An Introduction to Cognitive Training for Triathletes

About eight years ago, one of Krista Austin’s athletes started singing to herself on long runs. Maybe it was just to alleviate the boredom, but Austin spotted a more useful potential.

Austin, a triathlon coach based in Boulder, Colorado, has her athletes do mental arithmetic during their efforts. When one of her athletes started singing to herself on long runs to keep her mind engaged, Austin thought to add in some cognitive element to her training.

Now, Austin rides alongside her athletes during training rides, yelling mental arithmetic at them.

This added cognitive load challenges athletes to stay focused on their efforts, while distracting their brains. It can be applied in several different areas.

I’m going to experiment with cognitive load in my training for the rest of the season, and I’ll write more about it closer to the end of the season. For now, I just want to get out some thoughts about it.

I first learned of the concept of cognitive training through Krista’s article on the Competitor website. As someone with an (unhealthy?) obsession with the mind-body connection, I was intrigued, so I got in touch with her. We spoke about the importance of cognitive training, and some of its features and benefits.

Load Equivalence

The main thing Krista mentioned was that cognitive training allows the brain to experience stress levels similar to those of a race, or a hard physical effort, without stressing the body in the same way.

So a run set consisting of 20 × 800m at race pace has a similar cognitive load to 12 × 800m at a higher intensity. This means you get a similar mental challenge of a more intense set, but the body doesn’t have to endure the punishment such a set would entail.

Stressing the brain without overly taxing the body allows athletes to develop greater body-awareness and proprioception.

Longevity

This approach also helps reduce the risk of injury. High volumes and intensities of training are not sustainable in the long term. Aggressive training will lead to injury, burnout, and, in some rare cases, over-training. Austin’s experience suggests that her approach reduces the stress on athletes’ bodies, while still allowing them to train hard and experience improvements in performance.

Austin’s approach adds cognitive stress while reducing physical stress. By mixing in some regular cognitive training—Austin recommends every third week—you reduce the risk of these problems, and get a performance benefit.

Physical

In some cases, Krista has her athletes work on proprioception during cognitive weeks. With other athletes, the focus of a cognitive week is balanced between aerobic and proprioceptive training.

Improving proprioception away from the high intensity world of speed work, or the volume-heavy weeks that build endurance, is (presumably) safer—

Mental

One of the major challenges for endurance athletes is preventing burn out. It’s why the best of the best advocate full cold turkey breaks at the end of the season. Chrissie Wellington has a great piece on this topic that really gets to the heart of why we should take time off.

The key to the off season is to recharge, not only your physical, but also your mental batteries—leaving you invigorated, motivated and ready to give 100% to the next racing season.

This sort of end of season mental break is important, but it is important to take mental breaks during the season, too. Cognitive training seems like a useful way to do this, while retaining aerobic fitness.

Conclusion

Cognitive training provides a way to stress the brain without overly stressing the body. This allows us to train specific skills with reduced risk of injury, and to develop better body-awareness and confidence in our pacing and ability to think strategically and tactically in the midst of battle on race day.

I still have a lot to learn about cognitive training. I’m looking forward to integrating it into my marathon training, once the triathlon season’s over for me. But it seems like it could be extremely useful, and I’m excited for the potential.

What Do You Think?

  • Have you tried anything like cognitive training?
  • What other unconventional training methods have shown benefits for you?
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