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Psychology of Speed

Here we will look at the psychology of speed and the methods I use myself and with the athletes that I train.

The psychology of speed, an often underestimated aspect of the development of sprinting speed. There is a lot of information around regarding the physical components of sprint training, but psychology only gets a small mention by most coaches, scientists and even athletes.

As a coach I believe that psychology plays a massive role and it could be one of the most important factors of sprinting potential. But maybe not in the way that you think.

Perception is Everything

We can see from race results at the very top level that the highest level of sprinters have a specific set of genetics. Yes, this is controversial, but I don’t give a shit. I’m interested in peak athletic potential, not political correctness.

Most Olympic finalists in the 100m and 200m over the past 4 decades have been of West African extraction. This is a fact. Rarely do we see caucasians, East Africans, Asians or any other nationality dominating the sprints. But could this be entirely attributed to genetics? Or is it possible that perception plays a role?

Through research we have discovered genetic advantages that are more frequent in West Africans. One example is the ACTN-3 gene, which is associated with greater percentage of fast twitch muscle fibres, to look at it in basic terms. West Africans, such as those from America and Jamaica, have a greater expression of this gene in a larger percentage of the population. So it’s only natural that there will be a larger number of champion sprinters from this gene pool.

But wait, are West Africans the only race to have a dominant ACTN-3 gene? No, they are not. They are more likely to have it in a greater percentage of the population, but they are not the only people to have it. Every race of people have this gene, but some nationalities just have less people to choose from. So yes, there are white people, Asians etc that have the genetics to dominate the sprint events.

So why then are the events always dominated by Jamaicans, African Americans etc? Perception. We have been led to believe that no one else has a chance at winning a 100m final. So less resources are dedicated to sprinters that are not of West African extraction.

So how does this relate outside of the whole nationality thing? Perception and what you fully believe will often be a reality. You can literally think your way out of reaching your maximum sprinting potential.

Think about the four-minute mile. Yes, I know it’s not a sprint event, but it’s a good example of perception. Before the mile had been run in under four minutes it was apparently impossible. No one had done it before, so it was deemed impossible. And because experts decided it was impossible no one had managed to achieve it for a very long time. Then along comes Roger Bannister. He actually believed it could be done. He trained differently to every other mile runner of the time. His weekly running volume was very low by comparison, yet was incredibly intense. In his mind the mile could be run in under four minutes, it’s just that no one was training for it properly.

After Roger had beaten that barrier there were a flood of others doing it. Did humans suddenly evolve to become faster? Or was it perception? It was a belief that it was actually possible.

Lesson # 1: 100% belief in your potential.

As far as perception goes, Usain Bolt absolutely believes that he can break world records. He believed it before he did it. As a result, he followed through and smashed it by a mile. There was no question in his mind whether he would do it or not.

On the flipside, Asafa Powell choked in numerous big races, including Olympic finals. Powell has the physical ability. In fact he is one of the most physically gifted sprinters ever. But he has a lot of doubt in his mind about whether or not he is fast enough to bring home the gold.

It is quite often belief and perception that makes the difference between a champion and someone that is moderately good.

In the last post on the psychology of speed we looked at belief. Believing 100% in one’s ability to produce a certain level of performance has a major impact on the end result. Belief and certainty of outcome accounts for possibly the largest percentage of psychological performance enhancement.

Here we look at focus. Can you actually “will” yourself to sprint faster? It has been suggested by athletes and coaches that intense focus and the intense decision to run 100m in under 10 seconds will eventually lead to that outcome. Is it really possible? No one really knows, because how do you measure that? The person that runs 100m in a world record time is seen to have done so purely through genetics and superior training. However what if they focused all of their attention on sprinting at that pace?

There is evidence to suggest that genetics are only partially predetermined. Many factors effect a person’s DNA, one of which is thought. Thought itself has been shown to make a big impact on the cellular level. If this is indeed true then thought can impact performance through the manipulation of both structural anatomy and functional physiology. But how intense is that thought? Through my own experience thought that is distracted and inconsistent has very little impact on anything. However if that thought is intensely focused, consistent and is progressively improved then it has a cumulative effect.

Visualisation

We’ve all seen the self-help gurus that promote visualisation in order to achieve goals. But it has become a bit of a buzz word. Picture yourself driving the brand new mercedes you want and eventually you will have it. Sound familiar? It’s a little deeper than that. Thought will only make an impact if it is consistent, intensely focused and developed over time.

Sprinting is a maximal effort activity. Running a marathon is a different beast. You can push yourself to run that little bit faster and shave a bit of time off. That’s because a marathon involves gradual pacing. It’s not a maximal effort. Sprinting though requires 100% effort for a very short time. As a result it is not as simple as just pushing yourself a little harder. Your body first must be capable of travelling faster. In order for your body to be able to travel faster your mind must be able to first conceive of the idea. If your mind has never visualised it and pre-constructed it, it’s impossible to get the body to actually do it. The body is limited by protective mechanisms that limit physical output for our own safety. But it’s a little over-protective, so it limits us more than necessary.

I’m sure you have seen the stories of average people performing major feats of strength in an emergency situation. Like the mother that lifts a heavy car off her crushed child. The body was always capable of this task, it was the mind and nervous system that wouldn’t allow it to happen unless in case of emergency.

How can you use visualisation to sprint faster?

  • Visualisation must be a consistent daily process. Visualisation should be used as a stand-alone activity and during training or competition. Practice visualisation daily, preferably several times per day.
  • Visualise yourself in the first person (through your own eyes) as well as through the eyes of others (watching yourself from the outside).
  • Be dramatic and exaggerate. Visualise yourself running 100m at the speed of a cheetah. In your mind you should consistently see yourself running at impossible speeds.
  • Visualisation must be intensely focused. Don’t just loosely picture yourself sprinting fast. You need to believe it and you need to convince your brain you are capable of it. Consistent practice will allow you to be better focused and have more vivid and life-like visualisations. Literally aim to convince yourself you can run at this exaggerated, impossible pace.

Intent

Your intentions are what determine your actions and abilities. A goal or aim is generally a realistic wish or want to run a certain time that is already within your reach. You might set a goal of running a 4.60 in the 40 yard dash. That’s a goal, but it is only something to aim for. It will not rewire your brain to actually be able to do it. An intent on the other hand is a distinct intention to do something extraordinary.

How can you use intent to sprint faster? How can you will yourself to sprint at a blazing speed?

  • Set an unrealistic, superhuman speed. Focus on running at that speed.
  • As you set up for a sprint focus intently on sprinting at your exaggerated intent. Will yourself to run at that speed. Put all of your focus on running at that pace. Convince yourself that it’s possible.
  • As you sprint “will” your body to push as fast as humanly possible. Intensely “intend” on running at the exaggerated speed.

It sounds rather simple, but it works. Visualisation and intent, as described here, sound outrageous, but give it time. Consistent practice of the techniques mentioned above will convince your mind that it is possible. Your mind tells your body what to do. The more consistent you are and the more intense the focus, the greater chance you have at reaching the upper limits of your own sprinting speed potential.

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YOUR COACH – Chris Lyons

Chris Lyons is an experienced strength and conditioning coach, having trained athletes of all ages and levels since 2002. Chris specialises in coaching athletes for speed and power specific to fast-moving sports such as rugby league, rugby union, soccer, Aussie rules football etc. Since 2002 Chris has conducted close to 15,000 hours of training and coaching directly with athletes and members of the general population. From this experience comes Sprint Ninja, based on tried and tested training methods combined with up to date research. Chris continues to challenge himself not only as a coach, but also as an athlete, competing in sprinting events, strongman and Olympic-style weightlifting.

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