Mark on Monday: Get the memory effect

Photo credit aboutmodafinil.com

By Mark Cathcart

If you’ve ever commuted to work the same way, the same time, day in day out, you’ll know that sometimes you arrive at work with no real memory of how you got there. I used to drive from North London to Basingstoke in the UK, 64-miles each way. I’d leave by 6:30am to avoid the traffic, and sometimes I’d find myself in the parking lot by 7:05, with no real idea how. I’d been on “auto-pilot”, the repetition and familiarization had kicked in.

In this month’s Pragmatic triathlete, I’ll discuss the “memory effect” and why some things seem easier than others and how you can use this in your racing and training, and how to use your subconscious to your advantage.

Repetition ftw!

Remember how when you got your first pair of clip-in cycle shoes, you set out with some trepidation, worried you wouldn’t be able to unclip them when you had to stop, or to clip back in when you had to start again?

Now you’ve clipped in and out hundreds and possibly thousands of times, and now you know when to push your foot down as the pedal reaches just-before dead-center. You automatically move your other foot forward, and mostly ever even look down when clipping in.

That’s repetition. Your brain is great at recognizing patterns and being able to recall what is often a complex series of actions and process them without having to call on your conscious brain. In software engineering terms, we’ve just executed a method on an object in a parallel thread.

There are literally dozens of ways you can use this in triathlon.

Image Public Domain. Credit . U.S. Air Force Photo/Austin Thomas

Swim stroke

Over the winter, get a swim coach, or someone you recognize as a great swimmer and get them to video and critique your swim stroke.
Write down comments about hand entry, arm height, head position, body roll, leg kick, etc. Don’t try to correct all the problems at once.

Pick one improvement, concentrate on it at an easy pace for 50-lengths. That’s hard, you have to concentrate on a single corrective action. Do it over a few sessions, when you can do it without concentrating, get feedback and move to the next improvement.
Once you’ve addressed all the improvements, you’ll have no doubt developed the memory effect for a better, faster swim stroke.

Helmet time

Probably the easiest of all the things here. How quickly can you get your helmet on and done up? And yes, I mean the right way around… It takes me precisely 7-seconds to get away from my transition spot when everything goes right.

This is almost entirely attributed to picking up my helmet, and doing it up. Stand in front of a mirror and put your helmet and sunglasses on a table or the floor in front of you. Head-up, go!

Pick-up the helmet, put it on your head and stop. Notice where the straps are; reach up, do the straps up; undo; repeat five times without removing the helmet. Put the helmet down, pick up, put on, do up, take off, put down. Pick up, etc. Do the full cycle at least 50-times.

Make sure you hold your head up straight and breathe. When you come into transition in a race you’ll be out of breathing hard, now is no time to try to put on and do up a helmet while doubled up. By standing up straight, it also means the straps will mostly likely fall in the same place, making them easier to find and do up.

Once you think you can do this, try it with your eyes closed.

Clipping in

OK, so you have not mastered this yet? You look down, your shoes slide over the pedals, your bike wobbles all over the place. This is asking for trouble when you come out of transition in a race. You want to be clean, fast and away from the chaos that is the mount line.

Find somewhere quiet and practice. We all have a preferred leg, a “strong one”. Clip this one in first, leaving the other foot on the floor. Start cycling and try to clip in. Concentrate on remembering where your strong leg was in the pedal rotation and if you didn’t make it, try again.

Try not to look down while doing it. Once you’ve mastered it with one leg, switch to the other. Eventually you’ll be able to do it without thinking about it. I do not recommend learning while on a trainer. Part of the memory effect you need to develop is the balance required to do it without wobbling.

T2 Dismount

I’ll dedicate a whole future article to being fast in transition. The whole mount and dismount is a massive time saving opportunity. My T2 time at my last transition was just 40-seconds, in the top-10 overall.
For the remainder of this season though you can transition much more effectively by mastering the dismount.

Again, find yourself some space, and quiet, somewhere you can afford to fail. School parking lots in the evening are good. Use the lines as the dismount line. Cycle around the parking lot, and as you approach your dismount line, about 150ft out, don’t slow down; don’t look down; reach down, undo one shoe, take your foot out, place it on top of the shoe and cycle a few turns to get back up to speed; then repeat with the other shoe/foot.

The first few times you might overshoot the dismount line, go back do it again. If you are really uncomfortable doing this on tarmac or concrete, take your bike with some talcum powder to a park and practice there. Shake the talcum powder to make a line.

Mark Cathcart

With your feet on your shoes, holding the handle bars, take your “strong leg” over the saddle and leave it hanging behind the other leg; 20ft out of the line, brake with both hands, a split second later drop your “strong leg” and simultaneously, grab the saddle, with the hand on the same side as your “strong leg”, let go with the other hand, and drop the other leg to the floor.
This should be practiced until it is one fluid motion, and you should be running just short of a sprint.

Once you’ve mastered getting out of your shoes, and can do it without wobbling and looking down, move on to the next step, the dismount. There are two distinct alternatives to doing this, one has your first leg to touch the ground going in front, the other behind. I firmly believe the latter is safer (see picture).

Again, practice until you can do this without thinking about it.

When it comes to race day, walk out to 150ft past the dismount line and just walk through the whole process. Visualize your speed, slowing down, taking your feet out, lifting your first leg over the saddle, dropping your first foot and then running to your transition spot holding the bike only by the saddle.

Running arms

If you watch a 10k track race, you can clearly see the difference between the leaders and the followers. Leaders have great form, and from about the 2km-to-go mark the followers form will start to fail, while the leaders maintain form.

The leaders have running arms. Shoulders back, arms only making a smooth back and forward motion, never coming up across their stomach, never punching the air in front of their chest, never getting wider to try to get faster. Your arms act as an imaginary set of brakes when you run. If they have a crisp back and forward motion, they will set the cadence for your legs and propel you forward. As your arms go faster, so will you.

Be economical with your arms. You are not a sprinter, but using a smooth back and forward motion close to your body will make you more aero.

That’s it, my top-tips for exploiting the memory effect. Building on the brain’s ability remember and reproduce sometimes simple, but often complex set of actions and reactions. Each of these tips will individually save you a few seconds. Together they add up, and make you faster and smoother during your race.

Most importantly, once you’ve mastered them, you can focus on the parts of the race where you can make the biggest differences, conveniently arriving at the finish line without thinking about your transition.

Next time, I’ll look at facing your fears and how to be ready for them.

Mark Cathcart took up triathlon in the late 90’s to get fit for adventure racing, which to this day he has never done, and has since taken part in 170+ events. His pragmatic approach to training, racing, and life have lead in from being the Chairman of one of the bigger UK Triathlon clubs 15-years ago; British Triathlon volunteer of the year; a sometime race organizer; The organizer and ride leader for Austin Texas award winning Jack and Adams triathlon shop; doing sometime Sports Management for development and professional triathletes; he has attended all the Triathlon Business International, and Triathlon America conferences, where he usually asks the questions others won’t; moved to Colorado in 2016 and is a co-owner of Boulder Bodyworker