Mindfulness isn’t something to do while just meditating, it’s a skill you want to bring into your everyday activities. During training and racing, strive to pay attention in each present moment so you can purposefully direct where to place the focus of your attention. This allows you to intentionally choose when to turn on your narrow internal focus, for example, versus allowing your mind to wander and relax. It also allows you to put your self-talk to strategic use.
Moving Between Attentional Strategies
Endurance athletes move between what has been termed associative and dissociative attentional strategies during training and racing. Associative thoughts involve a narrow task-relevant focus on matters related to performance, such as your breathing rate or muscle contractions. Dissociative thoughts involve a broad task-irrelevant focus on things unrelated to the immediate task at hand, such as the scenery around you or what you’ll do on your next vacation.
Early research on the topic found that elite marathoners tend to do more associative thinking while non-elite marathoners tend to do more dissociative thinking. After several more decades of research, the general perspective is that both strategies are relevant at different times for different purposes. Associative thinking helps athletes focus on the task at hand and is particularly beneficial at higher intensity levels where a task-relevant attentional strategy is helpful. The faster you’re going, the more beneficial it will be to focus on task-relevant aspects of your performance. Dissociative thinking, on the other hand, helps reduce perceived exertion and is particularly beneficial at longer distances with lower intensity levels where mind-wandering can be a helpful distraction.
A valuable mental skill is the ability to move between these attentional strategies as needed during your training and racing. Doing this builds on your foundational mindfulness training, which allows you to be aware of which strategy you’re currently using so you can switch between them at will.
Use associative thinking when you need a task-relevant attentional focus. This includes moments where you need to monitor your exertion level to keep it in check, such as at the beginning of a race or during a long climb. This also includes technical sections of a course where you need to place attentional focus on the task at hand to avoid falling or missing a turn. Associative thinking is necessary to monitor your fueling and hydration during prolonged activity, or to ensure you’re in the right zone during interval training. You can also use it to do a body scan to identify tense areas that need to be relaxed, and then to modulate your muscle tension or breathing to help you relax.
Use dissociative thinking when you need to redirect attention away from sensations of pain and discomfort. Simply letting your mind wander freely can also provide a needed mental break during longer events — and, of course, mind-wandering during lower-intensity training sessions is often what makes those workouts so fulfilling, promoting creativity and positively impacting mood.
Mind-wandering, or dissociative thinking where spontaneous thoughts come and go freely is a form of organic self-talk. As defined earlier, self-talk refers to our internal dialogue, the verbalizations and statements we address to ourselves. Organic self-talk refers to the natural flow of that dialogue. Creative ideas and problem-solving come from the type of organic self-talk we call mind-wandering, which provides room for reflection and introspection. This differs from the negative form of organic self-talk that we call rumination. Rumination involves a narrow focus on similar thoughts that get repeated over and over, causing worry and stress. When shifting into dissociative thinking, it’s the mind-wandering we want to embrace, not the rumination.
Using Self-Talk Strategically
Self-talk can also be strategic, motivational, and instructional.
Strategic self-talk is when we intentionally deploy words or narratives for a specific reason to help us. These are strategic forms of self-talk that we’ve trained ourselves to use.
Motivational self-talk is what we often associate with self-talk in athletic settings. It’s your internal coach or cheerleader that uses self-talk to boost confidence or motivate performance. Motivational self-talk can be used to stimulate arousal (“Let’s do this!”), maintain emotional control (“Stay present”), reinforce mastery (“You did that well”), or facilitate drive (“Keep going, you can do this”).
Research on motivational self-talk has shown that it reduces perceived effort and increases time to exhaustion. For example, you might use motivational self-talk in the later stages of a marathon to keep focused on getting to that next mile marker without letting up on your pace. Research has also demonstrated that addressing yourself in the second person (“you”) when using motivational self-talk is more effective than using the first-person pronoun (“I”).
Instructional self-talk is the verbal guidance we provide to ourselves on how to do something, talking us through the mechanics of a skill. Instructional self-talk is especially useful when we’re learning a new skill or for skills that require fine motor control and specific movements.
For example, you might use instructional self-talk to guide yourself through a transition in a triathlon or skimo race (“First do this, then that, and then…”) or to guide yourself through the technical segment of a course to stay focused on the movements you need to make. Devising instructional checklists that you intentionally deploy in such situations can facilitate performance.
Knowing these different attentional strategies allows you to deliberately deploy them at different times for different purposes. This is something you can practice on a regular basis during training, so you’re adept at implementing your attentional flexibility when racing.