Sunday, March 18, 2007


I sing the body electric...
Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?
--Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

I hadn't meant to write such an squeamishly touchy-feely granola post, particularly one so long. I don't consider myself a very touchy-feely person. But damn if sometimes there are things of value that cross the border of touchy-feely, and this is one of them. So here goes:

One of the many things that gets glossed over in this sport is need for self-awareness. Not in terms of being alive and knowing that you are (i.e., cogito ergo sum), but in terms of holding a connection with your mental and physical states, to the extent that you can 1) receive the signals they are giving you, and 2) understand the signals so that you can respond appropriately.

I'm starting to be of the opinion that this connection is a lot more important than people seem to realize. It's not a trivial thing. As an athlete, your performance is predicated on being able to maximize all available resources for peak output. The resources available to you are your body, your mind, and your sense of self (or, depending on who you talk to, your soul). Your body is the instrument of physical performance engaged in effort and undergoing stress, your mind is the agent directing your body's physical performance and measuring its effort and interpreting its stress, and your sense of self (conscious, unconscious, ego, id, soul, whatever you will) is the element deciding the why, what, where, when, and how the body and the mind are supposed to be applied.

Maximizing these resources involves regular sustenance, repair if necessary, and constant monitoring of status to gauge if each of these elements is functioning properly for peak performance. In essence, they require fine-tuning to operate at their best.

This is not possible if you do not have an awareness and sensitivity of them individually or as a whole. By not understanding their signals, you ignore their messages as to effort and stress levels on your overall person. This is important information, because different levels of effort have very different purposes in training, different levels of stress call for very specific forms of treatment, and both entail very significant issues for your well-being.

This is in part why some athletes spend so much time involved in mental exercises, working with sports psychologists, doing visualization drills, and seeking positive reinforcement; they're trying to accentuate physical output by changing mental signals to the body. It's also in part why sports medicine has emphasized the need for drill work in developing what is known as "muscle memory," which is the ingraining of sport-appropriate neuro-muscular patterns by repeating movement that develops desired (i.e., "good form") neural pathway firing in conjunction with muscle contraction or expansion--in essence, using the body to develop the mind.

I believe that experienced athletes, whether they know it or not, possess or have developed a very high level of sensitivity to their body's signals and refined a degree of skill in their minds to use those signals to maximize performance, enabling a greater capacity to express themselves in athletic competition. I've frequently heard advanced athletes saying things like "I can sense I need some extra salt" or "I can sense I should get eat some more protein" or "I can feel something is not right" or "I can feel I better cut back today" or "This [training] is good suffering," all of which reflects an understanding of the sensations of training and the messages those sensations are giving, so that the athlete can then respond appropriately.

The problem, however, that I've encountered on a far too frequent a basis in triathlon is the relatively low level of priority given to these concepts, particularly among newbies, specifically those with no history of physical activity. This is an issue, since it entails entirely avoidable consequences, frustrates entirely accessibly benefits, allows entirely insufficient justifications, and could be easily remedied.


Too often, I've run across people who seem to have no clue as to the significance of these ideas, or the magnitude of the role they play in training or on race day. As a result, they are left to face the consequences of inadequate preparation. From the stories I've accumulated (as well as from hard-learned personal experience), the consequences I've encountered include poor training gains, overtraining, injury, and burn-out.

Ironically enough, for all the ignorance of the mind-body-self connection, there is often (even with newbies) a good grasp of major training concepts, such as:
  • sports science espouses breaking training into zones measured by effort level marked in units of heart rate (where Zone 1 is resting up to 120 bpm, Zone 2 is easy effort with heart rate of 120-130 bpm, etc.)
  • different training zones produce different results (Zone 2 and Zone 3 work aerobic systems, Zone 4 works aerobic threshold, Zone 5 works lactic acid threshold)
  • for endurance sports, it is imperative to develop an aerobic base, meaning by proportion the bulk of workouts should be in Zone 2 or Zone 3, and fewer workouts should be Zone 5
  • different zones and different volumes require different modes of recovery, with Zone 5 workouts or workouts of longer duration frequently calling for longer periods of recovery before the next training session
  • nutrition must provide the correct nutrients in adequate supply, so that there is fuel to finish workouts and building materials to build athletic capability
Unfortunately, this conceptual understanding seems to be thrown out the window in practical application (for reasons I'll get to later in this post). Often, particularly with newbies, this is because people take their training to faith, blindly following a training plan, the directions of their coach, or the peer pressure of their team-mates without ever stopping to evaluate if what they are doing is appropriate for their current physical capabilities. They never realize what I have found to be several fundamental truths of sports training:
  • for reasons of genetics or upbringing, not everyone starts at the same level (e.g., some people start triathlon with previous extensive athletic backgrounds in other sports, while others enter triathlon with absolutely athletic background whatsoever)
  • someone at a lower level will not have the same physical conditioning or abilities as someone at a higher level (i.e., a person with no history of physical activity is likely to find a 10-minute mile run pace a high-intensity effort involving a heart rate of 175 bpm, while an NCAA Division I track star will manage an 8-minute mile run pace as a low-intensity session with a heart rate of only 100 bpm)
  • people starting at different levels must follow different paths to higher training levels (e.g., someone coming to triathlon with no athletic background cannot start or conduct track workouts at the same speed, same distance, same time, and same effort as an experienced NCAA Division I scholarship track star)
  • before you can train at a high level, you have to get there (i.e., you have to train to get to a base level of fitness that is necessary so that you can then actually begin to really train at the same levels as other, more experienced or better conditioned athletes)
  • training is as much about recovery as it is about workouts for your body and mind--the process of physical training is a process of adaptation, whereby workouts break down tissue and the body then rebuilds the tissue to withstand the workouts; similarly, the process of mental training is also a process of adaptation, wherein the mind is gradually acclimated to holding greater periods of focus and concentration to hold form and persevere through workouts; together, both require recovery to grant both body and mind time to rebuild, and thereby reinvigorate your total person
  • there are no workouts and no recovery if there is no nutrition
Rather than being mindful of these truths, people tend to push themselves through workouts they are not ready for, whether in terms of volume (distance or time) or intensity (training zones), inducing effort and stress levels that exceed the capabilities of their body, mind, and spirit to recover. Frequently, you'll see newbies and overly-aggressive (or perhaps neurotic) athletes pushing themselves all-out through every workout, sometimes as much as twice (or more) per day, 6 days per week. Commonly, they'll fail to comprehend that:
  1. a Zone 3 workout for a professional athlete is often a Zone 5 workout for an amateur
  2. a 3-hour aerobic workout may be easy for an Olympic-caliber athlete but a death march for a beginner
  3. a single day may be adequate recovery time for an advanced athlete but entirely inadequate for a newbie, particularly those who have no history of physical activity
  4. extra calories does not always mean additional nutrients, nutrient supplements do not always mean sufficient calories, and junk food is not always nutrition
Invariably, you'll see people ignore the effort and stress levels they are experiencing and continuing doggedly on. This leads to the following litany of consequences:

Poor gains
An inability to recognize and understand the signals between the body-mind-self (or body-mind-soul, if that makes you feel better) connection serves as an impediment to fully realizing the potential gains of proper training. From what I've seen, this is because
  • you don't sense that you are in need of a particular type of workout, or that given a limited amount of time you would obtain better gains (and hence greater efficiency) from a specific session targeting particular objectives (i.e., a late-season long Zone 2-3 session to restore the aerobic base lost during a slate of races, or a dedicated technique session to maintain proper form that has deteriorated from fatigue or distraction)
  • you don't sense that you are in need of time to heal and incorporate the conditioning and fitness gains from training, but instead suppress your need for recovery and continue workouts that tax your depleted glycogen stores, unrepaired muscle tissue, exhausted mental acuity, and faded spiritual vigor
  • you don't realize that you need very specific types and quantities of nutrients to finish workouts and rebuild capabilities, with the nutrients replenishing glycogen, repairing tissue, restoring the mind, and reinvigorating the spirit
If the lack of self-awareness persists, and the short-shrifting of recovery and nutrition bad enough, the result of is the inevitable descent into the overtraining state. In overtraining, the body simply breaks down because it has not been given neither adequate time to recover nor proper nutrition to heal. The mitochondria in the cells literally lose their ability to produce energy or rebuild tissue. In mild cases, the person is left with persistent fatigue, sluggishness, irratibility, mood swings, and decreased physical ability. In severe cases, they are left with an inability to sleep, inability to absorb nutrients, inability to perform even basic daily physical activity (like walk, talk, sit, eat, drive, etc.), and with what can only be described as a state of near catatonia (not good for them, their family, their friends, or their job). Basically, rather than building the body, they are destroying it.

In extreme cases, where the lack of sensitivity to the body-mind-self system is acute, you'll over-ride or be oblivious to signals of extreme duress--signals that may mark not just the pain that comes from exhaustion, but the pain that comes from injury. I have known athletes who have trained and raced with conditions as extreme as broken bones, torn cartilage and muscles, and ruptured tendons and ligaments. In most cases, they knew something was wrong but didn't (or refused to believe) the problems were that severe. While admirable, this is dangerous, because in such cases you may find yourself with problems that are more than annoying, but actually debilitating or (even worse) chronic (as in permanent).

Even without the above consequences (or maybe because of them), people tend to eventually burn-out, overwhelmed with frustration, disappointment, or resentment over their inability to improve and advance in capabilities. Rather than taking the state of their bodies and minds as temporary conditions indicative of underlying (and treatable) issues, they view them as the nature of the sport and themselves as not good enough to deal with it. They don't understand the feelings of fatigue, exhaustion, or soreness are not permanent fixtures in triathlon, but are signals that if understood correctly can be used to improve training (via changes in workouts, recovery, or nutrition) and produce superior race day performance. Too often, however, I've seen people never learn this lesson, and instead give up on the sport, never to return.


What bothers me the most is that there are major benefits to be derived from developing a body-mind-self connection, benefits to performance that any triathlete (or athlete) would otherwise more than welcome. These include:

Workout maximization
An awareness of the mental impressions of the body's signals enables you to gauge what training zone you are in during your workouts--not just in the effort and heart rate levels during the workout, but also in the stress states following the workouts. This allows you to determine if you are holding workouts that will fulfill the purpose you need from them, or if you are undertraining (with workouts that are too easy) or overtraining (with workouts that are too hard). From there, you can then adjust your workout intensities and duration to match the required purpose (e.g., if you are trying to build your aerobic base, but can sense that your heart rate has consistently been 160+ bpm, then you know that you have not been getting an aerobic-focused session and should scale back the effort level to a more aerobic level).

Priority status
Sensitivity to the body-mind-self relationship can also help you distinguish between messages of genuine importance about the body versus messages related to the body but distorted by the mind. You can use this to develop an intuitive feel about your physical and mental status. This is, in effect, the heightened awareness so common to advanced athletes that allows them to determine if the pain they are experiencing is a temporary sensation of hurt or a more dangerous threat of injury, or if the fatigue they suffer is a simple attack of laziness or a symptom of overtraining. This can help you assess the priority level of your physical and mental status, and from there exercise your judgment to adjust your training accordingly.

Recognizing and knowing the nature of the body, the mind, and yourself allows you to maintain more responsive and reflexive nutrition habits. Much like the intuitive sense to adjust training to match physical and mental status, you can develop an intuitive sense of what nutrients your body and mind need. You can see that certain food cravings are your mind's interpretation of your body's signals of needed nutrients, with your mind recalling memories of food containing the nutrients your body is needing to finish workouts and rebuild in recovery. Understanding this allows you to recognize nutrient shortfalls, and make the necessary decisions regarding what you need to eat to mitigate these shortfalls.

Race day
Race day is the penultimate objective of all the time and energy of training, and presumably the reason anyone enters the sport of triathlon (or any sport in general). On race day, professionals and elites strive for victory, and amateurs at all levels aim for personal bests (or to finish). Regardless, the underlying theme is one of attaining something greater than what you've accomplished before or greater than you thought possible. Achieving this, however, relies in part on being able to deal the hardships you will feel to your body and your mind, requiring that you are able to identify your sense of self and recognize and respond to the signals of effort and stress your body and mind send you. In doing so, you can more easily determine how to face and ultimately overcome the challenges you experience within the course of a race.

To some degree, you may even be able to direct the body and mind as subjects to your self-control. Advanced athletes often talk of being "in the zone," where their senses become heightened, and they are able to engage their physical and mental resources in a way that amplifies their capabilities to the point that athletic activities suddenly become detached and effortless, even easy. Some athletes have even claimed they could consciously put themselves "in the zone" by exercising their will to set their bodies and minds in specific states of awareness.


I don't think the lack of attention given to the concepts of self-awareness is something intentional. Nor do I see it as a by-product of a ideological conflict in training methodology between practical realists and "touch-feely" romantics. The are several other, more significant reasons why I think it gets glossed over:
  • People have never developed it--The body-mind-spirit connection is not something endemic to everyday life growing up as children, particularly in Western societies. For most of us, our youth is spent being indoctrinated into a merit-driven, results-oriented, physically-measurable culture. There is little education in abstract concepts that don't have a clear, direct effect on desired results. Something as ethereal and reflective as reading and dealing with physical and mental signals is not very clear and not very direct, and so is given short shrift outside of those arenas that have conceded some application for it (such as sports, dance, martial arts, etc.). As a result, newbies with little or no history of physical activity have never been introduced to the concepts of self-awareness, and so have never been asked to develop it or been given cause to develop it.
  • Coaches skip it--I suspect that many coaches place the idea of self-awareness low on the priority of coaching items, and instead focus on physical aspects like training schedules, workout volume, intensity level, and recovery periods. This may be out of a desire to please their customers (their clients) with quick, directly observable results in performance. The body-mind-self relationship is one that takes time to develop (particularly for novices with no background in physical activity who have never been asked to do so), and that involves a lot of abstract, non-empirical effort that is difficult to measure. Hence, for clients impatient to get their money's worth, coaches are under pressure to target other, more physically identifiable aspects of their clients' athletic experience.
  • Athletes don't even realize they have it--Most athletes (at least, the ones advanced enough to utilize it) are not even conscious of their sensitivity to the body-mind-self relationship. They've been involved in sports for so long and to such a degree that it has become ingrained into their lives to an extent that they are not even conscious of the constant measuring, assessment, response, or direction they are making to their physical and mental status. As a result, they tend to not mention it in discussing training, and so when asked by neophytes about their methods they tend to completely omit it from conversation.
  • Impatience--Many neophytes are too impatient to devote space in their training for developing self-awareness. Frequently, they are anxious to see positive performance gains as quick as possible, and insist on following the principle of "more and harder is better" on the belief that it will lead to results faster. This proscribes any attraction for the idea of improving awareness of physical and mental signals, which takes time and attention to develop.
  • Ego--A lot of beginners commence their training with a group (usually triathlon clubs or charity organizations). This invariably leads to self-comparison with others, and a desire to not appear slow or "bring up the rear." This peer pressure (whether intentional or unintentional) leads to a competitive training environment with beginners driving themselves to training volumes and intensities matching their peers as quickly as possible, suppressing any interest in time-consuming activities that appear "remedial" or "weak"--including activities related to improving sensitivity to body-mind-self relationships. In addition, they tend to emulate their coaches and more advanced athletes, and if these models don't talk about the value of self-awareness, then beginners will perceive no need for it.

I don't think the situation is inflexible. I think it can be remedied. I think that people, either by diligent investigation or lessons learned first-hand the hard way, eventually do see the value of self-awareness for training and racing. But I think more can be done to improve the continuing prevalence of obliviousness. In particular, I think the situation can be ameliorated by:
  • Emphasis by coaches--As much as coaches may be pressured by market forces to concentrate on the quick results to be obtained from the physical side of training, they should also be cognizant of the longer-term rewards their clients will find from other, more internal aspects of training. By exclusively emphasizing concrete aspects like workout schedules, volume, intensity, recovery, and nutrition, newbies run the risks of under-realized potential training gains, overtraining, injury, or burn-out. Coaches can help prevent this by encouraging novices (especially those with no history of physical activity) to become more familiar and more responsive to the signals of the body and mind, as well as more cognizant of their abilities to direct both.
  • Patience and self-education by newbies--While learning a sport is in many ways an act of receiving information and guidance from coaches and senior athletes, newbies should also know that education is a 2-way process wherein students have as much responsibility to study and utilize knowledge just as much as teachers have responsibility to teach it. In which case, people just entering triathlon (or any sport in general) should take more heed to the comments and observations of coaches and senior athletes regarding training and racing, even ones dealing with concepts as abstract as self-awareness.
  • Cross-training--Self-awareness can be developed over time, simply by continuous and diligent participation and development in a given sport. The body-mind-self sensitivity, however, can be accelerated by engaging in additional activities asking for different movements that are unfamiliar, and which force you to engage your mind to involve the body in new ways. I've known professional athletes and elite amateurs who've tried to do exactly this by cross-training in alternative activities such as ballet, yoga, martial arts, and even Buddhist meditation. This results in greater coordination between mental and physical sides of yourself, expanding your awareness of the relationship between the body, the mind, and your person.
Triathlon, just like other sports, is in many ways a personal quest of self-improvement and self-development, with the hope of becoming a better human being than you were before. This presumably means seeking progress in all aspects of human existence: physical, mental, spiritual. In which case, if we really are engaging in sports to maximize our total state of being, then we need to do more than just individually increase physical fitness or mental faculties or spiritual well-being independent of each other, but should instead work to expand all of them together in unison. Doing this calls for a greater level of recognition and understanding of how the body, mind, and self interact, and the potential this has to multiply our abilities and elevate our performance. In short, it calls for greater self-awareness.

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