How to Be An Embodied Triathlete

What does it mean to be present in the moment—even when the moment is painful?

Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images for IRONMAN

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What makes for a great workout or race? While most people would say fast times or good results, here’s an uncommon answer: A great workout or race is one filled with embodied moments of consequence.

The philosopher Roger Scruton had activity of a different sort in mind in his book Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation, but he broadly asserted the need to be “in your body” during moments that matter, which, of course, begs the question, “Where else would I be?” Well, lots of places. The mind is really good at going to places other than the here and now. And yet, it is truly special when that is precisely where it is: here and now. Training and racing provide plenty of consequential moments experienced under pressure. In many ways, this is the point—experiencing desirable difficulty. These are the moments of desire.

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What is embodiment?

Embodiment is how we pay attention during these moments. Cognitive scientist Guy Claxton described embodiment as our authentic nature, but one we are often pulled away from through experiences and the conditions of modern life. In his book, he described embodiment as being receptive to the flow of information, within our mind-body and from our environment, while choosing how to experience the moment. Neuroscientists place this activity in a complex brain system called the interoceptive network. In How Emotions are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett describes how that network spans conscious and non-conscious regions of the brain and operates bi-directionally–perceiving body states and issuing commands. Non-consciously, the interoceptive network influences things like energy metabolism and respiration. Consciously, the network shapes decision making and our very perceptions of reality. Embodiment lies in the nexus as we choose how to pay attention to bodily sensations.

Having that sort of control is challenging and elusive, especially during physical stress. In my first 70.3 in 2019, I intended to be grateful and feel a sense of accomplishment while approaching the finish. Instead, the discomfort that settled in during the run contributed to an “I’m glad that’s over” mood. I could have chalked it up to the July heat and my many training and tactical mistakes, but this was my moment of desire and I failed to embody it. Paying attention with a sense of gratitude and pride—yes, even to the pain—was a choice I could have made. 

How to embody the moment

In every moment we stroke, spin, and step, we choose how to pay attention. Distraction, with a wandering mind or media consumption, is one way to pay attention. We can also use a grit and grind, suck-it-up, “pain is weakness leaving the body” approach. Distraction and grinding are practically the caricature of the endurance athlete. These attentional styles have a disembodied quality—directing attention anywhere but here or burrowing it into a narrow crucible of willpower. There are risks with relying heavily on these approaches. Continually distracting ourselves conditions our interoceptive network to ignore bodily sensations. Grinding is a resource that can be used up during intense and prolonged difficulties, and when it starts to erode, unpleasantness follows.

Beyond distraction and grinding, research identifies an expanded repertoire of mindful attentional styles. Noticing bodily sensations without attaching meaning or worrying to them is an attentional style of simple awareness. It limits labeling sensations which, when the sensation is unpleasant, can make it more burdensome. Trusting one’s body as safe and capable is an affirming way of paying attention that supports the belief that the body can perform as needed. Regulating is intentionally using the body to calm and redirect negative emotions. Connecting is a way of paying attention that links body sensations and emotional states. This includes recognizing changes in the body associated with different emotional experiences and the influence of positive emotions on bodily sensations.

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Strategies to try

Even though familiar, every endurance experience is physiologically, psychologically and environmentally unique. You can create moments of embodiment by practicing strategies that integrate mind and body.

  • Meditate. A regular practice of meditation supports embodiment by altering perceptions of body sensations and responses to conditions.
  • Engage in positive self-talk. Connect with desired emotions through positive affirmations and reframing unpleasant sensations. 
  • Soften the gaze. Relax the muscles around your eyes and allow the eyelids to slightly close. Let this softening cascade down the body. Try this in an environment free of trip and traffic hazards. The goal is to evoke relaxation with a simple facial movement. 
  • Pull in the belly at the end of exhales. Slightly accentuating the exhale naturally allows a deep belly-breath inhale and triggers the relaxation response. More relaxed breathing promotes cardiorespiratory efficiency through a slightly lower heart rate for the same amount of work. Try a simple physical reinforcement by extending and contracting the fingers in rhythm with inhales and exhales.
  • Breathe through discomfort. Pain is unavoidable. Regulate it by breathing into the pain. Imagine oxygen-rich inhaled air moving to the place of discomfort and trust the body’s natural ability to tolerate and ease discomfort.
  • Reframe discomfort. Instead of inhabiting pain with a grit-and-grind approach, pay attention differently. Pain can be a lesson, a reminder, a challenge, an affirmation, an opportunity, a familiar companion, a way to get perspective…
  • Smile. Smiling helps shift negative or neutral feelings toward the positive.
  • Embody posture. What works for the face, works for the body. Explore postures that evoke feelings of confidence, lightness, and pleasure. For example, embody a sense of lightness like a dancer opposing gravity. Sense lightness lifting your body creating an ease of movement.
  • Feel the environment. Physically sense the water as your hand enters at the top of a stroke, the wind flowing across your arms as you ride, the sun on your face as you run.
  • Sense beauty. Take moments to appreciate beauty in your surroundings as you train and race.
  • Connect with others. Spread positivity with warm greetings for people you pass, a word of encouragement, or a kind thought about an important person in your life.
  • Notice benefits. As training or racing ends, pay attention to the positive sensations settling into the body that the experience provides.
  • End with gratitude…as I do for you.

Jim Broadbear is a professor of health promotion & education at Illinois State University, a national board certified-health & wellness coach, and a certified wellness practitioner.

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