A new study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology confirms the delicate interplay between mind and body when it comes to physical performance. Researchers at Michigan Technological University sought to prove that physical capacity was negatively affected by mental workload. To do this they had participants perform shoulder exercises while simultaneously answering math questions, with a control group who solely focused on the physical task. Perhaps unsurprisingly to anyone who has ever been mentally distracted during a workout, the arithmetic group tended to lose strength and fatigue more quickly than the control group.
Whether it’s a math problem, a work problem or a family problem that’s nagging you, most athletes can attest to the fact that life’s distractions take a toll on performance. “Total absorption in the task at hand allows us to more likely experience flow and reach peak performance,” explains sports psychologist Dr. Cindra Kamphoff, who works with athletes on mental training techniques at The Runner’s Edge in Mankato, Minn. “Performance requires us to be totally present in the here and now—if we aren’t, we won’t be at our best.”
The concept of “flow” is that feeling of complete enthrallment in the task you’re performing. One of the most effective ways to enter into the flow state is through a tried and true pre-race and pre-workout routine. In establishing this routine, you create a sense of predictability prior to competition so you are less likely to be distracted.
“A pre-race routine can get you to focus on the factors that help you, and minimize the factors that don’t,” says Kamphoff. She advises athletes to “leave everything at the door” and enter into competition mode, which all starts with that routine. She also suggests spending a few moments focusing on the performance itself. “Practicing imagery can help improve mental focus during a workout or race,” she says. Indeed, this is a learned skill that must be trained in the weeks leading up to a big race. While you can’t control everything on the big day, a tactical approach to establishing focus will give you a leg up on the competition.
Rehearse your routine prior to hard workouts to make sure each element is dialed in. Eat the same breakfast, listen to the same mix and organize your gear in the same manner. Continue hydrating and practice your warm-up. This way you’ll know your body will be adequately fueled, your mind will be primed, and you won’t discover you’re missing equipment when you reach the transition area.
A couple of weeks leading up to competition, spend 5–10 minutes a day visualizing your race. Break it down into the following segments:
1. The start. Picture yourself standing at the line, surrounded by the competition. Imagine embracing the feelings of excitement and anticipation.
2. The early sections of the bike. You’ll feel full of energy, so remind yourself not to become overzealous in your pace. At this point, it’s just about enjoying the ride.
3. The latter sections of the run. Dig deep and imagine breaking through the wall.
4. The finish. See yourself successfully running across the timing mats. Imagine how it will feel to reach your goals.