Racing wisely means making choices that align with your intention and goals while properly managing your energy. The key to this wisdom is in your mind, not your heart, lungs, or legs. It’s the wisdom to know when you can and should work to change a situation—in your pacing, equipment, nutrition, hydration—and to know how to do it efficiently. It’s also the wisdom to recognize what you cannot change, and to know how to react to these situations with grace and humor.
Your mental skills will make or break your race. Being mentally sharp and canny can help you overcome spotty or mediocre training. Conversely, crumbling mentally will lead to a subpar performance, no matter how well prepared you are.
Good mental skills are honed in training. You develop them organ- ically as you challenge yourself, learning focus, staying relaxed even while you work hard. Every time you surpass your perceived limits in training, you learn that you are capable of more than you think—especially when you stay focused. Mental skills help you stay present in the race. We call this presence mindfulness.
Any practice can be a mindfulness practice, and many can be mind-lessness practices. It’s all about intention and attention. Why are you here? What are you doing in the situation? And what is happening right now? How much of that is true? Mindfulness means watching the drama that flickers on the screen of consciousness, and realizing that it is a narrative projected by the mind. Mindfulness shows us that this dramatic story has highs and lows, scary moments and joyful moments. Through mindful watching, we realize that we are not the story, we are the ones watching it play out, and we do not need to get involved with the story.
Mindfulness is an opportunity to watch ourselves—to be the seer, to recognize the distance between our chattering mind and the observer. In mindful attention, we recognize that whatever the self-talk is, it will pass.
Endurance sports inherently contain this lesson. If you feel great, that will pass, and you will still be going. If you feel awful, that will pass, and you will still be going. The continuation of your effort—the mindfulness—stands apart from whatever mental chatter or narrative is passing through at the moment.
Since mindfulness is paying attention, we must sharpen our ability to focus our attention. In endurance sports, you can focus on your form, on your breath, on what’s coming in through your senses, or on a mantra.
Mindfulness of your form means scanning your awareness through your body, noticing where you are relaxed and where you are tense. The muscles you are using for exercise will be working, but muscles that are not directly involved can relax. The less energy you use wastefully by tensing or overworking, the more energy you’ll have free to propel you toward the finish line.
In general, your body position during endurance exercise should be neutral and balanced. (Cycling is an exception, especially on time-trial bikes.) Your feet, knees, and hips will be in line; your pelvis will be neutral, your spine long all the way through your neck; your chest will be broad and open, your shoulders low. When you deviate from this position, you engage muscles that don’t need to be working, and use more energy than necessary.
Periodically do a form audit while you train and race. Observe where you are spending energy on tension, and invite those areas to relax and release, freeing you to direct your efforts where they should go: to moving you forward efficiently.
Mindfulness of your breath means noticing how the breath is moving and determining whether it’s appropriate for the action of your body. Is your breath shallow or deep? Fast or slow? Rhythmic or staggered? A smooth, regular breath that serves the demands of the body during exercise will always be more efficient than a shallow, gasping breath. Relaxing your form will help relax your breath, as the two are intimately related.
This awareness can be honed in training, as you notice how your breath coordinates with the movements of your body. Which foot and which arm are moving as the inhalation starts? How many steps or strokes do you take during an inhalation? What is moving as the exhalation starts, and how many steps or strokes does it take to breathe out? How does this vary when you speed up? When you slow down? What is the rhythm of the breath at your various paces? Knowing the answers to these questions will let you come back to a regular, appropriate breath during the race.
Mindfulness of your senses means bringing your attention to what you are taking in, as what you look at or what you hear can keep you centered or make you more scattered. If you are in a noisy situation, as you might be in a large road race with music and spectators, notice what sounds you hear, then refocus your attention on your own breath.
If you are in a muffled situation, like an open-water swim, notice the sound of the water, then refocus your attention on your own breath.
Your gaze is a powerful tool for focus. It shows you where obstacles are (roots, curbs, other athletes) and where you are going. It leads you through corners; your bike follows your gaze. It orients you in open water, helping you find your direction. Setting your gaze can anchor you to a spot, then draw you toward it. If you’ve ever convinced yourself to run “just to that street sign,” you know the power of gaze. Similarly, you can set your gaze on an athlete ahead of you, and tether yourself to their pace or close the gap between you.
Mantra keeps you mindful by centering you on a word, phrase, or lines you repeat to yourself. These could be something short, like form and breath, or fast and smooth, or something long, like the chorus to a song. Your mantra will coordinate with your footfalls or your pedal or swim strokes. Repeating it helps you shut out the stimulation you’re getting externally from your senses and internally from the chattering mind. Mantra helps you focus on repetition itself—and that, at its core, is what endurance sports are. We repeat an action over and over and over as we move through space and to the finish.
Counting steps, strokes, or breaths is an example of using a man- tra. You might count to ten over and over, count down from ten to one, or count to or from a bigger number. As with any mantra, while the words might have special meaning, they don’t have to. It’s the repetition that makes them a powerful tool for focus.
It’s useful to have several mantras. You can develop and refine these in training. Some will be perennial go-tos that you use at various stages in the race. In every 500 freestyle race of my short high-school swimming career, I repeated the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” to myself. It focused my mind and set my tempo. Other mantras will be last-ditch mantras, used only in extreme circumstances. I have a super-secret mantra that I think of as safely stowed in a cabinet whose door reads break glass in case of emergency; when I deploy this mantra, it’s like calling in the cavalry. Still other mantras will be spontaneous; they will come to you in the moment, and you will use them for a while, then let them go. Be open to the old and welcome the new.
Single-Pointed Focus and Flow State
At times you will need a very sharp, single-pointed focus—this can be on your mantra, your gaze, your breath, your form. At other times, you’ll have a broad, all-inclusive focus, what we call flow state. In this flow, you’re aware of everything in the moment at once: your form, your breath, the competition, the course. Over the course of an endurance event, you’ll find yourself swinging back and forth between the two, and swinging occasionally into mindlessness. When you realize you’ve disconnected, bring your attention back to single-pointed focus. It is the precondition for that flow state.
As you continue over the race course, time may feel like an accordion. You’ll look at your watch and only thirty seconds have passed, then look again and thirty minutes have passed. Your sense of time compresses and expands as you focus. When things are tough, know that will pass; when things are great, know that will pass.
source: Counsel & Heal