focus through a mixture of trial and error, serendipity, and then deciding to become a student of the art.
My first experience of the impact of mental focus on my physiology came at a class back in the city of Bath in England. It was a warm Spring evening, and we had windows open in the room to keep everyone as cool as we could. I had been struggling with hay fever allergies, and had a runny nose, itchy eyes, all the usual symptoms that are really uncomfortable! The class started, and I was still struggling, and couldn’t pay attention as I was being distracted by my physiological state. The class leader decided she wasn’t going to get much effective teaching done, and decided to pay attention to me instead.
She asked me to close my itchy eyes, and imagine I was immersed in cool, clear water. That felt great, and almost immediately easier on my body. Next was a master stroke – she asked me to imagine that I could breathe underwater! Now this is a great use of imagination, unbounded by the limitations that would have me spluttering within a short time..Within a couple of minutes my eyes had stopped itching, my breathing was slower and I could breathe deeply without sneezing. It was a transformation that I will always remember, both in terms of the huge physiological changes in my body, as well as the opportunity to learn how to change my focus at will.
I dabbled with different ideas and techniques, and then one day had an experience on a run that changed me again. It was a cold rainy day, and I was half way through a 10 mile loop over undulating country roads through an area between Bristol & Bath…I was dressed for the weather, except there was something about the combination of circumstances that had me feeling increasingly colder as the run went on. It got to a point where I was really starting to get uncomfortable, and not enjoying this run. I wasn’t happy with the focus I had, and searched my imagination for something to change my experience.
Then the light came on….I imagined that every drop of rain that was falling and landing on me was actually warm rain. Instead of shuddering inside as every drop landed, I now started to welcome each drop as I felt the warmth that it gave me as it touched my body. Within a minute or two my core temperature had increased, and my experience went from struggling, to enjoying the run, and I ran in home feeling wonderful!
Another great example of how we can use our minds to change and focus our physical experience in a different way came a couple of years back. I had been working with a group of triathletes from a local team, and one of the subjects on a Friday evening discussion had been visualization and using it as a tool to change physical focus. One of the team was racing next morning in a time trial, and so we all wished him well as he set off to race. When he returned I asked him how the race had gone. He said that he was doing well until he turned a corner and met a strong headwind that slowed him down. He then recalled part of our session from the night before, and decided he needed to change his experience. He imagined that the headwind became a tailwind, and what that would feel like on his bike and body. Using this tool, he increased his power output and speed even though the headwind was in reality still there! He went from starting to feel dejected to having a great positive experience on the ride, and was glowing with pride!
Next time you are faced with a situation where your mental focus is not where you want it to be, practice, practice, practice…use your imagination, and work out what you need to change that will get you back focused on your goal. This is one of those areas where I recommend to clients that they trust their intelligence. Very often we are given the answer we seek, something will come to us, and we decide not to use it. Play with situations, find out what works for you, and what doesn’t. You will be amazed at what you can achieve when you align your mind with the goals you set.