Walk into any gym and you’ll probably see a slew of people mindlessly churning away on ellipticals, treadmills, and stationary bikes. 99% of these people will be plugged into some sort of device. Walk into your average triathlete’s pain cave, and you’ll see the same thing: Netflix on in front of the trainer. Headphones on the run. Underwater headphones in the pool.
Somewhere along the line, we lost the ability to entertain ourselves without an external stimulus, and it’s hurting our race performances.
What? Hurting my race performance? Maybe. Here’s why you might want to ditch the headphones:
1. “Mental training” is the next frontier for endurance athletes.
Everyone knows how to physically prepare for competition. Some maybe better than others, but particularly at the top, everyone’s in great shape come race day. More and more, what separates 1st from 5th isn’t that extra tempo run you did, it’s how you held up psychologically when the race pain hit, particularly in endurance events. Mental skills will give you the edge.
2. Most likely, when you get to race day, you’re not going to have that distraction.
I can pretty much guarantee that you won’t have Netflix on the course, and while a road race might allow headphones, I’ve yet to see a triathlon that does. Now what? Oh hello, thoughts…I have to do this for 12 hours??
3. It’s one of the best ways to learn to be comfortable inside your head.
The other is to meditate. Which also has value, but that’s a topic for another time. Most of us are really bad at being inside our own heads. A recent-ish study showed that people would rather administer electric shocks to themselves than be alone with their thoughts. This is just sad, people. The longer your race, the longer the amount of time you’re going to be inside your head. That time can be spent in a mental battle, or in a calm but alert, present-centered state conducive to performance. When people talk about flow, this is often what they mean. It’s a great feeling.
4. But science told me I’ll go faster if I listen to Taylor Swift when I run!
Sure, some studies have shown that listening to certain types of music increases performance. So yeah, ok, you won’t have it in your race – but aren’t you still reaping the performance adaptations you got from using it to push yourself harder in practice? Interesting question. I honestly don’t know. From a purely physiological standpoint, yeah, sure; but you have to wonder how much whatever you’re gaining there is counterbalanced by the opportunity to build psychological resilience that you may have sacrificed. There’s true value in learning to push and to have it be entirely intrinsically motivated. No one can take that intrinsic ability away from you on race day. An unexpected hail storm can, however, take out the stereo system on the sidelines and your personal cheerleaders. You want to be able to cope with that. If you fall apart without your headphones, you’re no better than that idiot who dropped out of the race because his Garmin died.
Running out of ways to out-do your fellow triathletes? Now you can casually drop into conversation statements like, “So this morning, I did a 5 hour trainer ride at 350 watts in silence while staring at a picture of the Kona finish line on an otherwise blank wall. You know, for mental training.” Watch them freak out.
6. You’re less likely to get hit by a bus.
That would really screw up your season.
7. It’s good for your brain.
And now for some actually useful information: multi-tasking with constant electronic distraction causes actual functional changes in your brain that will make it harder to focus when you actually need to. Sorry, but your brain really isn’t wired to multitask efficiently. In a weird biological catch-22, the part of the brain that helps you focus – the prefrontal cortex – is also biased towards novel stimuli (you’re distracted by shiny things), and you get a hit of dopamine (happy reward brain chemical) every time you task-switch to something new (i.e., check twitter on your smartphone while watching House of Cards while pedaling a bike). This is not a brain circuit that you want to feed. On top of THAT, cognitive task-switching makes your brain burn glucose faster, and thus crap out on you faster. Trust me, I’m a neuroscientist.
8. You just might learn something about yourself.
I’m not saying you need to train in silence, staring at a blank wall all the time. But learn to stay engaged, to stay with your body. Actually experience what it feels like to hurt during a hard interval, to go up a steep hill. Learn what your heart thudding sounds like, pay attention to your breathing. Begin to associate these physical sensations with different effort levels…learn where you break down, physically and mentally, and see how you can use your mind to push that point out. Learn where your mind starts to fight you, and see how you deal with it.
So learn to be bored again, and get reacquainted with your thoughts. Fight the temptation of mindlessness. And maybe you’ll edge out all those idiots who spent 120 hours of Zone 2 time watching Saved by the Bell last winter.