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Training & advice

Relaxed concentration

What do you think about whilst you are running? Do you plan what you are going to make for dinner or solve a few problems that have cropped up at work? It's great to be able to lose yourself in your thoughts but if you are doing a key training session or a race that requires a good amount of effort you may be thinking about keeping the pace going or thinking ahead to a harder part of the course or you may be concentrating on trying to stay with your running rival but there are some who say that this sort of thinking may impede your performance rather than help it and that you need to learn to switch off your critical mind or give it something else to think about whilst your body gets on with the running!

Timothy Gallwey is a coach who developed a methodology that he called The Inner Game and, with it, produced dramatic results with sports people at all levels from beginners to pros. He talks of a Self 1 and a Self 2.

Self 1 is about judgement and self 2 is about experience. Self 1, the mind, tells Self 2, the body, how to execute a skill. It mistrusts Self 2 and interferes by telling Self 2 that it is going to have to try pretty hard to pull this one off and then by trying too hard Self 2 becomes anxious and so the performance is hindered. This then leads to a spiral of negative self-talk. Self 1 perceives a skill [or maybe a particular part of a training session or race] to be difficult and tells self 2 that it had better watch out because here comes that awful challenge that has ended in failure before. What it doesn't realise is that Self 2 has the potential to perform the skill well without the control of Self 1.

If a runner can quiet Self 1 he or she will realise that Self 2 already knows how to execute the skill and doesn't need to try. Yes, some effort is required but it doesn't need to try. The trick is to quieten Self 1 by occupying the mind with what is actually happening rather than what the body needs to do to execute the skill.

In tennis, Gallwey used several acitivities that had the player focus on what the ball was doing rather than on what sort of shot it was that was coming towards her, for example, he would have her observe when the ball bounced on each shot, or the trajectory of the ball and even had some players "ride the ball" so that they felt they actually were the ball. His aim was to help his players achieve relaxed concentration so that the player recognises his or her potential. He differentiates between relaxed concentration and concentrating in the vein of trying, which brings in interference from Self 1.

In a nutshell:

Potential - interference = performance (Po - i = Pe)

You could argue that running is different because endurance is a more important fitness component than skill but there are times when runners get into a spiral of negative self talk, particularly in races or parts of training routes that they have experienced difficulty before.

Unfortunately, when you allow self 1 to tell self 2 that "here comes that hill that you have never been able to run all the way up before" or "here comes Julie who always passes you before the gate into the park" you become tense, you shorten your stride and your relaxed running technique falls apart. To prevent this from happening you need to either give self 1 something else to think about or turn the negative thoughts into positive ones.  You could perhaps ask self 1 to count how many steps it takes to get from the bottom of the hill to the top or you could relish the idea of Julie catching you so that you can run the rest of the way just tucked in behind her. It may be that you could ask self 1 to appreciate the environment through which you are running and identify the sounds that you can hear.

By taking out the trying but keeping up the effort and keeping concentration relaxed you mayl enjoy your running and achieve better performances by entering into a spiral of positive self talk! Try it out for yourself in your local parkrun by running it without interference from Self 1 one week and then allowing Self 1 to take control on the next and compare your time to see the difference. You should be aware that it takes time to quieten Self 1 though so you will need to use The Inner Game over a long period of time to see the real results.