November 20, 2013

How to Prime Your Performance in the Off-Season

Avid triathletes focus on athleticism, building strength, or improving their swim, bike or run skill during their downtime. But there’s an even easier way to fast-track performance in the off-season and the best part is you don’t even have to break a sweat doing it.

The method to become a better triathlete is to “prime your mind.”

Psychological priming involves increasing your awareness through exposure to a specific motivation or stimulus.  Here’s what I mean.  Think back on a time where you bought a certain make, model, and color of car (the prime).  Ever notice how all of the sudden you start seeing the same car much more frequently than you did before?  That’s a form of priming.

There’s been a lot of research over the years in on how to use priming to change your behavior. One of the more interesting studies was done on, believe it or not, superheroes.

In this study the researchers wanted to find out if they could get psychology students to do more volunteer work so they had a test group write up a short essay on the characteristics of superheroes (they chose superheroes because they typically help people without regard to their own personal gain). The control group was given an assignment to write an essay about things around their apartment.  What they found between the two groups was fascinating.

Those who wrote about superhero characteristics were four times more likely to volunteer compared to the control group. This occurred even though the students in both groups were considered to be equally predisposed to doing volunteer work at the start of the study, which is crucial to getting a fair comparison when it comes to priming.

You see, priming can only work if it builds on what you already want to do or believe. 

If, for example, you’re a weak swimmer and you know you need to swim more to get better but you really don’t like to swim then writing an essay about the characteristics of great swimmers won’t help and, even worse, it might actually have the opposite effect.  The reason for this is simple.

Your unconscious mind may have acquired different goals than the ones you consciously wrote down… in fact, you may not even be aware of these goals.  An example from my own experience is when I go off on an easy run or ride and someone passes me before I know it I’m picking up my pace without any conscious decision to do so on my part.  Being passed fires up my competitive goals that lay in wait in my unconscious.

Priming can work for you, too, especially if you’ve decided to do triathlons and are predisposed to improving your performance.

Before Setting Goals, Start Here

Here’s how can you use priming to improve your triathlon performance next season.

Write up a short essay on the characteristics of a competitive age-group triathlete; someone who consistently finishes in the top five or ten in their age-group. If you don’t know anyone who falls into this category check out some triathlon industry magazines for ideas or you can just come up with these traits on your own based on how you think these athletes behave.  The only rules are to keep a positive mindset and have fun with it.

Here are some characteristics I pulled from my essay to help get you started:

  • Takes a long-term view and starts training early in the season
  • Establishes solid training habits early
  • Confident that if they do the work they’ll get the result
  • Builds on their strengths and incrementally improves their weaknesses
  • Finds ways to enjoy the process of getting fitter and faster
  • Are masters of their time because they eliminate all but the most valuable activities
  • Consistently finds ways to gain the support of their friends and family

As a practice I review my essay at least once a week to keep me honest about what it’s going to take to crank up my performance.

Is priming guaranteed to crank up your performance next season? Well, that’s entirely up to you. Priming works specifically to create the behavior you want by programming your unconscious mind. There’s a good chance that the success you have with this priming experiment will directly reflect your level of commitment to train consistently and ultimately perform at a higher level next season.  Give it a try and see if it works for you.

After all, what do you have to lose?

That’s it for this week.  Until next time train safe, stay healthy, and hope to see you at the races.

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