Triathletes, Cyclists, Runners & Swimmers Can Suffer With Paralysis by Analysis

Female Triathlete In Transition Setting Up with Self Doubt

Muscle memory is a vital part of successful athletic performance and it’s the reason why both sprint and endurance athletes spend hours and hours training their bodies to have hear perfect mechanics that will take them through the motions of swimming, biking and running, respectively, without consciously thinking about each step, pedal stroke or foot strike

Sweet thinking to believe that we can put our body and muscles on autopilot always with the click of a button or stomp of the foot per se. Somedays the body does not fully cooperate and you realize - who is really running the show - the brain, aka Queen B - is running the show, telling the arms to swing to move forward or the legs to push harder.

Think about it - do we often need to look at where we are putting each foot when running up the stairs or think about how, exactly, our leg/foot should be positioned with each pedal stroke revolution while we cycle.

Human Magic - Queen B - a la brain takes care of it for us, so we can think about more important things, like remembering to drink water at the 5 mile mark or take a corner fast to past another athlete or don’t get caught in turn bottle neck.

After a recent injury, I started to consciously think about the movements I was making, simple getting up out of the chair and walking up the stairs - normal everyday motions and boy was I overwhelmed with all that thinking and even with all that attention I still messed some things up. (Start thinking about the mechanics of how to swim while in the pool or open water and it can become an overwhelming task.)

When we’re overly concerned with performing our best or in my case rehabbing my right leg back to working normalcy, we tend to think too much about the things we already know how to do, that the brain already has under control.

In an everyday training or rehabbing situation, muscle memory reinforces what we hope we are doing.

Under pressure, in a race or even in a club training setting - we can begin to doubt ourselves. Negative self-talk tells us we have to be perfect, we are slow, form sucks, that others are better-prepared, and even one mistake could derail progress or tank our race.

Negative thinking, when allowed to run wild, robs you of vital mental resources. The last thing you need is for your brain to be focused on your fears instead of the task at hand - oddly - it almost guarantees something will go wrong.

Endurance Athletes Can Suffer Auto-Paralysis by Analysis

The stress we place on ourselves to do better, be best and near flawless - makes us overthink, and when we overthink, we overcompensate by overcontrolling and delaying what our bodies are naturally trained to be doing.

This results in auto-paralysis by analysis. Not a medical or scientific term - but it works for us for the purpose for this endurance training blog post.

When we researched a bit to prepare for this blog, we ran across a university study that collected data from athletes and soldiers that showed when they gave more attention to what mechanics they were doing, the were more likely to screw it up, have sub-par performance and make poor choices results in often less than desirable outcomes for themselves or teams.

Race day is not the time to suddenly compare your swim form to the person next to you, or to decide to pull out of a race if all the people have fancier bikes than you. Even more drastic - if you self imposed Paralysis by Analysis makes you think that if you don’t place then you’ll never sign up for a race again. Yet that’s exactly what some athletes do under fake/false under pressure.

Ironman Des Moines 70.3 Transition Race Morning June 2021

Case in point:

Ironman Des Moines 70.3 this past June really opened my eyes up to some triathletes making poor decisions when they are in their head and experiencing auto-paralysis analysis.

The race did have several delays due to storms and lightning which resulted in a delayed start and modified course.

As the DNS race official - athletes who wanted to no longer do the race, turn in their chip and grab their gear - had to come see me.

Linda, decided to pull out of the race for several reasons but two of them really stood out:

  • She did not think she would make swim cut-off with the new wave structure

  • She had great concern about the wind on the bike (even though the bike course was cut in half to 27 miles)

She stood with me until I gave her the all clear to get her gear and in passing conversation she drops two audible bombs on me:

  • “Damn I should have raced! I was intimidated by the way some of these athletes looked thinking they were way faster than me. Heck I would have been coming out of the water before this/that person.”

  • “I trained for the full 56 miles on the bike. Some of those other bikes are so fast and I just have an entry level tri-bike - you know - so I don’t want to get blown over on my bike with that potential wind on the back end of the turnaround I heard about ”

In Linda’s case - the bigger the race & higher the stakes, the greater the chance for her self-sabotage. This is true for athletes of all levels in swimming, cycling, and running - whether it’s a first-time triathlete scared she won’t finish the race or an elite marathoner who fears she won’t podium or keep up with the lead pack.

Linda’s mental preparedness was paralyzed causing her to choke under pressure and did not even attempt to toe the line on race morning.

Going from a confident, ready-to-go mindset in training to intense self-doubt on event day is a bewildering experience when you are going through it.

Let's talk about training and rehabbing environments a bit.