Trail running before sunrise, the Velobeats 'Chillout II' podcast playing in my ears and the cool spring air touching my skin. One of the nicer ways to start my day and sure to finish with a smile on my face. I feel good, that's for sure. But is this the best way to improve my performance while running?

There is no doubt that psychological strategies can influence our performance during sport and exercise. I have experienced first hand the benefit of learning how to 'embrace the suck' rather than being scared of the pain often associated with racing and competing. I know that scanning my body for tightness and tension allows me to relax those muscles and move more efficiently. 

Being a sponge for all things psychological and sporting I was quite intrigued by a recent study on the effect of different attentional-strategies on physiological and psychological states during running (from the School of Applied Psychology at Griffith University - David Neumann and Amy Piercy). 

Getting briefly technical, the article identified the difference between association and dissociation as two broad attentional strategies that can be adopted during exercise. Association refers to focusing on aspects relevant to the exercise, such as bodily sensations and movement, while dissociation involves focusing on things in a way that help block out the exercise (such as listening to Velobeats). Perhaps not surprisingly the dissociation focus tended to produce a higher level of positive emotions, while the association focus often resulted in faster running. 

With association focus, you can also categorise the various approaches according the the direction of attention (i.e. internal or external). For example, an internal focus would be attending to your body and the action of the skill (such as breathing or hip position), while an external focus is about attending to the effects of your body on the environment (such as the movement of the ground under your feet). 

The article suggests that association strategies have the greatest impact on improving performance, and that ones which are externally focused are the most effective.

At this point you may be wondering, "ok, so what does this actually mean?". Well, a few things.

For example, the study found that when participants focused on the distance being travelled (external association) they reduced their breathing frequency. Further, they found that a focus on body movements (internal and external association) reduced oxygen consumption when running. Imagine the impact this could have on an endurance event - running more economically simply by actively focusing on the movement of your body!

I think it is worth acknowledging that individual differences and past exercise history may play an important role in the effects of any particular type of attentional focus. Also, I would be extremely impressed with anyone who can maintain their focus of attention on a single cue for a long period of time!

With the Noosa triathlon on this Sunday, and a 10k run awaiting me, I plan on trying out this information with a basic plan that allows the freedom to shift my attention from time to time:
  • focus on visual markers, such as trees and aid stations, that remind me of movement and the distance I am travelling
  • focus on the ground beneath me moving behind me as a run
  • focus on body movements and cues of good technique - high hips, fast cadence, relaxed shoulders
Knowing that the strategies have the potential to reduce my mood, if I notice myself feeling down I will add in a few moments to visualise the finish line, the after-party and the post-race massage!

Try practicing these strategies in training. For your less intense sessions, perhaps distraction strategies will be more effective - while you might not set any records, you'll be happier and can distract yourself along the way (which will make it more likely you'll stick around for the entire long run!). But for those times when performance and speed are the priority, strategies that focus in on the moment, your bodies movements and the way you are moving through your environment, will be more important and effective.
As a triathlete I am well-versed in the tendency to research and seek out the latest, cutting edge (and often over-the-top!) technology in sports equipment: a $1200 wetsuit with 'Yamamoto Nano SCS coating neoprene panels', $4000 sunnies made from "pure carbon fibre that takes machinery a continuous 24 hours to carve out", $500 cycling shoes that are "lightweight, high-performing, and gold lining with a rainbow pattern", and a fancy aero helmet with "unique dual internal and external ventilation system" worth $499.95. You get the idea. Constantly searching for free speed while crippling your wallet (which is why quite a few of these items are not hanging up in my closet).

"Yes your honour [insert partner's name here], I plead guilty to these charges".

Here's the kicker: what if I said one of your greatest pieces of sports equipment will cost you nothing? It's true. The greatest tool that any athlete has is sitting right between your ears: your mind.
Sure, talent and physical ability play an enormous role. Running shoes and a bike are also fairly critical for triathletes. But at the end of the day it is your mind that can make or break you. By understanding the power of this hidden piece of sports equipment you'll be able to use it to improve your performance and get the advantage over your competition. 

The first 'Mental Weapon' to add to your sports kit: The Art of Focus

Mastering the mental game 101 - the ability to focus is one of the most important skills you can develop as an athlete. Consider Happy Gilmore. He lost the plot initially when taunted by a crazed fan and got into a brawl with Bob Barker (and lost). But through some help from a one-handed man named Chubbs, Happy was able to win the tournament (and the girl) by learning how to refocus despite the TV tower collapsing and blocking his putt.

While this may seem like an odd place to reference a 90's Adam Sandler comedy, it highlights a key point: focus is a skill like any other that can be learned and improved through practice. Even Happy could do it.

Focus is the ability to direct your full attention to the task at hand while tuning out the distractions. The task at hand might be body posture and 'running tall', while distractions can be internal (the voice in you head on a constant loop telling you that you'll never catch the guy in front) or external (a sign for McDonald's latest Rocklea Road thickshake). 

It's important to remember that your focus is also linked to your arousal level and physical state. For example, if you're focused on thoughts about not gaining on the person in front of you, you might get anxious and frustrated. These thoughts can lead to muscle tension which will prevent you from running smoothly and efficiently (thus running slower). 

Step 1: focusing on the present moment

Research (and personal experience) has shown that great sporting performance comes from focusing on the here and now, not thinking about what happened last time you raced or worrying about what might happen. Why waste energy thinking about stuff that doesn't matter? Here are some tips for zeroing in on now:
  • Find an object - your mobile phone, shoes, a leaf, anything really - and give it your full attention. Notice the colours, shapes, outline, texture, smell. Observe it like a curious scientist that has never seem this object before. See if you can stay focused for one full minute. If you notice your mind wandering, acknowledge the thought that caught your attention and then let it go by bringing your attention back to the object. 
  • Practice staying in the moment each day during training. Focus on the immediate execution of a skill - the catch in your swim stroke, relaxed shoulders while running. 
  • Centre yourself - pay attention to your breathing and muscle tension. Yoga is a great way to practice this as you are encouraged to be more in the moment.

Step 2: focus on what matters 

Why focus on parts of your day that you have no control over? For example, you can't change the weather or how many people are watching you, nor can you do anything about how much someone else has trained or how fit they look (you could try sneaking some weight gain formula into their bircher museli I guess).

Instead, focus on factors that are relevant and have a direct impact on how well you perform. Focus on your practice goals, rest, diet and mental preparation. Cultivate a healthy attitude and improve your understanding of the game or sport. Focus on planning your training periodisation effectively and getting the right treatments between sessions to aid recovery. All of these are factors within your control that can improve your skills and ability to perform well. 
Also, focus on the process rather than the outcome. When Pete Jacobs won the Hawaii Ironman triathlon in 2012 he reflected afterwards that being in the lead on the bike allowed him to focus on his own space, form and technique. Compared to previous years where he has been in the 'pace line' and had to divide his attention between maintaining the 12 metre draft distance between him and the rider in front, wondering if he can catch the guys in front and somewhere in there putting some focus on the process keeping efficient cycling form. 

Step 3 - know the focus points of your sport

Every sport has its own unique focal points - the stroke in swimming, pedal stroke and body position in cycling, high hips and relaxed shoulders when running. The more aware you are of your sports unique focal points, the easier it will be for you to zero your attention in on that key spot while letting go of distractions. 

Step 4 - relax
A guaranteed road block to engaging your focused mind is stress and worry. If your mind is caught up with worries about life, it will be difficult to switch them off when you are focusing on the million dollar putt. The more stressed you are the more tense your muscles will be. Not the ideal recipe for success on the sporting field. 
Find things that help you relax and keep a list. You can then use the list as a quick reference guide if you notice the tension in your body, racing thoughts or overwhelming emotions. This could include listening to music, reading, talking with friends and having a laugh, getting a massage or watching a movie. It can also include more specific strategies such as progressive muscle relaxation, meditation and breathing exercises.
Try to incorporate these ideas into your weekly training regime and see what happens to your sports performance. If nothing else you will be able to really savour that piece of chocolate by focusing on the smell, flavour and texture. Plus you may spend less money on useless equipment (my Finis Hydro Hip is doing a great job of collecting dust).

More 'Mental Weapons' to add to your sporting equipment collection coming soon. 

Safe training and above all else - remember to have fun!

Ok, so I'm open to the full range of emotions that create the richness of life. Sure, I'm not the biggest fan of embarrassment or anxiety when it comes along, but I am learning to make space for them when I am chasing what's important to me. I also believe that the very things that can add extreme joy and love to your life can also bring along sadness and loss (for example, my wedding day is by far one of the most special and heart-warming days I have ever lived, yet that very same relationship has also brought along moments of frustration!). What I am trying to say is, it's not always helpful to chase happiness and avoid everything else. Moments of sadness can add just as much vitality to your day; they can remind you of how much you value others, they can spur you on to take action, and they can help you to 'catch up' on romantic comedies while you take a time out on the couch.

With that in mind, why not intentionally do something that brightens your heart? Research has shown that having a project to put your time and energy into can improve your mood and outlook on life. So I have come up with a challenge for you. I was recently inspired by this TED talk:

Essentially, director Cesar Kuriyama shoots one second of video every day as part of an ongoing project to collect all the special bits of his life. He ponders the idea that, as there are so many tiny, beautiful, funny, tragic moments in your life -- how are you going to remember them all?

While I'm not sure about the concept of recording a second of each day for the rest of your life (which might become quite obsessive and start to draw you OUT of each moment) I like the idea of it encouraging you to intentionally engage more in each day. For someone who has struggled to do this, such action on a daily basis might provide the initial motivation to get out of your head and into your life. To wake up with an intention to do something with your day and then capture it.

So the project in it's simplicity: my two sisters, my mum, and myself have committed to starting a 30 day (thus 30 second) film project. All starting on the same day. All using the One Second Every Day app (yes we have succumbed to some marketing and electronic influence). Given that we don't see each other than often, this seems like a fun way to connect. I am looking forward to seeing what they all come up with. From a therapist perspective, I would also argue that it encourages mindful, values-guided action across the important parts of you life as highlighted in 'The Bullseye' (from Swedish ACT therapist Tobias Lundgren): relationships, leisure, personal growth and even education (it took a little bit to figure out how to use the app!).

I'll let you know how it goes in 30 days :)

I read a great article today that highlights some small actions you can weave into your daily routine. They cost nothing other than a bit of time (and even not much of that), yet stand to add a lot of value to your day. If this was the property market you'd think this is an outstanding return on your investment! While the article focuses more on the level of happiness these actions can bring into a person's life, I like to step back slightly and consider the level of vitality they can bring about. The colour. The richness. The fullness of each experience. Rather than focusing on whether they make you happy or not.

Either way, I think they are simple and effective little reminders of things we can do to improve the moment and our sense of well-being. The full article can be found here:


Otherwise here are the 9 steps outlined by Geoffrey James:

1. Start each day with expectation. If there's any big truth about life, it's that it usually lives up to (or down to) your expectations. Therefore, when you rise from bed, make your first thought: "something wonderful is going to happen today." Guess what? You're probably right.

2. Take time to plan and prioritize. The most common source of stress is the perception that you've got too much work to do.  Rather than obsess about it, pick one thing that, if you get it done today, will move you closer to your highest goal and purpose in life. Then do that first.

3. Give a gift to everyone you meet. I'm not talking about a formal, wrapped-up present. Your gift can be your smile, a word of thanks or encouragement, a gesture of politeness, even a friendly nod. And never pass beggars without leaving them something. Peace of mind is worth the spare change.

4. Deflect partisan conversations. Arguments about politics and religion never have a "right" answer but they definitely get people all riled up over things they can't control. When such topics surface, bow out by saying something like: "Thinking about that stuff makes my head hurt."

5. Assume people have good intentions. Since you can't read minds, you don't really know the "why" behind the "what" that people do. Imputing evil motives to other people's weird behaviors adds extra misery to life, while assuming good intentions leaves you open to reconciliation.

6. Eat high quality food slowly. Sometimes we can't avoid scarfing something quick to keep us up and running. Even so, at least once a day try to eat something really delicious, like a small chunk of fine cheese or an imported chocolate. Focus on it; taste it; savor it.

7. Let go of your results. The big enemy of happiness is worry, which comes from focusing on events that are outside your control. Once you've taken action, there's usually nothing more you can do. Focus on the job at hand rather than some weird fantasy of what might happen.

8. Turn off "background" TV.
Many households leave their TVs on as "background noise" while they're doing other things. The entire point of broadcast TV is to make you dissatisfied with your life so that you'll buy more stuff. Why subliminally program yourself to be a mindless consumer?

9. End each day with gratitude. Just before you go to bed, write down at least one wonderful thing that happened. It might be something as small as a making a child laugh or something as huge as a million dollar deal. Whatever it is, be grateful for that day because it will never come again.

"Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get."   Dale Carnegie
With the calendar year rolling past the first of January, the temptation to set goals and new resolutions is ripe. Often buoyed by our over-indulgences through the festive season, we may set out on our 2013 adventure planning on eating better, exercising more and climbing towards the goals we missed out on last year. You may want to work more, work less, travel or stay at home and do more work around the house. Whatever it is that you'd like to stamp on your 2013 and look back in December thinking "oh yeah, what a year!", I encourage you to take a moment to consider this question: are your actions bringing you closer to being the person you want to be, having the quality of relationships that you want to have and improving the quality of your life experience? If they do, embrace it and pursue the goal passionately! If they don't, perhaps the goal needs a little tweaking or you might find it helpful to add some actions that attend to these parts of your life.

I'm not saying avoid hard work, quit your job and become a hippy who moves to the beach, surfs and eats only organically grown local produce (although for some - me included - a few of those things sound pretty good!). Rather, simply take the time to ponder what it is that makes you happy, makes you smile. That fills you with a sense of vitality. You can try working backwards: set your goal and then ask yourself what it means to you and what kind of personal qualities it will bring out of you in your pursuit of it (determined, dedicated, loving, giving, etc). This can work well if you feel trapped and restricted in what you do ("I have to go to work!").

You can also work forwards: think about the moments in your life that have made you the happiest, made you smile, filled your heart and given you little glimpses into what the richness of life can feel like. Then plan for more of those everyday moments! For me, this year I am going to try and enjoy every coffee I have with my full attention, the aroma, the taste, the warmth of the cup (I could be unrealistic and say I'll drink less caffeine but then I'd just be setting myself up to fail!). I will use it as my time out from the day, to get rid of a 'mind full' of clutter by being more mindful.

Success and Happiness. Both worth striving for. But not always the same thing.

Have a wonderful start to the year :)

One thing that my clients (and myself for that matter!) have in common is that we can spend a lot of time thinking about the past or the future and end up getting absorbed in our thoughts. Ever have those days where you feel like you've been on autopilot and wonder things like "I can't remember anything from the drive home from work". Sure, there are times when getting caught up in your thoughts can enhance what you are doing, such as when you get lost in a book or watching a movie. It can also help you to be creative while day-dreaming. But, quite often we can get so caught up in the words and pictures and sounds running through our head that we lose contact with the here and now.

Imagine this; pretend for a moment that your hands are your thoughts (bear with me). Holds your hands together, palms open, as if they are the pages of an open book. Slowly and steadily raise your hands up towards your face. Keep going until they cover your eyes. Now, take a few moments to look at the world around you through the gaps in between your fingers and notice how this affects your view of the world.
What would it be like going around all day with your hands covering your eyes like this? How much would you miss out on? How well could you do your job, or interact with your friends and family? This is what it is like when we get so caught up in our thoughts that we miss out on a lot of the her-and-now experience. Do the exercise with your hands to your face again, but this time lower then from your face very slowly. As the distance between your hands and your face gets bigger, notice how much easier it is to connect with the world around you.

So how do you get your hands/thoughts away from your face so you can see the world around you, and connect and be more effective in what you are doing? Ah ha! Great question! There are some very effective ways an ACT (Acceptance and Commitment) therapist can help you out.
To start with though, how about trying to reconnect with the moment you are having right now? Try this; I call it the 'senses anchor'. You can do it any time, whether you are standing in a room, sitting in front of your computer or waiting in a line. Take a moment to notice the feel of your feet on the ground, and the sense of the ground beneath your feet. Draw in a couple of intentional breaths, noticing your lungs fill and your chest rise and fall with your breath. Now, find 5 things around you that you can see and pretend you are a curious child seeing them for the first time - what colour is it? what shape? Next, find 5 things that you can hear. Take your time. What about 5 things you can feel? Perhaps a breeze against your skin, the feel of your watch on your wrist or the smoothness of your computer screen. The other senses (smell and taste) can be tricky depending on where you are. Try to experience one of each, even simply drawing your attention to the sensation in your mouth and in your nostrils.

This is also a great experience to use if you catch yourself with your 'hands to your face' (in other words, are caught up in your thoughts). Stop, take in a few breaths and experience one thing for each of your five senses. It'll help you to 'drop anchor' in the present moment. You may be surprised to see (and hear, smell, taste and touch) how much you've been missing out on! For those of you who ran your finger over your computer screen - perhaps you realised how dusty it is (I know I did!).

It is safe to say that most people recognise the physical benefits of getting active and moving this machine we call a 'body'. Watch TV for more than 30 seconds and you're bound to see an ad for a weight loss reality show or an awareness campaign such as 'swap it'. The message is simple: get up, get active and you'll help prevent health problems such as type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, coronary heart disease, and some cancers. Simple, yes, and a train of thought that has been around since at least the early Greek physician and philosopher Hippocrates, who said "If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health".

With so much research over the past few decades supporting the idea that a physically active lifestyle is crucial in maintaining and improving a person's physical health, it begs the question: what about your psychological health? Can physical activity help change your mood and thoughts?

As Yasmina Nasstasia, Professor Amanda Baker, Professor Robin Callister and Dr Sean Halpin state in their article entitled 'Born to run, workout, or maybe try Zumba: Managing depression with exercise' (2012), "the jury is back and ... the consensus is that exercise can improve psychological health".

What does this mean for you? Firstly, it goes without saying that before you embark on any physical activity (especially if you have any health concerns) it is recommended that you check-in with a physician to get the all-clear. Once you've got the 'tick' from your GP, you are ready to rock and roll. Secondly, it means that everybody can start doing something right now to make a change to the way they feel.

"So what do I do?" Great question. For this to be effective, this is the ONE thing to follow:
  • you need to get moving daily or near daily
That's it. After that, there are a couple of key things to pay attention to in order to make it most effective for you.

Think about how much time you have. Not much time? No worries - get moving with more effort for less time (aim for 20 mins or more). Lots of time? Then you can reduce the intensity but need to go for longer.

Be realistic. Set small goals that are achievable and build over time. Also, plan how you are going to get back on track after a lapse into your old ways (it's bound to happen, so make space for it rather than run away from it).

Have fun. Find something that you enjoy doing. Who wants to keep slogging away at something that they don't enjoy? Walk your dog, kick a soccer ball, challenge a friend to see who can walk the most steps in a day (you can buy a cheap pedometer that measures this). Do what I did - join a triathlon club! With 3 sports in 1 there is always something different to do.

Prepare for barriers. Take the time to think about what might stand in your way to starting your new activity, and rather than focusing on why you can't do it think of ways you can get around this to do it.

Then you are off. Give it time; this is not a one-hit wonder and it will take a while to get the benefits. Which is great news - all the more time to have fun doing something new. It is also handy to look at it as a new way of life, not a fad. Something that you look forward to doing each day. If nothing else, think of all the extra ice-cream you can eat afterwards... that's how it works, right?

Sometimes life can seem like a heavy burden of endless problems piling up, one on top of another, on your shoulders. Before you know it there is no more room on your shoulders so you start to stack your worries all around you. The issues, the fights, arguments, the frustrations, the let downs... So many worries, big and small, that you feel like you are lucky if you can peer your eyes over the top to look out at the world you're missing out on. Sound familiar?

While there are many ways you can begin to tackle and 'de-clutter' the stack of worries that have mounted up, here is one effective method that you can do right now. Put them all into an even BIGGER box! Picture yourself throwing them all into a huge box in your mind, sticky-taping the lid and putting the now sole box into a corner somewhere. Your mind will most likely begin to argue with you, to tell you that the problems will not go away and will just get bigger! Thank your mind for the input, and reach a truce by agreeing on a window of time that you can leave everything taped-up in the box. Be it 30 minutes, an hour or a day. So for 30 minutes you are free to be in the moment, enjoying the world around you. The box is still there, the problems are still there, and you can return to them and start worrying about them as much as you like when the time is up. In the meantime, do something that stimulates each of your senses. Listen to music, have a hot bath, lay on the grass, pat your dog, eat a piece of chocolate without chewing (try it!).

This will take practice, as your mind will try to hook you back into worrying about all of the smaller boxes. You can't blame it, sometimes thinking about your problems is as big a habit as using your right hand to clean your teeth (if you are right handed of course!). It would be pretty hard to suddenly stop using your right and start using your left hand to clean your teeth, right? So if you find yourself drifting back to worrying about life, acknowledge that your mind has been super-clever in getting yourself off-track again (no need to get frustrated) and bring your attention back to the activity you're doing.

The more you practice bringing your attention back, the easier it will become. Over time you will find that your minds' attempts at distracting yourself to start worrying about things will become more half-hearted and you'll be able to stay in the moment more easily. Granted, I still can't eat a piece of chocolate without my mind trying to intervene at some stage trying to get me to chomp down on it! Practice, right? I think I can handle trying to practice eating chocolate mindfully. Again and again until I get it right!