A short note on willpower

This time of the year, for those whose next races are several months away, is a good time to define where you need work, and what you need to do to improve, either on your own for the self-coached athlete, or with your coach. As I mentioned in the note on simplicity, improving your technique requires (a lot of) work. It is not simply a matter of understanding what you need to change, and try it a couple of times, but rather the necessity to automate the new motor (or mental) skills. In the words of Daniel Kahneman, you want to transfer your task from your system 2 (difficult tasks), to your system 1 (automated tasks). What does it mean from a practical standpoint?

1. Identify what the flaws really are.

For instance, you may cross-over when swimming, which makes you swim like a crocodile. That’d be great if you had a long propulsive tail, but the reality is that your legs going sideways slow you down a lot. Or you may want to improve running economy, by reducing extraneous upper body motions. Or even improving your foot strike. And no, it doesn’t mean a forefoot strike, but this is a long discussion better left for another post.

2. Identify the tasks and exercises to make you more conscious of these flaws, and to fix them.

That’s a lot harder to do. Especially for the self-coached athlete. Videos would be very useful since we are often not very good at imagining what we look like from the outside.

3. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

There is no quick fix here. You will need time to fix habits that have been developed over several years. And more time to turn these changes into habits. That brings me to a quick comment on music. Many of us like to train with music, and actually, research suggests that it improves your performance. See
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21803652 for instance. However, when trying to switch a task from system 2 to system 1, you want system 2 to be focused on the task at hand, without interference. When you are focusing on the song you enjoy running to, you start going back to your old patterns, and defeat the purpose. In other words, you are not improving your technique anymore. I know this will come as a total devastation to many who hate running without music. But then, if you don’t like running, what’s the point? No one is forcing you 🙂

It is quite natural to resist change in humans (in all facets of life). When trying to change technique, you will need to be very focused, rested, and with decent glycogen stores. The research group of Roy Baumeister has done a bunch of very interesting experiments to look at what breaks our willpower. Low glucose levels is one of them (which is why many coaches recommend that you grab gels, or coke, or sugar quickly when you are racing and start having negative thoughts). But also thoughts that mobilize system 2. If you’re running a set of 400s and your coach tells you, now compute 342 x 46 while running, you will slow down, and may just stop all together. Improving technique is a key component of becoming a better athlete. But it is not to be taken lightly. Identify. Focus. Repeat. And repeat. Again.

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