There is no secret that during training your efforts are 90% physical and 10% mental and on race day your results are 90% mental, 10% physical. Ironically, most racers are aware of this; however, in my 34 years of working with athletes, not one has ever presented themselves to my office with a mental program in place. As I frequently say, “Your success up to this point is completely accidental and your future success is not guaranteed”. The reason why I say this is because they don’t know what they did to achieve the success that they have enjoyed, nor do they understand why their performance results have begun to suffer. Let’s take a look at the science of fear and then create some strategies to get you to front of it and stay there.
The Science of Stress on the Brain
The part of your brain that governs your response to anxiety is call the amygdala, or your fear center. This segment of your brain reacts quickly to fear and threats. For example, if your brain perceives that you are going to be attacked by a bear, the amygdala relays a message to your adrenal system to release adrenaline and cortisol. Additionally, more blood and sugar is diverted to your muscles for oxygen and energy. Another by-product of stress is that your amygdala shuts down your immune and digestive systems so your body can focus on running from the bear (this is where your hierarchy of needs come into full swing!). When you stop and review how the body responds to stress, if harnessed properly this can be used to your full advantage on race day meaning more oxygen and sugar to the muscles.
The complex issue within the brain is that the amygdala can also influence another part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of decision making and reins in impulses and emotions, according to Dr. Michael Lardon, M.D. The negative long-term effects of consistent stress levels can result in the form of interrupted digestion (meaning less energy for racing), suppressed immune system (you become sick more frequently) and interrupted sleep patterns (delayed recovery after racing). Having less energy, consistently sick and delayed recovery quickly disrupts your motivation which ultimately leads to mental burnout and frustration.
Identifying and Dealing with Stress & Fear
To prevent stress from having a negative impact on your racing, you need to identify physical responses associated with stress and fear such as an elevated heart rate, upset stomach, irritability, short attention, etc. – and turn them into a positive context and not panic when you experience, them according to Greg Norman, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago. High levels of excitement indicate that you are fully engaged with racing and the associated challenges.
Using Stress & Fear to Create Great Racing Results
As you get ready to race, stop and think about the amount of time that you have invested into your racing –both sport specific and cross training wise. Think about the self sacrifices that you have endured (eating real, raw food verses junk food, going to bed early, etc.). These thoughts will literally put your brain into a positive environment and you will enjoy the challenges of racing because you know you are prepared and more importantly, you understand how you got there.
According to Norman, putting a positive spin on your racing related mental anguish results in better results at the end of the race. Research indicates that elevated stress hormones can improve performance in the short term or diminish performance (and overall health) in the long term. Which situation will be the result depends on whether you enjoy or dread the activity that is creating your mental stress. Racing in an environment that you enjoy will result in a more enjoyable experience; however, racing in an environment that you don’t enjoy will only lead to more negative thoughts, frustrations and poor race results.
So how do you make your stress hormones benefit your racing? According to Dr. Lardon, you need to strike a balance between your selected race, skill set, energy and focus. If you are doing races that are too easy based on your skill set and speed, you will become bored quickly and left with a feeling of being unfulfilled. However, if your selected races are far above your ability level, skill set and speed, you will become overwhelmed, frustrated and shift into a mode of pain and fear.
The key to preparing your brain for the “stress” of racing is to trigger your body to produce a hormone called dopamine, commonly referred to as a feel-good neurotransmitter that is released when the body experiences something new and/or risky, according to Steven Kotler, a neurobiologist of peak performance. Activating this stress-reward (stress – dopamine release cycle) neuro-chemical system in a positive manner is the key to achieving your full potential. Racing at a new venue, changing up your training efforts, wearing new race kits, or even training with different athletes can all contribute to a “new” experience and positive results.
Mental Tools to Stay Calm and Perform Optimally
Racing & Training with a Strategy: As I mentioned in a previous article What Motivates You – Joy of Victory or the Fear of Failure, the key is to follow what you have proven works in training. By focusing on your strategy of implementation, you override the fear of failure.
Visualization: By following the mental movie that you created from your training notes, you can create an exact strategy from start to finish to literally creating the success that you have worked so diligently to produce. Why would you be surprised to get on the podium when you aspire to be a top profession one day – it is all part of the process.
Environment: You would be surprised how many athletes have people around them on race day but have no idea the negative effect that person is having on the outcome of the race. The same applies to eating the wrong food, listening to the wrong (or old music), etc. All of the elements that create your race day environment either have a positive or negative impact on your results. Identify what works for you and then create that environment every day that you train and race.
Belly Breathing: Another name for belly breathing is diaphragm breathing. When you inhale, your diaphragm contracts and moves downward while the muscles in your chest contract to expand your rib cage. This increases the volume in your chest cavity and draws air into your lungs. Working your diaphragm to its fullest potential allows your lungs to expand to their greatest volume and fill your lungs with the greatest amount of oxygen to fuel you working muscles.
Many racers underuse their diaphragm relying too much on their chest muscles and therefore take in less oxygen. Teaching yourself to rely less on your chest muscles to breathe, and more on your diaphragm requires practice and attention to details. To start the process of learning how to breathe through your belly verses your chest, lay flat on your back and put one hand on your belly and one on your chest. As you inhale, strive to raise your belly button hand first then feel for the fresh air moving up and into your chest. Hold for two seconds and then exhale until you feel your chest completely deflated. Repeat 3-5 times and then relax and focus on your normal breathing except now engage your breathing through you belly and not your chest. Note: because there is a tendency to hyperventilate when you first attempt. Do not attempt this skill unless you are lying down.
As you become more familiar with this breathing technique while lying flat on your back, move to a sitting position and strive to fill up your belly before your chest. To make things a little more difficult, place a straw in your mouth and breathe exclusively in and out of the straw – you will feel the diaphragm doing its job.