“We are shaped by our thoughts. We become what we think.” - Buddha
“If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.” – Amit Ray
Have you ever stopped to notice how relaxed and smooth the best endurance athletes in the world look when they are competing? When we swim, bike, and run, we are continually moving between a state of relaxation and tension both physically AND mentally. While we obviously need tension at times, if you are gritting your teeth and trying to force and fight through a workout or race, you may be severely lessening the potential benefit AND enjoyment you would have derived from that session, AND you might end up going slower as well. What the elite athletes who are silky-smooth and relaxed know is that:
When your body’s natural rhythm and timing are altered, less fluid and less efficient movements use up precious energy reserves and increase the risk of cramping and even injury.
- The best chance for a true “breakthrough” performance can only happen if our focus is on being more relaxed, rather than trying to fight through and force more power from our legs!
- Taking at least one session each week in each sport where you practice and refine skill and technique will lead to more relaxed, more efficient sport specific movements.
- Your ability to completely relax your body AND mind, while simultaneously moving at the fastest possible speed, is a very important determinant of how successful you will be in your most important events!
What does it mean to relax the mind?
According to Joann Dahlkoetter, Ph.D., well-known author and expert on mental training for athletes, “relaxation is an experience. It’s a state of physical and mental stillness characterized by the absence of tension and anxiety.” In addition, studies and anecdotal reports from elite level cyclists and other endurance athletes consistently say one related key to faster training and racing is learning to stay “in the moment” at all times, emptying the mind of left-brain thinking, analyzing and judging.
In my own practical experience as an endurance athlete, when I am able to really focus on staying task oriented and being “in the moment,” emptying my mind of anxious thoughts and judgments, I instantly feel a mental and physical response that allows me to relax more fully. What results is that I am able to breathe more deeply from my lower abdomen, NOT from my chest, which in turn lowers my heart rate and any additional tension I might be feeling. This makes it easier to move through a greater range of motion and helps me pick up my pace even further without an increase in heart rate or in RPE. I know that with nothing more than my enhanced focus and breathing, I am able to immediately change the way I feel and the way I perform!
Try relaxing as HARD as you seem to be working:
As an experiment, in your next “quality” workout, try relaxing as HARD as you are working! Pay attention to your breath. Gritting your teeth with all of the resulting tension in your face is wasted energy and won’t help you go faster. Forcing it may end up resulting in cramping, inefficient and uncoordinated movements, poor breathing mechanics, poor pacing, and might even lead to overtraining and injury. Instead, introduce a new dimension of relaxing your mind and body “harder” while training and racing.
Tips to help quiet your left-brain and relax your mind and muscles:
- Your left brain wants to constantly judge and criticize you. STOP IT by using “thought replacement” strategies that in turn will enhance relaxation. The instant you experience a negative thought or criticism, replace it with a positive one.
- Use KEY “power” words such as calm, focus, smooth, patience, effortless, or winner to re-center and stay focused in the present.
- Use deep focused breathing to key into how your body is feeling. Learn to detect subtle changes in muscle tension levels that will help you relax muscles not needed for a particular movement.
Without a doubt, learning to relax your body, calm your mind, and conserve energy while swimming, riding, or running, and throughout the day (how tightly do you grip the steering wheel in your car?) will enhance your quality of sleep, accelerate your recovery, recharge your mind, and enhance your performance and enjoyment. Take these strategies and integrate them into your daily training and I guarantee you’ll see instant benefits in every phase of your life!
 Dahlkoetter, Ph.D., Joann, Your Performing Edge, Pulgas Ridge Press, 2002., pg. 53