As covered in the first two parts of this series, when it's hot, the body shunts blood from many areas to assign it the job of cooling itself, by moving the surface of the skin. When your body is also exerting itself in training or a race, that means most of the your blood is working at fueling the muscles and cooling itself. It leaves precious little blood flow for other critical functions. We covered digestion in the last article.Now we talk about brain function.If you are running 13 miles, you might think your brain would not critical to the process. At least not your "thinking brain." But you would be wrong.At any number of points in a race, we can become discouraged or be faced with a decision, even if that decision is whether or not to continue at the same speed. Let's talk about discouragement first, and then tackle some decisionmaking.
It's quite easy, when you're pushing your body to its limits, to conclude that things are terrible, that you are not that athletic, that you aren't as good as the person in front of you, and that everything would feel so much better if you just stopped running and started walking.It's easy to miss the fact that you might have gone from a flat part of the course to a slight upward grade, and the reason your legs suddenly feel like lead and you want to quit is that you're going uphill for a few hundred yards. (Rather than that you are a worthless human being who should never should have thought you could do this race in the first place.)Now, take the same scenario, but remove a bit of bloodflow to your brain. Everything is a little fuzzy. You can't quite think straight. You're just going through the motions like a zombie, still determined to finish, but unable to really process anything.That's a recipe for being overwhelmed by discouragement.Being able to recognize it is a start. Taking steps to cool your body with cold drinks, throwing cold water on your head and face, and other tactics we'll cover in the next article are even more important.
It seems like there aren't a lot of decisions to make during a triathlon. You follow the rules, you turn when the course turns, and you finish as fast as you can. But really, there are many minute-by-minute decisions that affect how well your perform. Primary among these is pacing.During the swim, you're unlikely to be overheated, although you can still make bad decisions and lose rational thought. But we are focused on heat for the purposes of this article.During the bike, there are many opportunities to excel or face disaster, and these often have to do with pacing, misjudging the course, understanding the hills and your gears, and hydration and nutrition. Hammering too hard and not saving enough for the run is a common mistake. It's easier to make that mistake when you are overheated and not thinking straight.During the run, you might push to pass someone, or need to choose a time to walk for 30 seconds. If you are sharp, you can figure out whether you need water or sports drink, and shout clearly for the correct one. I recall races where I was so weary and hot that I could not even call out for what I wanted, wasting precious seconds staring into the cups and choosing my drink. Another time when overheated, I repeatedly ate fruit at each aid station that was giving me stomach problems, because I wasn't sharp enough to recognize the pattern.
Every time you drink something, eat something, shift gears, get into the aero position, or stand up on the pedals, you're engaging your brain. If you think about a time when you were overheated and exhausted, you likely weren't shifting gears, you weren't paying attention to your eating and drinking, and you weren't thinking of much of anything.Staying sharp on the bike means keeping yourself cool enough that you don't waste energy grinding in the wrong gear, you don't miss a chance to capitalize on rolling hills, and you certainly keeping yourself from drifting off the road in a daze.Keeping your body cool enough so that you can maintain sharpness in your mind is crucial. Stay tuned for installment #4, in which we discuss strategies for cooling the body during training or a race. For now, understanding the impact of overheating on your decisionmaking and the ability to maintain a positive attitude is important. Just knowing what is happening can be enough to pull yourself out of a spiral or head off a technical or pacing error.
Editor at Beginner Triathlete, web marketing consultant at SiteInSight, writer, entrepreneur, advocate for unstructured nature play for kids.