Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Sticky Thoughts: what's going on with your brain on race day

By: Melinda Halpern

There are days when we show up for a race and everything just works.  The motions feel easy and fluid and we barely have to think.  And then there are the other days.  The ones where everything is bothersome, our breathing doesn't relax and that elusive flow just can’t be found.   If attention is paid to the thoughts on either of these days it might sound like this:

-        It’s all good
-        Keep breathing
-        I can’t do this
-        I’m never going to finish

These are thoughts that are generated by the pre frontal cortex region of your brain that I refer to as The Computer.  This section of the brain is responsible for higher level problem solving, planning, organizing, and managing impulses. The first two thoughts are Smooth Thoughts.  These are thoughts that help the Computer relax, decrease panic and basically get out of your body’s way of doing the things it knows how to do.  The last two thoughts are Sticky Thoughts. These engage The Computer and activate it.  Now emotional pressure is increased and the mind is busy racing with worries that create physiological responses such as increased heart and breathing rates.  And now that The Computer is part of the race it can’t help but micromanage body movements and skills that are best left to less conscious thoughts.

               So why does our brain want to engage in Sticky Thoughts? Why don’t we inherently go towards loving the pain and reassuring ourselves everything is ok?  It’s due to an alarm system that is hard wired in our brains to warn us of danger. It is reading the physiological signals such as tight muscles, excessive breathing, and increased sweat as data that it’s owner is in a potentially life threatening situation so it starts to encourage your body to quit: I can’t do this, I’m off my mark today, This is looking bad, etc.  The Sticky Thoughts create panicky chemistry to encourage you to quit as a way of self-preservation. By signaling distressing thoughts your brain is warning you that you might die!

               But you came to race, not to quit, so what can you do to override your Computer and get out of your own way?

Step One: recognize what is happening.  Your brain thinks you’re in trouble but your body just wants to get up that huge hill.  Take a breath!  Brains need oxygen in the blood to move toxins that build up naturally but even more so when you are stressing your system with activity.  Be conscious of air coming in and out of your body, if only for a few breaths.

Step Two:  don’t argue with The Computer.  The last thing you want to do is to engage this part of your brain.  It has higher functioning and rationalizing capabilities than your other brain parts and it will win!  Your goal is to disengage from the Sticky Thoughts.  Notice the comments and recognize that it’s the alarm system going off and its just doing its job.  Remind your brain that races are supposed to hurt – nothing is wrong with you, and the person next to you is hurting too.

Step Three: The Computer wants something to focus on other than the pain that is making it nervous.  Give it a different job: count strides, notice your breath, focus on the racing bib in front of you.  By shifting from panic to a less activated state your Computer will relax and the flow you are searching for will be more accessible.


Melinda is presenting more information on this topic at FootZone on Thursday 1/24/2013. 

Melinda has been a licensed therapist in private practice and the public sector for over 10 years.  She has coached athletes in swimming, rowing, and skiing throughout her life on both the East and West coasts.  While her profession as a therapist provides her insight to people and their motivations, her passion as a life-long athlete fuels GritPerformance.  Her website can be found at gritperformance.com.

1 comment:

CaroE said...

Wow, thanks for this!