Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Mind Games Pt 4: Quiet The Mind


I've been a long time away from this blog, and have been intending to write this final part of my mental preparation strategy for several months. I'm actually happy I held off so long, as several books I have read tie in nicely with my thoughts, and also I've had plenty of time to put these ideas into practice.

Previous posts in this sequence are:
  1. Own The Mat
  2. Visualization
  3. Self Talk

But first a little recent history. I've been in Cape Town on an 11 week visit (soon to end to my great dismay!), and have gradually regained the mojo I lost at the end of last year. I have rekindled a love for swim/bike/run and a strong desire to race, although I should also mention that currently after 2011 I intend to take a break from Ironman. There's too much else that I'm not doing in my life because of being a slave to the schedule. It's not me that has the hobby, it's the hobby that has me.

Quiet The Mind
The message of this post is very simple, but I personally believe the most powerful of all the mind game techniques out there. It's also a difficult one to master, but thankfully you can practice it at any time in any place. Essentially what you need to do is stop the internal conversation in your mind. Just that.

Stop the constant stream of thoughts in your mind, whether they are positive, negative or just neutral. Instead come totally into the present and focus on the current moment. Focus on the sun on your skin, the wind against your face, the 10 metres of asphalt in front of you that you are about to cover. Hear the sounds of life around you, feel the sensations of your body.

Forget about the past, forget about the future. Forget about your 'problems' - in this single moment of time you have no problems, only the immediate task in hand and what you are going to do right now.

That's easy you say! Well try that and see if you can do it for 10 seconds. If you have not practised this, then your mind will come diving in and there will be thoughts crowding around the moment, clamouring to be heard. When that happens, disassociate yourself and watch your mind trying to get these thoughts into your consciousness. Don't judge, just watch and then quietly come back to focusing just on the moment and entering a space of no mind. A space where there are no thoughts.

I'm sure if you have read Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now, you will recognise several concepts from that book. It is a much more in depth and fascinating study of this simplest of concepts. I think there are sections which are a bit 'out there' for my liking but the overall message I find very persuasive.

This is essentially active meditation, but forget about monks, and preconceived ideas of what mediation entails (usually someone sitting in the lotus position all in white, in an empty white room, gently intoning OOMMMMMM or some such to themselves). Active meditation is simply being right here, right now and without the mind with its incessant stream of thoughts.

So where is the power in this?

I recently went to a talk at the Sports Science Institute here in Cape Town and had the honour of listening to Tim Noakes (of The Lore of Running fame), talking about limiters in sport, and whether it was the body or the mind limiting us. The rather controversial point was that fatigue is not so much created by our over taxed muscles, but is actually generated by the brain in order to slow us down. The brain has the key function of maintaining homeostasis in the body, and excessive exercise is going to throw that homeostasis out of acceptable boundaries, and so the brain introduces fatigue. We start to feel pain, and when we feel that we react by slowing down.

That's why amphetamines are so powerful (and so dangerous), because they deaden the feelings of fatigue. Of course on them you can push yourself way beyond yourself, but you will also put your body into a highly stressed state that can ultimately be fatal.

It gets interesting when you start to look at legal factors which have a positive influence on performance, i.e. that are able to reduce the brakes of fatigue the mind is trying to push upon you. Music is one, placebo effects are another. If you truly believe a certain brand of energy drink is going to give you a boost over and above any other drink on race day, then yes it probably will. The competition of the race also dulls that feeling of fatigue and is why we can seem to go so much faster on race day than we ever achieved in training.

Another interesting conclusion is that perhaps training is just as much about accustomising the brain to the level of required exercise, as it is improving physical capability. The more we train, the more the brain becomes accustomed to the disruption to the internal homeostasis, and the more it will let you do before it starts to say OK buddy I think we should back off here.

So to come back to quietening the mind. I think that focusing wholly on the moment, and stopping the internal mental dialogue of the brain, dulls those feelings of fatigue. At its most effective, it can induce a state of flow - that glorious, seemingly elusive state of racing we all experience from time to time, when everything is aligned and we just float along, right at the edge of our ability but curiously untroubled by the huge efforts we are putting out. I believe this state of flow can be induced by focusing on the Now, although I must admit I still need plenty of practise!

How can you practise this yourself? Well you can actually do it anytime and anywhere, but workouts are a good place to start. On those long rides, long runs, hard swims, TT sessions, whatever, just shut off internal talk and focus on what's around you in this moment. I find counting breaths is useful - it's hard to keep a stream of thoughts together when you're counting 60 breaths. Do that then repeat. See how long you can have no thoughts for. When the thoughts come, don't worry, just watch the thoughts, don't judge them and then quietly come back to no mind and the present. The periods of no mind will increase.

I find this technique much more effective than the school of HTFU and MTFU, forcing yourself to be positive and say you can do it, struggling against the signals you are getting from your brain. It is too easy when it gets hard to fall into the opposite, and start thinking you're rubbish, you can't do it. Instead just accept the sensations of your body, don't judge and carry on. Are you going at an appropriate level of effort, are you doing everything you can do at this one moment, is your nutrition and your hydration OK? Well then good. Carry On. Cover the next 10 metres of asphalt. And then the next. And then the next.

This has other implications for my race on May 7. Firstly I have detached myself from outcome. Time, place, qualification - none of these are goals for my race and how I'm doing against these parameters are not important for race day. What I want to do is what is appropriate and right at each stage of the race. I want to be happy that I'm giving it my best effort and enjoying the experience.

I will be racing with my Garmin on the day, but not my Powertap (0.5kgs I don't want to lug around!). The only information I will look at is time (is it time for another gel?), and HR. HR too high? OK back off a bit. I'm debating if I need the HR bit: I can usually feel if the effort level is OK. The reason for the Garmin is post race analysis, and not for checking what's happening during the race. Invariably I find this is information you don't want to know.

I actually don't care too much how it goes, I have loved the journey and that is 80% of the experience. But it is important I enjoy myself - if I have spent all this money, effort and time and I don't enjoy myself, then that would be a sad statement. If things go well - all well and good, but I know that will make no difference in my life. I will be the same person and a fast time, a high place, a medal from the big island will not change that.