Times, splits, seconds, minutes. They are so ingrained in our head as runners, sometime cruelly, that we cannot escape them. We become slaves to watch and knowing exactly where we are during every workout and every race. But what happens if we take it all away?
The role of feedback in performance is an intriguing one. The current theories posit that it is a combination of internal and external feedback that tells us how we feel at the moment during a race. We then compare that with how we think we should feel, knowing that we have X amount left, and that determines if we drive on, or slow down.
There’s more to it, and usually we think of the internal feedback
(lactate levels, glycogen stores, etc.) that we aren’t exactly aware of but
that our brain is constantly monitoring. We forget about that the external feedback plays just as big of a role. So the splits you hear, the people
you are passing or getting passed by, the mile marker coming up; it all
We’ve all seen this as coaches or athletes. You have the young runner who looks like death, then suddenly the coach yells 200m to go and he goes into all out sprinting mode. That feedback mattered. As we mature, the extreme cases aren’t seen as much, but it still occurs to smaller degrees. Researchers have finally begun to have some fun with their subjects in manipulating feedback. How so? They simply lie to them.
In one study, Castle et al. (2012) decided to have some fun with cyclists exercising in the heat. They had their subjects do time trials on three separate occasions. Once in cool environment (22 degrees Celsius), once it hot conditions (31 degrees), and once in a deceived condition where they were told that it was 26degrees, but in actuality it was 32 degrees. With this simple manipulation of the thermometer came profound changes in performance. Not surprisingly, thecyclists performed more work and covered a greater distance in the cooler temperatures, but as you might have guessed, when they thought they were performing in moderate temperatures but were actually performing in hot conditions, the cyclists covered the same distance and had the same power output as when they were actually in cool conditions. This is an amazing look at both the psychology of performance and how external feedback matters.
Finally, in a study by Stone (2012), they took their subjects and simply manipulated their competition. They had nine cyclists complete four 4km time trials, with the first two being used to ascertain a baseline. On the next two time trials, they had participants race an avatar and this is where the deception came in. They were told that the avatar simply represented their best performance at baseline, which was true for trial number three. But for the fourth trial, they programmed the avatar to go just faster (102%) than their baseline performance. As you might expect now, the deception resulted in a faster performance than any other time trial completed. What is notable about this study is that they found that difference lied in anaerobic contribution to the exercise. The deceived trial resulted in a greater anaerobic output at 90% of the time trial. What does that mean? Simply that the cyclists were able to increase power output earlier, and more so, at the end of the time trial. In essence, they were able to kick longer and stronger. The implication for this is that they were able to tap into their “anaerobic reserve” to a much greater amount. It was almost as if their brains loosened the reins just a little.
So why does this matter? Compare races and training. Not time trials and training, but racing and training.
In training, we give athletes set numbers of intervals at set paces with set rest breaks. They know exactly how fast they have to run for, when they are going to stop, how much rest, etc. In a race, you know the distance, and the pace could go all sorts of different ways. It could be tactical; you could have some crazy person go out hard, do a crazy surge, and so on. The athlete isn’t in control.
We have to train the mental aspect during practice. We have to train them to deal with unknown external feedback. Especially in championship style racing. How do we do this?
Blind Feedback workouts:
A few weeks ago I tweeted about these workouts and Amby Burfoot asked me to expand on the concept so partly this blog is to justify his demands! But blind feedback workouts are self-explanatory. It is when we take away some sensory information from the athlete.
What direction you go depends on what you are trying to accomplish.
The goal is to challenge the athlete psychologically as well as physically. After all, in race situations, if someone surges, we don’t know how hard that surge is going to be, how long it will last, etc. What we need to ingrain is for the athlete to temporarily ignore the unknown, and to press through it. To accomplish his goal, I think you can set up workouts in numerous ways.
- Blind Surges
Blind Surges are when athletes have to surge without knowing either the speed of the surge or the length, or if you are lucky both. In a group setting, what you can do is either pick one athlete out of the group and tell him to surge in the middle of an interval (during mile repeats, tell him to surge during the middle 350 for example), then the rest of the group has to go with him without knowing how long it will last. Another way, is simply by blowing a whistle or yelling surge during an interval and everyone has to surge until you yell back to normal pace.
These are fun ways in a group setting, but in a one on one setting, it can be really fun. For example, with Jackie Areson, we have done 2k repeats where I essentially rabbit the workout. The difference is that I surge
when I feel like it and for however long I feel like it and her sole instructions are that she has to stick on me. Occasionally, I will throw in a hard surge at around 1,000m (because that’s the toughest part of the interval mentally) that lasts for the next 4-600m that I know she will not be able to stand for the rest of the interval. The goal is to get her adapted to surging and having confidence that things will probably settle just a little.
- Blind Distance
Another fun manipulation technique is to simply give athletes the pace they will run, but not telling them the length of the intervals. This creates a bit of anxiety in that the athlete has to stay on X pace without knowing when they will stop. It changes the end point and makes it where they can’t fall upon that crutch of I have only “X” distance left to go. It is very tough mentally. But can work well in small doses. An example might be to have an athlete running 70sec 400m pace for intervals, and not telling him where to stop but then stopping him at 1800m, 1200m, 1550m, and 1450m for example. Changing it slightly so that he can’t adjust
to a pattern.
- Blind Speed/Splits
Lastly, take the watch away. This is often liberating and anxiety creating at the same time. If you have someone who uses the watch as crutch and constantly has to hit X pace or else they freak out, then simply practice taking it away. This is great for those athletes who run races trying to be metronomes and if they fall off by 1 second, they are done. You can simulate this in practice to a degree by yelling only select splits.
How much and when?
These are what I call finishing touch workouts. You use them when you need to as a way to slightly increase the stimulus in a different direction. They are to put the finishing touch on the cake. You can do these throughout the training, but they should be seen as an addition.
The point isn’t to go switch all of your workouts to these different designs. The idea is to challenge perception. This is simply another way to manipulate the stress of the workout, only this time with a psychological twist instead of the regular physiological one. By doing blind feedback workouts, we prepare ourselves better for the psychological demands of racing. Often we are ready physiological, but it is the external stuff that gets in the way. As runners we are really good at knowing how long that slow creep of burning in our legs will last, but we’re not great at dealing with psychological unknowns. It’s time to work on that aspect.