Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Psychology of Pushing Your Boundaries & Performance Breakthroughs


 This is a story about a good friend of mine, who I've had the pleasure of watching go from didn't-own-a-bike to dedicated commuter to officially finishing her first century ride. In the years over which this awesomeness happened, I claim full responsibility for: convincing her to purchase a bike, convincing her to switch to clipless pedals, and convincing her that she could, in fact, ride 100 miles. Which she successfully did this September up in scenic New England:


After an appropriate amount of recovery time, we had a little "what-now" pow-wow, and she went back to the gym to start some off-season lifting and indoor cycling.

Which resulted in an interesting discovery:
"So, I've been getting back to the gym for reals now in my post-century daze. And it's feeling mostly good. I seem to have really leveled up, at least in terms of what I can do/push myself to do on the bike. I feel like I'm pushing myself to work at a higher level than I had previously thought I could. The only way I can figure is that by asking myself to do something really really hard, like the century, I have expanded my spectrum in terms of what I know I can push my body through, so what I used to think was really pushing, now I know I can go just a bit harder."
Read: our minds play into our performance WAY more than most of us ever realize. This goes back to the role of perspective-shifting in sports psychology - what you think you are capable of plays a big part in what you actually go out and do. This can be a positive as well as a negative - most people know it's best to go into a race situation with confidence in yourself and your training; if you expect to perform poorly, you probably will. What we're thinking about here, however, is different from the effects of harnessing positive thinking on race day. It's what occurs when you have - consciously or subconsciously (this is an area of debate in exercise science) - certain self-imposed expectations about what your body can do.

There are limits here, of course. If I wake up tomorrow and decide that I should go out and run a 1:05 half marathon when my PR is 1:25 and I haven't done any breakthrough workouts lately, I'm probably going to crash and burn. Thinking your way to performance breakthroughs isn't the same as having a magic "faster" or "longer" button. But it's worth sitting down and really thinking about your perceptions of what your limits are - and how you can push them. Your mind needs to learn that your body is capable of doing things that your brain wasn't sure you could do - as my friend learned after her century - and this is what leads to the subsequent bump in physical ability.

So do you have to go out and do some crazy long/hard workout or event to teach your mind that you can do more? Not necessarily.

Work a little bit of uncertainty into your training. Uncertainty is uncomfortable for most of us - endurance athletes in particular tend towards the type-A, control-loving end of the spectrum, at least when it comes to their training. And it's a surefire way to force you out of any expectations you have set for yourself. The simplest example would be to run (bike. swim, etc.) a hard interval session without your trusty garmin every now and then to prevent yourself from making decisions under fatigue based on the clock  (i.e. that moment when I check my watch at the 800m mark of a mile repeat, see 2:50, and my brain says "hells no this is too fast for you, slow down!). If you're a coach, even better - have a session every now and then where you don't tell your athletes how many intervals they're going to be doing in total.

Give it a try. We could all use a mental "reset" every now and then, and sometimes it takes a leap into new, slightly frightening territory to get there. You might find that you're capable of more than you thought.

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