Zone In, not Out, to Overcome Your Limits

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Rather than taking your mind away from what you're doing, the goal is to be completely present with it, and to use that mindfulness to make your awareness deeper and more subtle.

An article in the January 2008 issue of Outside magazine describes how uber-swimmer Michael Phelps is training for his attempt at seven or more gold medals at this summer's Beijing Olympic Games. A sidebar features five suggestions for how you can "Be Like Mike."  Number 4 reads: Find Your Rhythm.

"Whatever is the last song on when I get out of the car is going to be what's in my head during practice. So it has to be a good one," Phelps is quoted as saying.

Perhaps not the advice you were hoping for? I formed a mental image of Michael in the parking lot, waiting for the right song. To be honest, I did something similar in my 20s.

In 1972 (pre-waterproof mp3 players), I swam 9 miles across Long Island Sound with Louie, Louie by the Kingsmen playing in my head for almost three-and-a-half hours. This mental trick, called dissociation, was the subject of a recent article in the New York Times by fitness writer Gina Kolata.

"You are always capable of doing more," the article quoted Dr. Bill Morgan, emeritus professor of kinesiology at the University of Wisconsin, and dissociation is one of the techniques commonly used by athletes to help overcome limits.

Distraction in Action

The limits of human performance are poorly understood. It could be the ability of the heart to circulate blood to the muscles, the ability of the muscles to respond to nerve stimuli, the availability of muscle fuel. But mind state can be more influential than all of them.

In one experiment, Dr. Morgan instructed runners to say "down" every time a foot lands, or to stare at an object while running on a treadmill, and to breathe in sync with their steps. Runners who did so outperformed members of a control group who ran in their usual way.

Dr. Morgan, who has worked with hundreds of sub-elite marathon runners, said everyone had a dissociation strategy. But a key difference between average and elite marathon runners is that whereas average runners describe zoning out to make it through the last few miles of the race, the elite runner zones in more keenly.

This habit of better runners will be familiar to anyone who has practiced the "purposeful mindfulness" Total Immersion advocates for stroke improvement. While dissociation is intended to take an athlete's mind off the distance to be covered, or the effort required while running or cycling near one's limits, a contrasting mental technique—let's call it association—is far more interesting and functional than those cited in the article.

Dissociation techniques are actually rather widespread and not limited to those who race. The TV-watchers and magazine-readers on the treadmills at the gym appear to find exercise so boring they do anything to take their mind off it. Ms. Kolata's article cites examples that are more imaginative and helpful—watching the seat post of the cyclist ahead of you—but are still unrelated to focal points that actually save you energy or increase the effectiveness of your movements.