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Quick quiz: Do any of these describe a past experience?
- You went into a long group ride with specific power goals but as soon as the leaders attacked, you couldn’t resist.
- You take the “hang on for dear life” approach to most Masters swim sessions.
- You’ve suffered from multiple overuse running injuries (IT Band syndrome, stress fractures, etc.).
- A couple weeks after finishing a 70.3 or Ironman, you couldn’t help but crush a track workout because “I’m in such good shape right now.”
If any of these scenarios ring true, you likely have a problem with reactiveness—or what coach Gordo Byrn refers to as “arousal control.”
Picture this: You’ve trained diligently for your upcoming Ironman and have a strategic race plan, complete with power numbers and heart rate targets. But when you’re in the heat of the moment on the bike course, a competitor passes you and can’t help but ditch those goals to keep up. Flash forward to halfway through the run, and you’re destroyed.
“At the most basic level, non-reactiveness is the ability to not push back when someone pushes you,” Byrn said. “For endurance sport, it’s about saving energy, making your own choices in a race and not letting someone pull you out of your decision.”
If you’ve never practiced non-reactiveness in a low-stakes training setting, executing it on race day will be a challenge. The good news, though, is that training this skill/behavior will absolutely pay off during a race.
“We’re trying to equip the athlete to be able to make a decision vs. respond to a situation,” Byrn said. “When we’re really stressed or we’re tired, we start reacting instead of deciding. We want to let people decide.”
How to Work on Non-Reactiveness in Training
Get dropped. On purpose.
Practice arousal control in a casual, low-stress group environment first, Byrn suggests. The bike is the easiest sport to attempt this skill because you can regulate yourself up and down with gears. “I will give the athlete an endurance workout and I tell them I want them to get dropped. I just want them to experience that and see what it feels like.”
Ride off the back.
If you are someone who is chronically afraid of getting left behind—“like abandonment issues on a ride”—do a ride where you stay 30 meters off the back the entire time. “Just sit back and process all this stuff going on in your head and just let it go,” he said. “Then when you get into a race, you’ve practiced it before.”
Swim down a lane.
The highest stress environment for most of us is a crowd in open water. If you have that reacting tendency, it can feel totally overwhelming. Overcome your ego in the pool by swimming one or two lanes down and leading the lane, Byrn suggests. “I don’t need to lead the first 1500y, but I want to be in a lane where I can lead the main set. I’m leading the workout at the intensity that I want instead of hanging on at the back.” If there are key swims where you need to challenge yourself, move back up.
Go big at a camp.
One place to safely test your physical limits in is a training camp environment—in a controlled and focused way, instead of willy nilly on random workouts. “I think it’s good to let people do whatever at a training camp—go big,” Byrn said. “A lot of those physical limits that we put on ourselves aren’t really there. We have these mental limits that hold us back and a training camp is a great place to discover that we’re capable of more than we thought.”
Practice Non-Reactiveness in Racing
Once you feel confident in your ability to race your own race, prove that you know how to execute. “A motto I have is to prove that you can race below your fitness before trying to exceed it,” Byrn said. First, focus on running well at the end of the race and deemphasize the swim and bike. Then try to bike and run well, then eventually add the swim. “Once you do that and you learn the event, you’ll get the experience to see where and how you can push. This is particularly useful for the half-Ironman and Ironman distance.”
You can also take advantage of the more aggressive athletes around you. For instance, in the swim, instead of battling it out with the aggro dude passing you, tuck in behind him (or her) for as long as it serves you. Stay calm, save your energy, know you’re going to be OK, and do your own thing.
Although the goal of non-reactiveness is to stay in control, when you’re at the level of racing against other people to win the race, you can’t always stick to the plan. But that still requires a great deal of foresight, fitness, and experience.
“I think a lot of us race like we’re trying to win, but we don’t have the capacity to win,” Byrn said. “Racing to win is different because you do need to get to the front of the race, and that will often require a lot of reacting and doing things that appear to be suboptimal vs. doing a TT. But in the same sense, you need to make those decisions as part of a larger strategy, understanding what your capabilities are.”
We see this calculated risk mentality in the pro field all the time. At the recent 2021 Ironman World Championship in St. George, Lionel Sanders was aware of the dynamics around him, but he didn’t let other people dictate his race. He stuck to his strategy and was strong enough for a sprint to second in the end.
Beware the Post-Peak-Fitness
It takes a lot of preparation to get fit for a big event (marathon, 70.3, Ironman). In those 10-17 days after, all the soreness is gone but you’re still really, really fit. “If you don’t have arousal control, you are going to feel like a complete rockstar,” Byrn said.
You can get away with doing one silly workout: You think, “wow I feel so good,” and you go out and blast yourself. “Your soreness might be gone, but your immune system needs time to recover,” Byrn said. “That’s an example of an area in recovery where lacking the arousal control can wreck you. You need to come off that big peak you had. You can do it with active recovery—I’m not saying shut it down—but this desire to keep it going, you get mentally used to very hard training sessions and you can tip yourself right over the edge.”
The same thing applies to training camps. You return home after a big block of training and you want to keep it going. But back in reality world, you have more life stressors and you need to let yourself recover from the high load.
Bonus: This Works in Life, Too
The idea of arousal control goes beyond just training and racing. If you can figure it out in your sport, you can apply it at work or at home. “If you have kids, it’s really the only way you can survive with toddlers,” Byrn said. “They’re totally unreasonable and they just don’t care. Those skills that I learned as an athlete were so helpful when we had little kids. For me that has always been the really fun part of athletics—to be able to give people these tools that they could take into the rest of your life.”