In this article I want you to start to consider a couple of key matters in regard to training and racing, specifically perceived effort and cognitive strategies for racing and training.
Firstly, it is worth understanding that your perceived effort will change, that is how hard you feel you are going. Rajeski (1981) suggested that effort or perceived exertion, as it relates to sports performance, is determined by both psychological (e.g. cognitive strategies, individual differences, motivations) and physiological (e.g. heart rate, lactate, Vo2max) factors, and as such, the way in which individuals perceive effort or intensity of exercise can be either positive or negative (Hall et al, 2002). If intensity of exercise is too high, effort required considered too great, not deemed comfortable, enjoyable or linked to autonomous goals, then the athlete is likely to have negative cognitive responses to the exercise and unlikely to repeat the activity in the future (Lind et al 2009). Through the utilisation of cognitive (mental) strategies you are able to overcome these negative effects, this includes the manipulation of attentional focus (association or disassociation), self-talk, relaxation and arousal levels. This is important for both adherence to the training plan, and within training sessions.
Now, let’s apply this to your training…that’s right making it practical. I want you to begin to reflect on your thought process, what you are thinking about when you undertake each session, what is your attentional focus? You need to develop cognitive strategies and skills to prepare for optimal performance in training and on race day, establish your required level of arousal and effort, maintain your concentration and focus, and cope with intrinsic and extrinsic influences and stressors. Buman et al (2008), investigated the cognitive, behavioural and coping response of marathon runners “hitting the wall”, which they described as a multifaceted experience, affecting the runners’ thoughts, feelings and behaviour. Buman reported a clear differentiation between, beginner, experienced and elite runners regarding the development and sophistication of their cognitive strategies, and proposed a hierarchy of coping strategy preferences that the successful athlete will develop over time.
The researchers Stevinson and Biddle (1998) proposed a two dimensional model of attentional focus, relevancy and direction. The dimension of relevancy is related to whether the focus of attention is task relevant or task irrelevant, and the dimension of direction relates to focal awareness either internal or external. The model proposes that an athletes’ attentional focus strategy can be found in one of four quadrants.
Research has indicated that non-elite runners use more task irrelevant or dissociative strategies than their elite competitors, in an attempt to cut themselves off from the sensory feedback. Elite athletes are chasing optimal performances therefore are generally focused on task relevant information, be that internal or external. A non-elite runner may try to relax, whereas an elite runner would focus upon relaxing specific muscles, their performance and coping strategies are more refined. As an athlete gains experience they learn more control and sophistication in their use of cognitive strategies, and utilise more task relevant coping approaches (Tammen et al, 1996).
I want you to start reflecting on what you think about as you train, is it task relevant or irrelevant, internal or external? Does it change when the session gets hard, or you become tired and fatigue sets in? Because now is the time for you to develop your cognitive strategies for race day, because there will be tough times, when it feels hard, and you ask yourself why you are doing this. But if you begin the thought process in training, identify as your thoughts change, and your concentration drifts away or moves towards the negative, through recognition your thought process will change.
Good luck with your training…and remember be mindful, know why you are doing a sessions, how it fits with your plan and have a cognitive strategy for getting through it.
Buman M. P. , Omli J. W., Giacobbi P.R. & Brewer B.W. (2008) Experiences and Coping Responses of “Hitting the Wall” for Recreational Marathon Runners, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 20:3, 282-300, DOI: 1.1080/10413200802078267
Hall, E.E., Ekkekakis P.& Petruzzello S.J. The affective beneficence of vigorous exercise revisited. Br. J Health Psychology 2002: 7: 47-66
Lind E., Welch A.S. & Ekkekakis P. (2009) Do ‘Mind over Muscel’ Strategies Work? Sports Med 39(9)
Rajeski W.J . The perceptions of exertion: a social psycho-physiological integration. J. Sport Psy Stevinson C.D. & Biddle S.J.H . Cognitive orientations in marathon running and “hitting the wall.” Br J Sports Med 1998; 32: 229-35
Tammen VV. (1996) Elite middle and long distance runners associative/dissociative coping, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 8:1, 1-8, DOI: 10.1080/10413209608406304