Thursday, March 13, 2014

Associating and Dissociating in Endurance Events

In my experience coaching, there are a few different mental skills I have found immensely helpful. The ability to associate or dissociate at will when in long races is one of those things that I and my athletes rely on frequently. Typically, in shorter races or early on in a race we use the associating skills to zone in on an aspect of technique and stay on track. However, for long workouts and races pain or discomfort gets so intense that all you can think of is how much it hurts or how uncomfortable you are, That is the time to deploy dissociating as a skill to get past the pain. It seems that in that circumstance, dissociating is a better technique in order to stop thinking about how much things hurt. The dissociating usually comes up in races that last 4 hours or over, though it might work for you in other situations as well.

Association and Dissociation are definitions of different attentional states. In 2004, Baghurt had this to say about Association and Dissociation.

"Association is a cognitive strategy in which the individual attends to the body’s internal related cues such as muscle tension and breathing and/or external performance information such as distance completed, stroke rate and race position. This strategy allows individuals to alter their movement pattern according to body awareness, racing strategy, and muscular tension. Dissociation, on the other hand, is a cognitive strategy in which the performer focuses on external cues, such as daydreaming, admiring the view, and problem solving; thereby restricting the influence of sensory information from the body."

Early research into these styles seemed to show that associating led to better performances but later research has shown a more complex relationship. Further research showed that an athlete's predilection affects which strategy seems to work the best. That is to say someone with a natural external focus will do better following an external dissociating focus; so it is good to know what one's natural type of attention is. 

Also, research has shown that in endurance events, people switch from one strategy to another throughout the race. More specifically, successful athletes tend to switch from associating at the beginning of the race to more dissociating at the end of the race. In the beginning, the association strategy allows the athlete to keep track of effort, heart rate, hydration and other cues necessary to make sure that he doesn't later run out of fuel or otherwise overdo it. Toward the end of the race, dissociating can help distract the athlete from the pain and fatigue that may be intruding during the race. (Burton, 2008)

Switching strategies is something that needs to be practiced if you want to control how you deploy it on race day.

How to do It

In practice, I almost always recommend this to be done as ascending intervals and or descending intervals. Where the length of each repeat gets longer until a peak and then drops back down. Much like speed or physical techniques, practicing these mental techniques in bite-sized chunks helps in the beginning. Since many of us are relatively unpracticed at this sort of thing, we start with very short intervals and build up the distance. 

Associating Practice

To practice associating, pick a single, simple aspect of your technique and focus totally on that one thing. In most cases, I pick one side as well. One arm or one leg for example. If your technique focus is too broad, it is much more easy to get distracted from what you are working on.

If you get distracted, bring your attention back to the original focus you were working on. As you practice more and more you will find it easier to keep your focus and what some people call your monkey mind (it jumps all around) will calm down.

Example focuses:

Swimming - focus on the hand entry of a single hand. At the very simplest level, a swimmer can work on having their fingers and thumb together at entry rather than spread open, it's very simple but can keep one's focus. Or, I teach hand entries when swimming to be angled down and forward and ends at a point below your shoulder after extending. There should be no swoops on your entry, it should be straight, down and forward. But you can use whatever particular focus point works for you best. 

Biking - Focus on keeping your head looking downward at an angle, with your back and neck as straight as possible in the aerobar position. Looking forward out of the top of your eyes. Focusing on this early will help avoid neck pain later on.

Running - Focus on a short contact time when running. Land lightly with your foot underneath you and allow the elastic recoil of your muscles to work for you.

Dissociating Practice

It doesn't seem so, but this is an important skill as well. It isn't just a matter of letting your mind drift, it is a matter of intentionally excluding internal information. The situation where this might be appropriate is the 2nd half of a long bike ride when your neck is very sore and you do not want to get into your aerobars because of it. But you need to be in your aerobars to go faster. So use your dissociating skill to listen to something besides your neck telling you to sit up. 

In a long swim, soreness in a person's upper shoulder muscles can prove to be intense and slowly build up, deploying your dissociating skills to stop concentrating on the pain can help you push through.

To practice this, you need to find something that can wholly absorb your focus, away from what your body is telling you. Sometimes this is the scenery at the race although in my own experience, scenery is rarely engaging enough to dissociate me from internal body cues. But it may be different for you. By far the most common is a song. The MAJOR thing I will let you know is that you will want to have a song you know from front to back. Not one that you know two lines from, the two lines probably won't work for you, or might drive you crazy! So it is worth planning ahead, figure out in the days leading to the race what you will sing, maybe even listen to those songs on the way to the race.

Sample Intervals

Swimming - 100 / 200 / 300 / 200 / 100 (:20) - Concentrate on your entry for each repeat of the ascending part. Start with your breathing side hand. That is the easier side to work on, then move on to your non-breathing side. Another one you can try is to not hesitate at the end of your stroke, while you don't need to speed up, make sure there is no lag between the end of your pull and the start of your recovery. These are both small and simple enough to concentrate on while swimming, although you are encouraged to get your own focuses.

On the descending distance intervals, practice your dissociating with a song you plan to use on race day.

Biking - 1:00 / 2:00 / 3:00 / 2:00 / 1:00 with 1:00 of relaxation in between. Focus on staying in your aerobars with a straight back and relaxed neck for the ascending intervals. Do the descending parts as above.

Running - 1:00 / 2:00 / 3:00 / 2:00 / 1:00 with 1:00 of relaxation in between. Focus on short foot contact time when running. Do the descending parts as above.


As a coach and an athlete I practice these techniques as part of the training plan. These sets are put into the workouts just like a threshold set might be put in. I don't have any controlled trials, can only give the reader reports from athletes that have found the ability to change attention strategies very helpful. We have used it in 50k runs, ultra distance swims from 4.4 miles to 27 miles, and a couple of dozen triathlons of half iron or longer. I think you will find that with this practice, mentally you can get through long events in a much better place mentally able to keep up a strong effort for the entire race. 


Baghurt, T., Thierry, G., Holder, T., (2004). Evidence for a Relationship Between Attentional Styles and Effective Cognitive Strategies During Performance. Athletic Insight, 6, 1, 36 - 50
Burton, T., Raedecke, T., (2008). Sport Psychology for Coaches. (164)