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Head Games.
Editorial by Tom Demerly.

Tom Demerly at Ann Arbor Tri.

Neurophysiological autoregulation. I love that term. It describes the ability to control involuntary functions such as heart rate, respiration and even pain perception.

Think of the ramifications: What if you could practice neurophysiological autoregulation while running a 6:30 mile and lower your heart rate by 10 beats per minute, or lower your respiration, or both? Think of the energy you could save, think how much faster you could go. If you had mastery over that mystic thing you call "myself" think of the barriers you could break down. If you could train yourself to see only possibilities instead of obstacles think what you could do. Heck, even if you have some failures, what difference does it make? You're on your way to bigger and better things.

I'm not selling anything here, no weird "self-help" crap that helps you tap into the inner you or any of that. What I do want to tell you about are two things that are really one, and how working on connecting the two can benefit your enjoyment of the sport (and everything) and your performances.

I so often hear athletes speak of their "mind" and their "body" as two separate things. As those these two entities are exclusive and operate in opposition to one another: "My mind wanted to go harder but my body just wouldn't".

Your mind and your body are not two things; they are one. They are interconnected and interdependent. When the integration between the two is complete there is no opportunity for opposition. To understand the basics of this let's talk about two strategies for exercise:

Association and disassociation.

Associative athletes are like a fighter pilot in control of his aircraft. They are constantly monitoring their systems and maintaining a high degree of situational awareness. They know how they feel and why they feel that way and are in acceptance, not at odds, with it. Associative athletes thought patterns, if verbalized, might sound something like this: "My footstrike feels good, these new shoes are an improvement. I'm running very level today. I feel warm, I need to be sure I am hydrating, I will hydrate at the next opportunity. My knees hurt today but it just feels like soreness, not an injury coming. I think I can speed up a little and I will begin that a little now. Good. I like this, I think I can hold this for at least a moment. OK, Good, I can continue another moment at this speed. Ok, my respiration is higher but I can sustain this…" Associative athletes, a group which includes most elite athletes, are thinking about what they are doing while they are doing it. They have a high state of arousal during a given activity. Associative athletes are proactive. They are in control and maintain control. They are always producing results at or very near their absolute physiological limits. There is a direct and constant link between their body and mind.

Disassociative athletes are the ones who are thinking about other things when they are training or racing: "Oh, my boyfriend is a dick, I wish my Walkman was louder. I forgot to pay my cell phone bill. I wonder why my friend Al doesn't like me anymore, I can't wait to get this over with so I can do some laundry…" Disassociators tend to think of everything but what they are doing at the moment. They like "distraction" while training and racing, such as music or other thoughts. They are usually not in touch with their body until it is complaining so loud that they can't ignore it anymore. It is no surprise that disassociative athletes make up the majority of recreational athletes. And injured ones.

In the grand scheme of philosophical things disassociators are usually running away from something. Associators are usually running toward a higher level of awareness and capability.

Acknowledging that the quality of your athletic experience will be improved if you become an associator brings us back to neurophysiological autoregulation. If you can begin to master or, more accurately "accept and facilitate" your body's operation during training and racing you can enhance your experience and performance. To coin a granola, new age term, you are more "in the moment".

Try this: Think about nothing for 60 seconds. Absolute nothing for an entire 60 seconds. It's hard isn't it. Thoughts keep creeping in. Bills to pay, things you forgot, whether or not you're doing this correctly. It is hard to completely empty your mind. Achieving this relaxed state is the first exercise in learning neurophysiological autoregulation and unlocking the key to associative exercise. It is like the Buddhist's say "It's not the walls of the bowl that make it useful, it's the empty space inside." To begin with associative athletics you must start with an open, relaxed mind.

Now, give this a try: Lay down on the floor and try to systematically relax your entire body from head to toe. Concentrate on each body part as you relax it, think about your breathing and visualize your breath as a thin curtain blowing in and out as you inhale and exhale. Start at your feet and work up. Notice how heavy your body becomes. If this works it should start to feel like a big blob of goo all spread out on the floor. You feel heavy and soft. The only thing holding you up is your skeleton. This is the state from which you begin the process of neurophysiological autoregulation: A state of relaxation.

With your mind empty and your body relaxed you can see that, by wearing a heart rate monitor, you can concentrate on lowering your heart rate, controlling your respiration and becoming more efficient. There is nothing hocus-pocus about this. Because associative athletes are only focusing on one task at a time (their running, cycling or swimming; whatever they're doing at the moment) they are more efficient and use less energy. There are no distractions. They are on task and in control. Thoughts of failure and compromise do not enter their mind because their mind is already filled with other things. Constructive things. And this becomes a reciprocating "upward spiral" of positive mental energy. Yuu do not exist at odds with your body, but rather work in concert with it.

You will notice this works in both directions: Sure, you lay down and relax and your heart rate goes down. That's no surprise. But try this: As you lay there, monitoring your breathing and muscle tonus, staying relaxed and focused only on the thoughts at hand- visualize your next workout. In vivid detail. Visualize getting dressed to go outside. Visualize the sensations connected with the efforts of the first few steps or pedal strokes. Now notice that despite the fact that you haven't moved a muscle your heart rate is climbing. You can affect the state of arousal your body is in by what you are thinking and picturing.

Although this editorial amounts to a ramble about mental training my point is to illustrate that we do have control over our bodies through our minds. It is funny that an athlete who has never even addressed their "mental game" let alone tried to optimize it will spend thousands on equipment and racing and not once work on the one thing that could net them the greatest results: Their mind.

It may not be good for business to say so, but the greatest obstacle we all face are our own perceived limitations. And the greatest opportunity for improvement is how we think of ourselves as an athlete and how well we get along with that big bag of skin that hangs below our brain called our bodies. Work on your mental game. You won't regret it.

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© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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