You've finished the bike portion of the triathlon and are headed out on the run course when you notice that your legs feel heavy and unresponsive. You wonder what is going on, and a voice in your head begins to evaluate what it all means. 'My legs are shot! My run is ruined! There goes my race!' Then a flood of negative emotions kick in, and you get nervous and worried. Your emotions just got the better of you. But it doesn't have to be that way.
Triathletes feel as though emotions are something that happen to them, completely out of their control, like the wind on a bike ride or getting a flat. The truth is, you have more control than you think. Many athletes have found ways to gain control over their emotions and enlist their emotions in service of their training and racing.
Returning to the transition scenario above, notice how different this one feels. You finish the bike leg and on the run your legs feel heavy and unresponsive. A voice in your head says, 'Hmm, okay, thighs feel like lead. I've felt this before in a bunch of brick workouts and races. The legs usually come around in about four minutes or so. Situation normal. No worries.' And the emotions that follow are calm and familiar. No problem.
The feeling in your legs is identical. The difference is how your mind interprets the feeling. There are three steps that occur when your brain recognizes a physical change in the body:
- You experience a physical sensation in your body (e.g. heavy legs, butterflies in your stomach, hamstring cramp).
- Your mind evaluates the feelings and decides what that feeling means.
- Your system kicks in with biochemicals producing resultant emotions, making you worried or elated, frightened or emboldened, filled with dread or filled with anticipation.
This system can cause a couple of problems for triathletes. First, the process proceeds very rapidly. When you turn on a light switch, the light doesn't have to decide what to do, it just turns on. The experience-evaluation-emotion system works about that quickly. Second, the emotional part has a long half-life—emotions stick around for a while before reducing in intensity. If you've ever had a sharp scare or close encounter, long after the event is over and you are clearly beyond danger, you're still shaky and rattled. Those biochemicals are still flooding through your veins and will be there for a while until your system clears them out. Even though your mind evaluates that the threat is over, your emotions will take time to wane. Neurons work quicker than hormones.
So how, exactly, do you get control over your emotions? Here are three specific techniques you can test right now.