Controlling the Uncontrollable through Drill Work and Recovery Workouts

Controlling the Uncontrollable through Drill Work and Recovery Workouts

by Coach Sarah

We can’t always control what happens to us, but we CAN control our reactions, both mentally and physically!   As endurance athletes, we know that things happen on race day that are simply out of our control: choppy water, rain, heat, cold, items being moved in transition, being kicked in the head during the swim, flat tires, blisters forming, side-stitches and stomach cramps on the run, bike computers not reading data properly, or GPS watches not finding satellite signals.

But here’s the good news to these “uncontrollables”:  we CAN control our reactions to them.  And this reactionary control is a highly trainable skill!

It’s easiest to break this concept down into both a mental aspect and a physical aspect.

Mentally speaking, we are given multiple opportunities daily to work on our reactions to the uncontrollable.   These include traffic jams and red lights when we are in a rush to get somewhere, sick children, endless phone calls at work on a day when a big project is due, cars breaking down, or being placed on hold for 30 minutes with a customer service center while trying to fix their mistake on a bill.   Each time we are faced with something that is out of our control, we are given a choice to choose how we will react!   This provides the perfect opportunity to work on our mental toughness skills for race day.

Realistically, we aren’t always going to greet these challenges with a sunny smile, but if we can become aware of the opportunity being presented to us within these challenges, then positive mental growth WILL occur.   In other words, the more we train ourselves to CHOOSE our reaction to an unpleasant situation, the more control we have over it.

Physically speaking, we are given opportunities to develop our body’s reactions to the uncontrollable with two specific types of workouts: drill workouts and recovery workouts.  How?

With drill workouts, we are focusing mainly on technique in each of our disciplines.  The relationship between our brains and our muscles (the neuromuscular relationship) can become predictable as we repeatedly train our muscles to move in certain ways.  The key is to train with the correct muscle patterns and movements.  This is where drill work is so critical to our success, as drills allow us to break down our swim, bike and run technique into basic controllable movements.

Once we put our muscles through the proper motions enough times, our bodies can use “autopilot mode” during more intense workouts, allowing us to then focus on speed and power.  In essence, we are training our bodies to react WITH CONTROL to whatever physical challenge is set forth (i.e. a speed workout).

With recovery workouts, we are able to operate in slow motion, picking apart our form while putting it in action.  I like to use the analogy of “going nowhere fast” when giving athletes bike and run recovery workouts.   Think “high cadence, slow speed”!  Speed and power are simply not a concern when doing recovery workouts, so therefore we have the perfect opportunity to focus on our swim, bike and run form at a relaxed pace.   And each time we do this, we are cementing that neuromuscular relationship between our brains and muscles, so that when we encounter physical things outside of our control on race day, we have something to fall back on that we CAN control—our form!

Putting this into practical usage, here are a few examples of how to control the uncontrollable on race day:

  • If nerves and anxiety cause you anxiety during a swim start, fall back on a “controllable”—your swim stroke and/or your breathing.  Try picking out one piece of your swim stroke that feels strongest to you in training—i.e. your catch, your recovery, holding out your lead arm, etc—and let that “controllable” be your focus during the uncontrollable moments of the swim.
  • If your shoulders, neck, or legs start to feel fatigued on the bike leg, go back to your basic cycling form (taught in ET’s Cycling 101 clinic) where you engage your core to produce power.  While we can’t always control the fatigue that happens on the bike, we CAN control where we are producing our power from.  And often times when our limbs get tired it’s due to forgetting to engage the core.   We CAN control core engagement!
  • If side stitches or stomach cramping develop, we CAN control our run form itself as a reaction to these.  While this may not fix the problem, it at least gives us something to think about that we CAN control while in the midst of an uncontrollable.  For instance, diaphragmatic (belly) breathing is something we can control, as is our run cadence.  By focusing on one, or both, of those things when faced with an uncontrollable, we can sometimes get through the worst of the moment, and come out safely on the other side.

The point is that we are often subjected to things that are simply out of our control on race day.  The more we train ourselves both mentally and physically to have a controlled response to these “uncontrollables,” the greater our chances for success will be!

One of the greatest gifts of humanity is that we get to choose our own reactions to things—no one, and nothing, can take that choice away from us!  So in that spirit, let’s choose wisely, and let’s choose positively!  That we can control!

Sarah Farsalas is the Director of Cycling Programs and Massage Therapy at Experience Triathlon.  She is also a certified USA Cycling coach, USA Triathlon coach and Licensed Massage Therapist.   Learn more about Coach Sarah, Experience Triathlon and Experience Massage at





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