Brain training: how to find that extra gear

Do you start out strong in a race, only to slog through the final few miles? Blame it on your brain.

Samuel Marcora, director of research at the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at England’s University of Kent, reports that the brain can have as much impact on performance as muscle exhaustion.

According to an article in Outside magazine, Marcora started researching mental fatigue’s impact on physical performance in 2009. He’s tested rugby players and he’s tested himself. Analyzing mountains of data, he concluded that the brain tells us to stop or slow down even when we have more gas in the tank or an extra gear to push.

What can you do about it?

Train the mind as well as the body.

If you tend to slow down too much in the second run of a duathlon, practice running hard when tired. Incorporate bricks with a hard bike followed by a fast 5K, for example.

Do you let yourself slow down in training? Stop it! What you do in training, you’ll do in racing. If your mind starts telling you, “I’m too tired. I’ve done enough. I can jog this last mile,” tell it to shut up. Replace that thought with something positive, such as “I’m a winner; I’m strong; keep pushing; etc.” Focus on your form: your foot cadence, your posture, your arms.

Use a magnet. Imagine that the person in front of you has a magnet on her back. The magnet pulls you closer, until you’re right behind her, and then when you confidently pass her. Put a magnet on someone else’s back and repeat.

Keep it positive. If you’re off pace, don’t beat yourself up, especially in a race. Criticism doesn’t help performance. Instead, say something like. “Okay. 7:05? Just a little more.” If you think you can push harder, push harder. But if you know, through consistent training, that your 10K pace is about 6:45 minutes per mile, don’t start running 6:15s because you think you can push harder. Otherwise  you really will be whining at the end of a race!

For more mental toughness tips, check out this article by JoAnn Dahlkoetter, PhD. A well-known sports psychologist and longtime runner, JoAnn has worked with a slew of professional athletes, as well as regular folks—like me! JoAnn helped me for a couple sessions leading up to the 2014 World Duathlon Championships in Pontevedra, Spain. The magnet trick? That’s her idea.

What do you do to stay strong late in a race? Share your tips in the comments below!



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