A confession. I love triathlon. For 12 years I’ve been racing in them. I’ve raced every distance from super sprint to Ironman. It’s taken me to amazing places round the world, introduced me to my husband, given me fantastic friends, helped me develop a wonderful support network of likeminded people who I love learning from and even made me change career. So I will always defend triathletes.
We can be a fickle bunch when it comes to new gear, gadgets and gimmicks. Some have been known to spend hundreds on equipment or toys which can save a few watts off their bike, or grams from their trainers. And one area which is always moving is around recovery. Which magic vegetable should we be drinking before bed? Are we supposed to be sitting in hot baths or freezing baths this month? And just how many items of fluorescent compression gear are actually necessary, if any?
So when I attended Elevate conference and found there was a session on ‘Athletic Recovery’ to highlight what the current research is telling us about which strategies actually work I was there! The session was hosted by Dr Ken van Someren, Head of R&D at GSK with talks from Dr Jessica Hill (Senior Lecturer at St Mary’s Uni), Prof Glyn Howatson, Reader Northumbria Uni) and Nick Littlehales (Sleep Coach). We learnt…
Recovery is really important
- It gives you faster and better adaptation from training which gives you better winning margins.
- But we need to be clear each time what type of exercise we are trying to recover from and adapt for that.
The focus with nutrition should be on quality and in real food
- We need to focus on quality and those products which have been through informed sport programme (i.e. tested to not contain any WADA banned products) or, even easier, are real foods so no processing required and no contamination possible.
- Functional foods have added value beyond basic nutrition and can potentially improve your health through reducing inflammation, exercise induced pain, blood pressure and by improving your cognition, vascular function and sleep quality. Important to have the right food at the right time of the right quality and over the right duration.
Always bear in mind the placebo impact
- While researchers will do all they can to remove the placebo effect some recovery interventions are very difficult to randomise or blind. There is just no way to disguise the fact someone is standing in a vat of icy water!
- There can also be a belief effect – with athletes who already believe an intervention is effective reporting more effective outcomes.
Different recovery interventions may work differently on different groups
- Highly trained athletes may respond differently than untrained members of the public.
- Strategies may work differently with people of different ages. For example anti-inflammatories can supress adaptation in the young yet in older athletes paracetamol and ibuprofen were found to help with adaptation.
How an intervention is carried out can make a massive difference to how it works
- The duration that an intervention is run for, temperatures used, quality or purity of product, used just once or multiple times or the type, length and intensity of exercise completed before the intervention can all impact on the efficacy of an intervention.
Research on specific interventions
Cryotherapy (ice baths) – the therapeutic application of cold has a number of benefits: Reduced blood flow, constriction of blood vessels, reduced tissue temperature, compression of water. What they can see so far is that you need to spend 5-10 minutes in water that is between 5-10 degrees to be effective.
Compression garments – the theory is that the muscle fibre reacts when damaged meaning there is less space for any swelling to occur. It is thought to improve blood flow, reduce DOMS and decrease muscle oscillation. The research to date finds that wearing compression does not help race performance at all. But that they do have a role in recovery when the compression garment actually fits properly. Their advice is to wear them straight after a race and sleep in them overnight.
Tart cherries – when they gave 10 athletes tart cherries and 10 athletes a placebo over a 7 day period (5 before competition and 2 afterwards) they found the athletes who had the cherry juice had reduced inflammation both immediately and over time. They suggest taking them before competition increases your anti-oxidant capacity. They also ran a cycling test, mirroring a three day stage race (in the lab) and found that the cherry juice reduced inflammation.
Blackcurrants – Worked with a group of modern pentathletes and gave them a placebo and then blackcurrant juice. They found with the blackcurrant juice they had reduced inflammation and reduced oxidative stress.
Sleep – As you can’t control how you sleep it is about what you do leading into sleep. Suggested that instead of talking about hours of sleep you have had, talked about how many cycles of 90 minutes you get, and how many cycles you need. Then you can add extra in the day if you need to. You need to prepare well to sleep so you get all levels of sleep and not just lighter levels of sleep. One key tip is to breathe through the nose so if you struggle with this look out for tools which can help.
On Tuesday I attended Elevate, an exhibition with seminars for those working across exercise, health and performance. A seminar I really enjoyed was chaired by Prof Greg Whyte and focused on what it is to have a ‘Winning Mindset.’ He hosted Sally Gunnell (a former Hurdler with titles including World, Olympic, European and Commonwealth champion), Lucy Martin (former GB Cyclist), Joe Townsend (GB Paratriathlete) and Dr Peter Jones (Sport Psychologist).
I loved some of their insights into what it takes to have ‘The Winning Mindset’ and wanted to share a few. I was scribbling frantically so may not have got their quotes word for word, but should be pretty close.
On the importance of mentally preparing to race
Sally Gunnell: The biggest thing that lets lots of us down is that inner voice. I realised this when I was in a race and at the 8th hurdle I started wondering how other people were doing. At that point I stumbled. I then realised the power of the mind. You need to prepare ahead. It takes time to really prepare yourself to get in the right mental state. My brain won those races. It was about 70% mental.
Lucy Martin: My mind was always my biggest challenge. I always beat others in training but on the day I would always mess up. Then I learnt to just focus on myself. You have a lot of time to think on the road, 3 to 4 hours, and I’d find myself comparing myself to all the other competitors. I learnt to completely focus on myself and my performance improved. That was more important than any other training I have done. In the Olympics in 2012 I felt relaxed and had my best training. All because I had been training my mind. And I took it into other parts of my life too. Those girls who are not emotional, who think logically are the ones who succeed in challenging times. My mind is now more important than my physical training. I would prioritise it over my physical training – it is that important.
Joe Townsend: On the start line I feel cool, calm and collected because I am in an environment which is familiar territory. Compared to the Marines where I was always going somewhere unfamiliar. On the start line the hard work is done and you get to race. Most people have a fear of the unknown when racing and yet all the information you need is in front of you. Three days before an event I will have a schedule to follow. It reduces loads of the stress and anxiety. You have all the information you need before the race so you know what you are going into.
On the importance of using visualisation
Sally Gunnell: I was taught to visualise. Preparing mentally. Every day. Go through the perfect scenario in my mind. It also taught me to visualise what happens when things go wrong: in every scenario they could. But I would also finish the scenario winning. I would never cross the line below first in my visualisation. I would always win in the image.
Joe Townsend: You can visualise the race. You know what you are going to be faced with. Visualisation allows you to keep calm. You know you have the tools to help you stay focused.
On how to deal with pressure
Sally Gunnell: I trained myself to deal with more pressure. I felt the more pressure I had the better I would do. Never let that voice finish that negative sentence. Instead, force feed positive thoughts.
Peter Jones: The pressure is always there. It is how we choose to deal with that pressure that matters. There are either challenge or a threat mindsets which sit on a continuum. A challenge mindset athlete will focus on just what they can achieve. They have perceived control, they focus on the process and on what they can do. A threat mindset athlete will focus on what can go wrong. They may have lower self-belief, lack of control over their environment, focus on avoidance and find reasons not to compete. Sports Psychologists can even see a physiological difference between those with a challenge and a threat mindsets. The role of the psychologist is to move athletes who have a threat mindset towards more of a challenge one. To do this the athlete needs to grow their self-belief, control their environment and focus on their approach and what they can do. Each of these will help the athlete increase their resilience. It is also not a constant so it is important to build behaviours and practices.
On their racing mindset
Joe Townsend: If you can’t change a situation, then don’t worry about it. If something happens and the course has to be changed then you are all in the same boat. You just go away and learn a new course. There is no point getting wound up – you can’t change it so you have to deal with it. Maybe I have been desensitised to some of those tough situations going through the military. I also always race myself and not my competitors. Stick to my own race plan and as long as my process has been followed then this counts as a great race.
On their pre-race rituals and routines
Lucy Martin: I don’t have a ritual but I had a routine where I would get ready very early and check over everything; my bike, how many gels I had on me etc. I would try not to focus on the race and would aim to save as much mental energy for the last 30 minutes of the race. Others would arrive much later and be much more relaxed about it.
Sally Gunnell: I used to have a lucky bag. Each year I or my husband would buy a lucky stone or something to add to it. 2 weeks before Barcelona Olympics we had a Chinese and in my fortune cookie it said: You are the chosen one. That went into my bag. When my bag went missing I retired.
Joe Townsend: I have a routine and the same process that I always follow. It works well for me. It means everything becomes very familiar.
On a winning mindset being nature or nurture?
Lucy Martin: You can be born with a winning mindset but you can also develop one.
Sally Gunnell: It all comes down to your mental training. Everyone has doubts but it is who can deal with the situation the best.
Peter Jones: You can be born with it and your environment can change it, but you can also change it.
Sleep is one of the most important performance enhancement tools you have in your tool kit. It can make you happier, faster, less likely to get ill or injured and helps you fully memorize any mental or physical actions you have been learning over the day. But sleeping before a big event can be really difficult. Whether it is an important race, exams or first day at a new job, waking up refreshed and positive is vital, yet the ruminations in your mind can make it incredibly hard to do so.
Here are a few tips that may help:
- Accept it is hard to sleep the night before a big event and don’t have big expectations to be able to do so. And remember everyone else is in the same boat so will have had less sleep too. Remembering this stops you adding: “I’ll be rubbish because I haven’t had enough sleep” to the list of things you are already ruminating about.
- Aim to get some really good quality sleep in the few days before your big day so even if you don’t sleep well the night before you won’t be in significant sleep debt.
- Keep a note book and pen by your bed and before you go to sleep write down any worries or things you mustn’t forget that are running through your mind. They will still be there in the morning and thinking about them at 2am won’t help you do anything about them.
- Don’t be tempted to have a glass of wine or a beer to help you sleep. While alcohol can help you get to sleep it will give you worse quality sleep and often mean you wake up earlier than you need to.
- Check that your alarm still works when your phone is switched off and then turn it fully off (rather than on airplane or silent) an hour before you go to bed so your circadian rhythm is not delayed from its lights and you don’t get tempted to check it in the middle of the night if you are struggling to sleep.
- If you are struggling to sleep don’t get up. Resting is better than nothing so you will still gain some benefit just from lying there.
As we hit the beginning of race season for endurance athletes, twitter and facebook are filled with photos of bikes perched at the top of big climbs, selfies of muddy trainers and Garmins at the end of 20 mile runs and those lucky enough to be on international camps are sending home snaps of their swim toys on the deck of a sunny outdoor pool. The duathlon season has already kicked off, the half marathon medals are piling up, the marathon countdown clocks are ticking and before long we’ll be dipping our toes into lakes to prepare for triathlon.
So have you thought about what is motivating you this year? If you are just forging ahead because endurance sport is your thing and you always done it then spending a little time to identify and focus on your specific motivation can be incredibly helpful to helping you improve your performance. And when you don’t remember why you are doing your sport, or the races you’ve entered it is all too easy to back off or even stop when it gets tough or life gets in the way.
There are two types of motivation. The first comes from inside you. This is when you are competing for the love of it, simply because you get personal satisfaction out of the training, out of striving for targets or just the joy of being able to do that sport. The second type is more externally driven. This may come from the medals you gain, the prize money you win or the accolades your friends and family give you when you do well. Neither is better than the other but, if your motivation comes from within it can be more robust and stay with you when you come up against set backs.
If your motivation is that you love being fit and healthy you will, in the main, be happy looking at your training plan and seeing 6:30am swims or hard treadmill sessions. Even if that session doesn’t go well your motivation remains high because you are inspired by the process, not the outcome. If your motivation comes from winning prize money your motivation will be through the roof when you are doing well but if you get injured, your rate of improvement slows or you simply have a run of bad luck you will find it really hard to maintain the motivation to keep going and training will feel like a chore.
Whether your motivation comes from internal or external factors all sorts of motivation can be fuelled – if you are able to identify, hone and make the most of yours.
I find free writing is a really good way to do this. You need a pen, notebook, 30 minutes where you won’t be disturbed and, for me, a monstrously large mug of coffee. Then all you have to do is daydream and ask yourself a bunch of questions as you write. What to do you want? What would make you happy? When you have those amazing days where you feel grateful and supported and appreciative of all you have, what is that thing that you are most grateful for? What gives you your buzz in sport? What is driving that? Working backwards from these questions can help you identify your motivation. If your daydream is standing on a podium at the end of an Ironman paying for a Kona slot then you’ve got a pretty big clue. If your dream is lying in bed at the end of the day with sore legs and a green week on training peaks then another big clue. If it is having your son or daughter ask to go running with you because they want to be like you when they grow up then ‘inspiring others’ may be your motivation. Whatever you feel it is once you’ve identified it you can work to bring it into your training – making your training really effective and a lot stickier.
For example, if Kona qualification is your motivation then research into what you need to achieve, speaking to previous qualifiers, creating some ‘Kona’ sessions in your training plan and putting up a previous world championships poster will help you stay motivated after a tough session or before one if your heart is not in it. If you are motivated by inspiring others then joining group training sessions, signing up to be a run leader or taking coaching classes can be a great way to stay on top of what you want to achieve and give you the buzz you need to stay on track.
So actively identifying your personal motivation and then entwining that with your training and races plans can keep you on track and your goals in sight.
What is your motivation?
Photo credit: Susanne Hakuba
Dr Edwina Brocklesby (or Eddie as she is known) is 72. She is possibly the best advert there can be for the benefits of staying active as you age. Having started exercising aged 50 she has since run dozens of half marathons and marathons, triathlons, cycle sportives and Ironman races. She has represented GB in many European and World triathlon and duathlon championships, including the Ironman World Champs in Kona, and rode in a relay 3000 plus miles across America. Her retirement from social work saw her take over the reins at an adoption agency for children born into difficult circumstances and when she retired for a second time she set up the charity Silverfit. In just a couple of years Silverfit has grown from a few friends meeting for a walk in Hyde Park to weekly activities including walking football, spinning, track cycling, pilates and cheerleading) in parks right across London. Eddie and her mass of red hair can usually be found leading the way, whether running the session, filling in grant and funding forms, speaking to the medical world about how to motivate older people to stay active or just having a chat and a cuppa with Silverfit attendees.
Last year Eddie became the oldest British female to complete an Ironman (Swim 3.8k, Cycle 180k, Run 42.2k). I caught up with Eddie for a chat about how she approaches races to see what we can all learn from the doyen of the older exercise world. The race we focused on was Ironman Lanzarote. One of the hardest Ironman races in the world and one which beat her in 2015. So she is heading back in May with a goal to get her own back on the race and cross that finish line.
So you have signed up to Lanzarote. How you plan to approach it?
The first thing I did was sign up to do a swim course in Lanzarote. I know that if I am there all week then I will get the biking in. You can’t swim all day! And I will make certain that I go across to Puerto Del Carmen to do the swim there in the sea a couple of times. So that is the first thing I will do. I’ll also go out to do a week with Steve Trew which only leaves me a week before Lanzarote so it is tight really in terms of busting a gut, in terms of the bike, but nevertheless it is hilly biking.
You’ve got to beat the bike cut off haven’t you. To finish I need to beat the bike cut off. I can walk round the marathon if I need to. I don’t need to get in much before midnight. I’d sooner minimize the pressure on my knees. And I’m very conscious of not doing any more running than I have to really. I will start upping my running later on but I’m not doing very much at the moment.
Getting out on the bike will be key so I’ve booked up to go over to the Algarve. It is totally unspoilt and I wonder why it is not more popular. The roads are empty and the whole main road from Faro to Lisbon is a smooth road, undulating surface and there is nothing on it. One lorry a day because they’ve all gone on the motorway. So I love it there.
I guess it is about doing more distance. I’m very good at getting into a pool for half an hour. Dan [Swim for Tri] will say it is all about doing drills and I’m not so good at doing that. Brett Sutton wrote a brilliant article about using a pull bouy last year and I know I could do hundreds of lengths with a pool bouy cause I’ve got quite heavy legs so I go much faster with it. But I spent a lot of my swim time up to Lanzarote last year with a pull bouy and I think, for me, that was probably totally erroneous and that is probably what led to the cramp cause I haven’t had to kick that hard for a long long time. So I’m trying very hard. Even using flippers because that does make you kick. So I think Brett was wrong for old people. What he said was use it as much as you like cause if it gets you into the pool then it is good but I use that as a complete crutch.
You’ve said before that swimming is the thing you like least. What is it that drives you to get in the water and train?
It is the ultimate challenge. The area I like least. But it is absolutely key. And now obviously it is a decision to do the Ironman again. I got a bit better last year. Lanzarote was an unfortunate blip on that. That second lap of the swim and the current. The current changed. Never ever will I forget that point out on the far point of turning round and swimming over a rock that felt like it was as big as a table and ten strokes more and you are still on top of the bloody rock and it was about five minutes after that I cramped for the first time.
And how did you get through that?
I didn’t know whether you could send for a canoeist and put your hand up and be pulled out or not. I really didn’t know. I just think relaxing, just lying horizontal and hoping that it would go away and slowly, very slowly continuing for the next few hundred metres. I was on the last 800 metres so that drives you as you are nearly there. I had no idea I was as near to the cut off as I actually was. I knew I’d been a bit slower, quite a bit slower in the first half than I would normally reckon on being but there is something about the memory of that. That spurs me on.
Spurred on by the fear of failure or wanting to do it better?
It is absolutely fear of failure. How do you deal with failure? Which is how I perceived it at the end. Going to the pub the following weekend to see my son [who had also raced] wearing his finishers t-shirt!
Dan proposed that if you swim seven or eight days on the trot you will swim better and I thought it would be important to do. I’m on day three today. Once you get in I find, even if you just do five lengths, you always feel better having swum. So it is almost telling yourself I know I’m going to feel better when I come out the water.
So drawing on previous experience and constantly reminding yourself you can do it?
When Lanza was not going well last year. How did you deal with that in your head?
I don’t think I know. I was around El Golfo when the police car overtook me, waved at me and then dropped off behind me. I was at least 3k further on before I realised that meant something. They followed me all the way up to the top of Fire Mountain and I remember getting to the top of that and turning round and then I did overtake another cyclist at lost my lovely police escort. But up until then it was fun actually because you knew all these cars were treating you with real respect cause you’ve got a police car flashing its light behind you. So it was fun. I don’t think I was really expecting the cut off time was going to be held, no-one did. So it was quite a shock when you are in the vehicle going down with your bike behind. But you know I’ve done it twice before and at that point you think ‘well ok, it was so windy’. That day we were surprised to be racing. They must have been right on the edge of cancelling it.
Did that help you deal with it better?
No it didn’t to my surprise. Intellectually you knew. A friend came in on the dot of midnight and is a far more powerful swimmer than me so you realise everyone’s times were longer. But a week or so later you think ohhh how am I going to deal with that. Your automatic assumption was to sign up again but I hadn’t got the courage to do that. I didn’t believe I could do it. I’ve still got my doubts. So Vichy Ironman came along as an option. Even that was a tough race. I think it was 96 degrees for 8 hours on the bike and we were cramping. Everyone was cramping. The same number didn’t finish that race as didn’t finish Lanzarote. There were quite a few ambulances around and people lying on the ground desperately trying to stretch.
What do you think helped you get through that cramp and the heat when others couldn’t?
A month before I was doing London Triathlon and my seat post broke with about 13k to go. I had to literally stand all the rest of the way and then wondered if it was possible to run after that. I could imagine my sons laughing and thinking it absolutely pathetic that I couldn’t get through 10k and how could I do an Ironman if I couldn’t do that. So I ran. And I think it helped me in Vichy cause I knew I could stand when I got the cramps. Probably other people didn’t realise that you know if you stand up on the bike for a good kilometre or 2 then you could sit down and you wouldn’t get the same cramp and I guess other people hadn’t tried that.
I realized that I could get good publicity for Silverfit and it would be greater if I had completed an Ironman rather than said I’d failed. That motivated me on the bike at Vichy.
I also had a real anger level with WTC if I’m honest. The Ironman brand had been sold to the Wanda group just 2 days before for $650m and it was really heart rendering to see the state of some of those volunteers out there. On every junction you have four volunteers for 9 or 10 hours in 96 degrees and they were suffering and they’d all had enough and I thought that “is this what Wanda have bought for $650 million. And those volunteers getting nothing but a goodie bag and a supper.” So yes there was anger.
Have you got a pre-race routine?
I probably avoid alcohol. For a while I would go out 24 hours earlier and push myself and then take on a carb drink. The High 5 guys had researched it at Glasgow University and it did seem to unlock your ability to absorb the carbs so I did do that. I sleep quite well. It is normality that helps me. I have the same breakfast I normally do. I think it is more important to do things that are part of your routine rather than doing something different or specific. Gives you comfort. Puts you in the right mind set. Relaxes you.
How do you feel on the beach before you start a race?
I think it depends on whether I have left myself sufficient time or not. I’m very chaotic at the last minute. Have I got this? Have I got that? And anyway I know I’m going to the back you know so I don’t need to get to that flag any earlier than a minute before the final whistle.
Would you not feel more comfortable if you were more prepared earlier?
Yes. You are always trying to squash something else in aren’t you. And that is my problem. If there is five minutes to spare then I can do this, this and this. And that is why I am late usually. So yes I get anxious but I quite like that. I don’t know how I’ll feel this time which is why I need to go in and prepare, build the adrenaline. My father did a lot of public speaking and I remember him saying the more nervous you are the better you are going to perform.
Do you like getting new ideas around sport and researching them?
I have a research background. Not just in terms of my PhD but prior to that I’d always been, well I did statistics and economics at university and psychology. But in sport I do confirm to a timetable which Annie [Emmerson, Triathlon coach] says do this and do that. But you can’t always fit it in so you are juxtaposing and mix and matching but essentially more or less you are doing the total of what is put on it. I read remarkably little on what I should be doing. I have had a four page article on pedal technique but I haven’t read it yet. I have been carrying this article around with me for months to read about pedal technique as I am sure I can optimise my pedalling.
I did used to listen to lots of podcasts based on exercise research. Especially the Fitness Rocks podcasts. When I first heard those it had a massive influence on me as I was then running quite long distances listening to them. I listened to ever so many of those podcasts and that was leading research every week.
How do you cope with sessions you don’t enjoy?
I clock watch dreadfully. Even spin sessions are clock watched. Only another ten minutes to go. Or count to 100 and you’ll get to the top of that hill you know. I can switch off and write a report. I found when doing marathons you can get to about 5k and you can’t count any more but that the brain is quite good at creative stuff. Although some would say that takes away from your technique. Dan says “I can see when you are thinking about Silverfit!”
Lots of people say that you inspire them. But who inspires you?
The best most inspirational speaker I have heard for a long time is Sarah Winkless. She is a three time Olympic rower but when she was 18 she had just gone to Cambridge, she found out she didn’t get into the Commonwealth Games team and that her mother had Huntingdon’s and she herself was tested and is positive. I thought Sarah was absolutely brilliant. She is a very good speaker. Very few notes and spoke for 30-40 minutes in front of an audience who were mostly medics.
What did you take away from it?
If she can survive and thrive aren’t we all lucky. She has a cloud hanging over her but maybe the latest technology and learnings about the brain may be able to alleviate or alter it somehow. I am fascinated by what makes some people be positive as opposed to negative in tough situations. In her I saw a driven, positive, psychological driving factor that will enable some people to see they are the lucky one which will push them on. That ability to see things positively.
You say that after your husband died you always thought you were the lucky one and wanted to make the most of what you had. What gave you that positive mindset?
I am a great believer in attachment theory. The idea that as a child you need to develop a strong, trusted relationship with a least one primary caregiver for you to be able to have successful social and emotional development. I’ve always believed the care I got as a child has allowed me to have such a positive resilient attitude as an adult. My experience of 50 years in social work shows that good attachment is immeasurably valuable. It doesn’t have to be a parent. I thought Mary Soames, the youngest of the Churchill kids was an absolutely brilliant woman, very warm, very caring, very rooted and she grew up with very good consistent nannies. I think that consistency from a very young age, even as a tiny baby, of knowing you are responded to, makes a big difference.
And do you think that 50 years in social work has given you a better perspective when doing your sports stuff?
Most certainly. It influences my whole persona. So it must do. Yes. I would never have dreamt I’d be doing this sort of mad sports stuff when I was social working but I’m sure there must be a link. I’m proudest of the first half marathon. The fact I could prove to my husband that I could do it. And I did it. It kept me going.
Do you see any benefits of having started competing later in life?
Lots of people who did a lot of sport when young seem to now be playing the price with hip and knee operations, especially in sports like Gymnastics and Badminton where there is lots of jumping and landing. No one wants to promote it but that is denying it happens and it may be in fact be that not starting till I was 50 was a huge bonus.
And finally, how do you celebrate after a big race?
Well that was the thing about Kona. There was no drink at all. Compare it to Lanzarote where all the bars are there and open for you. They had ice cream in Kona but no pizza and no alcohol. So having a drink I guess. It is what you have dreamt of for the last 16 hours 6 minutes and 13 seconds.
Eight lessons we can learn from Eddie
- When you are struggling in a race think back to other races you have completed or previous times of adversity and see if any of the experiences or lessons from those will help you now.
- Work out exactly what it will take you to achieve your goal and work backwards to identify what processes you need to put in place by when.
- Take advice from experts, but be pragmatic as to whether it applies in your situation. Most physiological research is carried out on men aged 18-35. They may respond very differently to you if you are female, or older, or both!
- When something goes wrong, don’t panic. Keep going slowly while you work through the options, chances are you’ll have got far enough on and the issue will have subsided.
- Keep in mind what is motivating you to do that race. For Eddie it was PR, a previous failure and anger. Find the thing that motivates you. And keep it in mind.
- Practice ways to distract yourself when stuff gets tough.
- Think about who inspires you, and what it is about them that inspires you. What can you learn from that to have a little bit of their super strength for yourself.
- Always have your own supplies ready to celebrate after a big race!
I give lots of talks for Age Group and novice triathletes, runners and cyclists on how they can use Sports Psychology in their training and racing. After the talks I often get asked for recommendations on coaches, nutritionists and other specialists who can help people reach their goals. I thought it might be helpful to pull together those who, from 12 years on the UK Triathlon scene I have worked with, trained with and interviewed for magazines to direct you to some of the very best in our business:
Annie Emmerson is not just the face of triathlon commentating on the BBC but is also a former world class Triathlete and Duathlete and now a triathlon coach. She is approachable and friendly and really knows her stuff when it comes to getting her athletes fit for their races. Her website is at: www.annieemmerson.co.uk/
If you are in West London then Bianca Sainty and her team of instructors (based in Hammersmith) are all about getting you fit. They can work with you individually but what I love about her set up is that most of her clients work through small groups. This makes the sessions more affordable but also much stickier. When it is cold outside and we have a session to do it is really hard to get out the door. Knowing you have a bunch of friends waiting for you means you go! You can find out more about her sessions at: www.pod-fitness.com
Jo Scott-Dalgleish is a Registered Nutritional Therapist who specialises in supporting endurance sports participants. She focuses on helps those who are finding their nutrition a challenge, experiencing health issues impacting on their ability to train or race as they would wish, or are looking to improve on their current performance level. https://www.nutritionforendurancesports.co.uk/
The most common question I am asked is where can I learn to swim front crawl. Unless you come from a swimming background when you start in triathlon it is usually the bit that scares most of us. Can you swim non stop in the lake? Can you use breast stroke if you need to? Will I be able to swim surrounded by so many people? Will the fish nibble my toes (yes – that is quite a common question!) Swim for Tri have been running weekly sessions in London and workshops round the UK and internationally for over 10 years and will absolutely be able to help you get round your first race, and then help you get faster once you are addicted. www.swimfortri.com
When I meet people who look athletic but are not currently competing it is usually down to one thing. Injury. James Dunne runs KineticRev and has retaught hundreds of runners how to run after injury in ways that should protect them from future injury. He does group workshops all over the UK and his website is full of great strength exercises. Six years ago, after five stress fractures in three years I went to James as a last resort before quitting running for good. I haven’t had a stress fracture since. www.kinetic-revolution.com
If you are over 50 and not done much exercise before then it can be really daunting as to know where to start. Gyms may not seem appealing and clubs may feel elitist. Eddie Brocklesby has set up a great charity called Silverfit, running sessions in parks all over London for over 50s who want to exercise in a welcoming and relaxed environment. www.silverfit.org.uk/
Each of us have our own reasons to run; to catch up with friends, to keep on top of our weight, to stay healthy or to chase new PBs. Whatever your reason Parkrun can help you do that. With free weekly timed 5k runs in 379 parks in the UK and now around the world you can run or volunteer and will always be made to feel welcome and part of the Parkrun gang. www.parkrun.org.uk/
Three great podcasts played over Christmas might be of interest if you are looking to learn more about what can help your sports performance:
- For a bit of inspiration and maybe a few tears, Marathon Talk with Ben Smith is a riveting listen. Ben has designed and is taking on the 401 Challenge (401 marathons in 401 days around Britain). (Runs forever)
- On even longer distances than marathons, a piece from Sam Clark on iPlayer is looking at the world of Ultra distance running. (Runs until 30th Jan 2016)
- A BBC Five Live Sports Special with Sir Dave Brailsford on Marginal Gains. This is Sir Dave Brailsford and his pals (including Chris Froome and Matthew Syed) talking about the Marginal Gains methodology and how this focus on “progression not perfection” helps athletes enhance their performance by aggregating their marginal gains. Going into depth on this, and the roles they each play in advising, motivating, developing the culture and creating athlete confidence they highlight how this attention to detail can make a difference in any part of your life. (Runs until 30th Jan)
The Sports Psychology conference which took place just before Christmas had masses of research to listen to and digest. The previous blog posts consider specific areas but here are the quick take-aways on six areas: behaviour change, learning and using mental skills, working in extreme environments, supporting youth athletes, improving endurance performance and personality traits.
On behaviour change
- Working memory can only remember a few points at a time. Never try to sell more than four.
- Attention span has gone from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds now.
- When information is cheap then it becomes expensive to get attention. So you must think what are you prepared to pay to get attention. Attention is at the heart of all behavior change issues
- Strangers and new places are threats – so when trying to get people’s attention we need to do it in places which feel safe to them.
- Studying motivation in sport is important as it helps us increase our theoretical and practical knowledge so we can change behaviour.
On learning and using mental skills
- Interventions which have been found to enhance endurance performance are: Goal setting, Imagery, Pre-performance routines, Relaxation and Biofeedback and Self-talk.
- Goal setting, Self-talk and Imagery have all been found to increase motivation.
- A Parachute Regiment platoon who had mental skills training improved their mental toughness scores significantly more than those without the training.
- Self-talk can significantly improve the performance of ultra runners and soldiers.
- Your ability to do imagery influences how effective you can be at it.
- Building your confidence before going into a competitive environment and having intrinsic motivation will help you succeed.
- Before going onto any type of expedition fully prepare for the physical and social environment by identifying and discussing potential expedition scenarios (including personal differences) and agree on a plan as to how to respond and support one another if required.
- Key areas of growth for someone taking on a polar exploration can be in problem and emotional, solving, coping, positive interpretive processes, hardiness, optimism, conscientiousness, reflection and resilience.
- Teach youth athletes coping skills to help them manage the tension between school and sport.
- Help your youth athlete communicate how they are feeling around their dual role.
- Avoid mentally draining activities before endurance performance.
- To improve endurance performance we either need to increase motivation or reduce the perception of effort. To reduce your perception of effort think about your cadence, about relaxing and finding ways to distract yourself.
- Follow a pace or a pacer when you run to lower heart rate and potentially improve your performance.
On personality traits
- Athletes with a long term injury who were optimistic reported fewer negative emotions, felt more in control, used more appropriate coping strategies, had higher levels of intrinsic motivation and stuck better to their rehab programmes.
- Those who are high in mental toughness have an enhanced capacity to experience flow.
Social support is known to be really important in sport, when dealing with injury and in helping you succeed in day-to-day life. It has become increasingly recognised as a key resource for athletes, and has been linked with enhanced coping with organisational stressors, youth sport participation, self-confidence, and lower levels of burnout. Some really interesting pieces of research presented at a recent sports psychology conference tell us more about how social support can impact us.
Highlighting how important it is to have supportive people around you, Adam Coussens from the University of Exeter looked at how athletes perceive the support they get from those around them. He found that when athletes perceive certain individuals to be conscientious, open, and sharing a common identity, they also perceive them to be particularly supportive. Further, if athletes perceive certain individuals to be supportive, athletes will also feel confident. Not only can you get confidence when surrounded by supportive people but your motivation can be improved too. Bryn McCann looked at the impact on athlete motivation and found Peers, Coaches and Parents are three social agents who can impact on an athlete’s motivation.
Finally, some fascinating research from Andrew Cruickshank from the University of Central Lancashire who has been looking at the factors that separate Super Champs (Multiple World or Olympic Medalists) from Champs (GB team) from others (those who are good but may quit before senior selection) and found it comes down to commitment, preparation and reaction to challenge, reflection and reward and the role of coaches and significant others. Specifically on the theory that Talent needs Trauma (i.e. the idea that in order to succeed you must have built strength and resilience by overcoming significant hurdles along the way) they found that the hurdles encountered need to consist of structured challenge that helps athletes develop social and psychological skills. A lovely phrase Andrew used was “It needs to be a plaster, not an amputation” so athletes are not necessarily learning new stuff from trauma, just proving and reminding themselves that they have good psychological strength and skills.