No matter how high you jump, how fast you run or swim, how powerfully you row, you can do better. But sometimes your mind gets in the way. ~ Gina Kolata in I'm Not Really Running, I'm Not Really Running (NY Times 12/6/2007)I stumbled across this article today, and I found it really interesting because I am fascinated by the mental aspect of endurance sports. It covers a few things, one of them being the fact that the top athletes are also pros at dissociation, and that those athletes able to do that tend to perform better (so when their mind tells them to slow down, they don't). It could be argued that really it isn't so much dissociation but maybe just choosing which part of the experience you are going to focus on - the discomfort that is making you want to slow down or the guy running in front of you with a yellow hat and the funny gait.
I guess you could even boil down to not setting any limits for yourself.
The mind is a funny thing. Last year on an 80 mile ride with one of my buddies, I had dead legs for the majority of the ride. Honestly, I was dragging. Then we came around the corner to a spectacular view that stayed with us, and I killed the last 15 hilly miles. Similarly, I remember painfully walking at mile 21 of a marathon, when I started talking to someone (shocker) and we took turns leading and focusing on each others back. I ran strong the last few miles and sprinted across the finish line. Where the heck was that mojo back at mile 21 when I was pretty sure it would be less painful to just cut my legs off and crawl the last 4 miles?
One thing happened in both instances. I forgot* I was hurting, and rode and ran stronger as a result. I have done this too many times to count in training and races - always toward the end of a swim, ride, run.
There is a story in the Kolata article (here it is again) about a Division I champion pole vaulter that always cleared the pole by more than a foot - unless the pole moved up. If it moved up even an inch, he would hit it every time. One time, when he wasn't looking, his teammates moved the pole up 6 inches - and he cleared the pole by more than a foot.
How well would you perform if someone moved the pole up on you and you didn't know it? Right now, I am a back of middle packer - maybe I am embracing that a little too much, making the same mistake that pole vaulter was making. I know I can do better, and be faster, but when it comes down to it, maybe I have been stopping myself from clearing that higher pole, "giving in to lowered expectations" as Kolata describes.
So next time you are on a training run or racing, try putting that pole up a bit, raise your expectations instead of giving in to lowered ones. You might surprise yourself.
*I would like to add a caveat that I am not suggesting you space out on your bike or ignore an injury. Please use common sense.
Swim: 2850 yds
Bike: 94 miles
Run: 20 miles