Over the last 7 months I’ve been spending a lot of time learning about how the brain works and how we communicate with ourselves, all with the intention of understanding how I can make the most of my own mind and to help others to do the same. Our brains are fantastic things – they keep us alive and doing all sorts of complicated things without us giving it conscious thought and yet often they can run away with us, sometimes to the extent of sabotaging the very thing we are trying to achieve and know that we are capable of doing if we could just STOP THINKING ABOUT IT!
Our brains need direction; think of them as a hyperactive springer spaniel that wants to play. Train them well and give them a task (sniffing out bombs or working in the countryside) and they will serve you well until long after you are finished and be ready to go again at a moment’s notice. Neglect the training and leave them idle and the end result is likely to be chaos and dissatisfaction all round.
Over the coming months I will share some ways I’ve found of managing my mind and harnessing it to work for me rather than against me. I’m very much a work in progress, but I’m curious and I love learning and playing around with new concepts. I hope you will too.
So what do I mean by “dissociation”?
Think about an enjoyable experience you had recently that really stands out in your mind (a great phrase in itself). Now take a moment to consider that image…. how are you seeing it? Are you looking at it through your own eyes as if it was happening now, or are you seeing yourself in the picture, like looking at a photograph or movie? If you are looking at it through your own eyes, this is called being “associated” with the experience. It makes it more intense as not only are you able to see the images and hear the sounds, you are also able to feel the emotions, feelings and sensations that you have stored with that image in your subconscious. If you are seeing it like a picture or a movie, you are “dissociated”. This is a far less intense as whilst you have images and sounds, you don’t reconnect with the feelings and emotions. You are a detached observer, a “fly-on-the-wall”. You may want to take a moment to play around with your recollections of your enjoyable experience and try seeing it through your own eyes then looking at it as a picture or movie. What do you notice about the difference in how you feel? Our brains are capable of doing both association and dissociation automatically but some of us have a natural preference one way or the other. Once you’ve practiced moving between the two states with an experience you are very familiar with, you’ll become more aware of how you naturally experience your memories.
Both of these states have their own advantages and disadvantages; associating with something pleasurable or something you want to achieve is helpful and conversely dissociating from something unpleasant can help give you a different perspective or make it less intense or painful.
All well and good, but why have I decided to write about it in relation to cycling? A few weeks ago, I was doing a particularly unpleasant interval session on Wilbur the Wattbike. I’d done the first three sets of intervals and on the third set I was really struggling to sustain my power numbers. Edwina my Chimp started rattling her bars and the Negative Committee that meets inside my head started to convene a meeting. The day before I’d been doing exercises on association/ dissociation with Andrew Jenkins my coach (along with some other funky stuff that we’ll save for another day). Working on the basis that I had nothing to lose, I decided to try to dissociate from the experience and see if it would make it any less unpleasant! My first attempt wasn’t terribly successful, like anything else it’s easiest to learn to do something when you’re not under pressure. I then remembered the short video I’d made of my FTP test (you may remember the post!); I’d become quite familiar with the short footage as I’d edited it down and being a hard session, the level of effort/ sweating/ grimacing/ wanting-to-dieness was about the same. I decided to try and use that short movie as a mental prompt and focused on it like my life depended on it. I visualised myself pedalling on Wilbur – how were my legs moving, how was my position changing, what position were my arms in? Gradually I was then able to swap my cycling jerseys in my mind and see myself as I was now, working hard but in a controlled manner.
The fifth interval felt easier and on glancing at the screen I noticed that my power numbers had gone back up and my heart rate had gone back down a few beats. Feeling encouraged, I pressed on with my final interval, focusing on watching myself in the little film inside my head. Sure enough, the numbers stayed good and I definitely didn’t feel as bad. I’m not going to say it was fun but the Negative Committee had shut up and Edwina had gone back to munching bananas in the back of her cage. I got off the bike feeling satisfied that I’d worked as hard as I could and even better, I might have found a technique to help me in the future.
I’ve continued to practise this dissociation technique with all my hard efforts, including the 32km climb up Mount Teide in Tenerife. I find it very helpful for my interval sessions but currently harder to sustain for long durations (several hours of climbing in the heat!) That said, even trying it in these circumstances can sometimes be enough to distract your Chimp/ conscious mind and take you out of the “pain cave”.
Whilst I’ve been focusing on the benefits of dissociating from unpleasant experiences, it can also be useful for objective analysis. Our conscious mind is very good at passing judgement on what we’re doing; given that this is mostly driven by our subconscious (which is doing billions of things at the same time), this is hardly helpful! Judgement tends to be clouded by emotion:”I don’t like the look of how I’m doing X” or “I’m not doing Y very well”, thus implying there is some standard that we should be reaching. What is more helpful is to look at things objectively and this is where dissociation can help.
Let’s take an example here and now and do a bit of self-analysis. Rather than focusing on your breathing directly, take a moment to picture yourself reading this as if you were that objective “3rd person”. What do you notice; are you breathing deeply or is it quicker and more shallow? How are you holding yourself? Do you look more like someone who is relaxed or someone who was a bit stressed and distracted? How do you know?
When I’m out running or on the bike I often go through a mental checklist, a sort of “body scan” and usually I would do it in a mindful, associated way, so thinking “how do my feet feel on the pedals?” Or “how is my breathing?” The only problem I’ve found with this is that sometimes I’ve been paying no attention at all to my feet and suddenly I start thinking “well actually, now you mention it, the arch of my left foot is really sore” or “I’m breathing a bit fast for the effort I’m putting out, maybe I”m not as fit as I thought”.
Just recently, I’ve tried to do my checklist from a more objective standpoint, picturing myself as I’m riding along. I’ve noticed that this doesn’t seem to wake up the Negative Committee and whilst the assessment itself is a conscious process, it’s free from judgement and change comes more naturally. I might therefore find myself thinking that I’m sitting a bit far back in the saddle and moving forward without really thinking about it, or noticing that I’m quite rigid with my arms and just feeling them loosening.
You might like to try these techniques for yourself day-to day and notice what you notice. Next time you’re out on the road, trails or in the gym, play around with association/ dissociation and feel what it does to your experience and perception of the good bits and harder efforts. I’ll be delighted to hear about what works well for you and what perhaps takes a little more practice. I still need more practice but I’m sure the coming months of training and RAAM itself will give me the perfect opportunity to hone this to a fine art!