Monday, March 9, 2015

The Case Against Music, TV, and Netflix While Training

Yeah, I said it.

I don't wear headphones. I don't put Netflix on while biking in my living room. I hate that blank TV screen right at eye-level on the treadmill.

And I'm someone who has swum in a pool for 4 hours. I sit on the trainer for 2-4 hours at a time regularly (and once, 11 hours, but that's another story). I've done 10-15 mile runs on the treadmill this winter thanks to our persistent negative temperatures and onslaught of ice. And God bless me, I have aquajogged by myself for 2 hours, in a narrow pool lane where you have to turn around every 8 feet.

So why voluntarily do all this without external entertainment? Do I really enjoy self-flagellation that much? (some sarcastic friends might say "yeah, maybe", but that's not the answer this time). Did I do it all so that I could write a blog post about the superiority complex I've developed from being headphones-less? (also no. I don't have a problem with your entertainment - you do you. But here's why you might want to mix it up occasionally.)

The primary reason is that it's mental training. Everyone knows how to physically prepare for competition...some maybe better than others, but particularly at the top, everyone's in great shape come race day. More and more, what separates 1st from 5th isn't that extra tempo run you did, it's how you held up psychologically when the race pain hit, particularly in endurance events.

(1) Most likely, you get to race day, and you're not going to have that distraction. I can pretty much guarantee you won't have Netflix on the course, and many races don't allow headphones either (and even if they're allowed, doesn't it detract from your race experience??)

(2) Sure, some studies have shown that listening to certain types of music increases performance. So yeah, ok, you won't have it in your race - but aren't you still reaping the performance adaptations you got from using it to push yourself harder in practice? Interesting question. I honestly don't know. From a purely physiological standpoint, yeah, sure; but you have to wonder how much whatever you're gaining there is counterbalanced by the opportunity to build psychological resilience that you may have sacrificed. There's true value in learning to push and to have it be entirely intrinsically motivated. No one can take that intrinsic ability away from you on race day. They can, however, remove the band on the sidelines and your personal cheerleaders. You want to be able to cope with that.

(3) This is one of the top 2 best ways to learn to be comfortable inside your head. The other is to meditate. Which also has value, but that's a topic for another time. Most of us are really bad at being inside our own heads. A recent-ish study showed that people would rather administer electric shocks to themselves than be alone with their thoughts. The longer your race, the longer the amount of time you're going to be inside your head. That time can be spent in a mental battle, or in a calm but alert, present-centered state conducive to performance. When people talk about flow, this is often what they mean. It's a great feeling.

Now, I'm not saying you need to train in silence, staring at a blank wall (and there's certainly additional value in learning to deal with unanticipated distractors, too). But learn to stay engaged, to stay with your body. Actually experience what it feels like to hurt during a hard interval, to go up a steep hill. Learn what your heart thudding sounds like, pay attention to your breathing. Begin to associate these physical sensations with different effort levels...learn where you break down, physically and mentally, and see how you can use your mind to push that point out. Learn where your mind starts to fight you, and see how you deal with it.

In the past year, I got into long distance open water swimming. 4-5 hours of nothing but murky water to see and your bubbles & breathing to listen to is a lot of intra-head time - part of what prompted this post...

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