Magness Speaks — Why Rabbiting Works
“Turn your brain off and go for a ride.”
Every coach has that go to phrase that they repeat in the moments before the athlete heads to the line awaiting the start of the race. It might be a reminder to de-stress (“relax”) or perhaps a confidence booster (“Remember all the work you’ve put in”) or maybe even some sort of technical insight (“Make a move with a lap to go”). Regardless, we all have our favorite phrases to offer as advice in those last few precious moments.
In big races, mine is the aforementioned brain related phrase. My college kids have heard it so much that they know it’s coming before my lips begin to move. The reason is simple, in big races where we are trying to run fast, such as Stanford, I want them to take advantage of the conditions and simply latch on to the rabbit, pack, or leader for a while. In essence, I’m telling them “the race is going to go fast, just go for a ride.”
If we delve deeper into the meaning behind my default saying, it’s to convey a simple message. For the first part of the race, I want them to be mostly disengaged. Follow who they need to follow, click off the rhythm that they know they need to and let their body take over. Don’t overthink anything, don’t freak out about a split being a second too fast or too slow, just go for a ride. The only thing they need to worry about is staying on the ‘train’ and closing gaps if they occur. Only during the more difficult periods of the race do I want them to flip the switch and become fully engaged.
You might notice, that I haven’t mentioned the common explanation for why “sitting” on a rabbit or competitor works; drafting. It’s not that I doubt the couple percent savings in energy expenditure that research seems to tout, it’s that I don’t think that is the reason why rabbits work.
It’s not (entirely) about the draft.
Recently, researchers have begun to look at the intricate details of pacing. In particular, many have turned to the impact of attentional focus, or where the athlete focuses his thoughts, during a race. We have a number of choices, from focusing on the sensations of fatigue coming from our body, to how we are moving our arms to what the competitors in front of us are doing or what our mile splits are. Traditionally we’ve divided these up into an internal or external focus of attention. We can shift back and forth between sensations we feel and understand to those going on external to us.
There’s been much debate about what is best to focus on for improved performance with some espousing a need to focus on relaxation (to improve economy) while others have suggested pain coping strategies of either awareness or distraction. While this issue is being unraveled by researchers like Noel Brick and peers, the common sense conclusion is that attentional focus seems to be context and athlete dependent.
When it comes to rabbitted races though, attention might be the reason why athletes feel not only psychologically better but run faster, even if wind is a minimal concern.
When looking at how the mind controls where attentional focus is directed, Braver and colleagues put forth what is called the dual mechanism of control framework. They proposed that we have two different modes of control, a proactive and a reactive one. The proactive control mode is designed to use our goals and prior knowledge to direct attention in a specific direction. On the other hand, our reactive mechanism, can be thought of as similar to Kahneman’s System 1. It is a quick, automatic system the shifts our attention based on stimuli it receives. So if a bear roars in the woods, our attention instantly shifts to where we think the sound came from. Just like in Kahnemann’s system 1 vs. 2 dichotomy, the proactive control system is a slower, longer acting system that requires more conscious control and energy to act. In other words, it takes resources. On the other hand, our reactive system is almost automatic and therefore doesn’t require the costly cognitive resources.
In a series of experiments Brick and colleagues (2015, 2016) set up several 3km time trials where they tracked the attentional focus of the competitors. The first trial was a simply 3km trial, while the second time around, the researchers set up a trial where they controlled the pacing to simulate what it’s like to have a rabbit. During the first trial, participants seemed to switch between a proactive and reactive control of attention. However, during the controlled pace trial, the competitors used predominately a reactive mode of control. Additionally, they displayed a slightly lower heart rate throughout, despite similar racing times.
The authors speculated that the shift in attentional control to the less cognitively demanding reactive control, saved the athlete from using valuable cognitive resources. In other words, they saved energy by “shutting their brain off.”
While the physiological benefits of drafting (especially in wind) and having exacting pacing, must help, the other benefit in tucking in behind a rabbit is you don’t have to think. Racing becomes intuitive and reactive as you get to offload the need to pay attention to splits and tactics to the man who has guaranteed that he will take the field out in 2:59 for the 1,200m split. When you offload that responsibility, it means the brain is relieved of having to spend vital resources worrying about it.
What this points to is a sort of extreme version of cognitive fatigue. In Samuel Marcora’s work on physical fatigue, he’s demonstrated that performing simple attention demanding tasks before or during an endurance time trial impairs our physical performance. In other words, staring at a computer and clicking a button impairs performance. The staring and clicking requires attentional focus, depleting our vital resources.
While, it’s yet to be tested fully, it seems that tucking in and following a rabbit, is the ultimate attention saver. There’s no need to worry about if you are too fast or slow, whether you should pass the runner in front of you or make a hard push to drop an opponent. You don’t even have to leave an ear open for your coach yelling splits or instructions from the sideline. There’s only one thing you have to do, stare at the back of the guy in front of you.
My freshman year of college, I had been running 3:51 1,500’s all year long. Each race, I would go out and click off a nice even pace of 60, 2:00, and near 3:00 before falling apart somewhere between 400m and 200m to go in the race. We headed out to Stanford for one last chance to run fast. I was so frustrated that I decided I’d simply go out with the rabbit, no matter what.
We lined up at the start and the rabbit proclaims he’ll be going out in 1:58 for 800m. In my head, I remember thinking, a touch faster than I have all year, but that should be fine. The gun goes off and I dart straightaway to tuck in behind the pacemaker. I got right on his back, tucked in and stared at his back. As we came by the 400m mark, I heard coaches yelling 55, as I followed a touch later right on his heels. I was committed and focused on his back. Although this was an insane pace, and the rabbit would eventually slam on his breaks, it didn’t matter to me, as I was simply turning my brain off, latched onto him with no other thoughts in my mind.
I died the last 300m of that race. Fell apart, simply urging the finish line to get closer.
Even with this complete melt down, I ran a 5 second season best, running 3:46.
While it might have been the ugliest way to race, I ran the fastest I had all season. I can’t help but think that the only way I held on as long as I did was for the simple fact that I shut my brain off, told myself to hang on, and didn’t let another thought come through my brain.
Original Research to check out:
Noel E. Brick, Tadhg E. MacIntyre, Mark J. Campbell