At just 30 years old, Steve Magness is en route to becoming a living legend. The University of Houston cross-country coach is earning that status through innovation; in a sport rife with coaches who stick to tried-and-true training regimens, he’s not afraid to experiment.
“My athletes are awesome because they are like my own little guinea pigs,” he says. “Even though I teach them about what we do and why we do it, I’m sure they still think we are a bit crazy. But that is kind of our M.O. We try something and roll with it.”
While Magness—who once ticked off a 4:01 mile himself—coaches the fundamentals as good as anyone, he goes beyond traditional physiological training strategies to squeeze every ounce of performance out of his athletes. His secret: focusing on the mind.
“We’ve got the physical stuff down pat, so we’ve been exploring the psychology part” of training, says Magness, who’s currently pursuing a PhD in exercise science, focusing on “ecological psychology in an endurance framework.”
The brain training appears to be working. Since Magness began coaching at the University of Houston in 2012, the team has become a middle-distance powerhouse, setting school records in distances from the 800m to the 5K, and producing all-conference runners every year, with athletes running insanely fast times like 1:48 for the 800m, 3:46 for the 1500m, and 29:41 for the 10K.
Below, Magness shares three strategies that he’s currently testing with his University of Houston runners to integrate mind and body in a unique training plan. Try weaving them into your daily routine for a potential performance boost.
Mental Focus Workouts
“Losing focus is a real limiting factor when it comes to peak performance,” says Magness. “Athletes can fake their way through a hard workout because they break it down into nice little bite-size pieces: focus for 60 seconds, then rest, then focus for 60 seconds again, then rest and repeat. Unfortunately, races don’t work like this.”
To simulate continuous focus that competition demands, Magness has athletes complete Stroop Tests—in which they must quickly read the names of colors flashed in different colors, like "Red, Yellow, Orange"—during rest intervals. In doing so, “you get the physical recovery, but not the mental focus recovery,” says Magness.
To get a sense of how challenging Stroop “recovery” is, think back to your last track workout and ask yourself: what is the first thing you did after finishing an interval? Now, replace some flavor of “zone out” with reading “Blue, Green, Purple” as fast as possible for the entire rest period. If you are anything like me, you are probably cringing right now because it’s hard to read the words correctly when you’re tired.
You can target mental fitness at your next workout by downloading a Stroop Test app on your iPhone or iPad and bringing it to the track. But don't make every workout a mental-focus one, warns Magness. “The majority of workouts we go after physiological adaptations. Only sometimes do we target mental focus, and when we do, athletes understand their performance is going to suffer. It’s really about staying focused and just getting through the workout as best as possible.” Start by working mental focus sessions into your schedule once or twice a month, and see how your mind and body react.
While workouts are traditionally structured and predictable, competition tends to be erratic. “When we race, we know how long the course is, but we don’t know much else, like what the competitors are going to do or what the conditions will be,” says Magness. And your fitness watch is bound to fail at least once.
To make athletes comfortable with uncertainty, Steve occasionally prohibits watches and misplaces distance markers during workouts. In addition to introducing race-like ambiguity, Magness considers uncertainty workouts “a great way to learn running by feel.”
Another way to create race-like angst during training is changing group dynamics. By pairing upper-classmen with under-classmen, Magness intentionally “upsets runners,” instructing someone who is less experienced to take off and lead the group. Magness assures that it's not about hurting feelings, but rather about “working flexibility into otherwise highly regimented workouts.”
You can try uncertainty training by placing a piece of masking tape on your watch, or running with a group that makes you uneasy because you’ll be the odd one out—either much slower or faster than others in the group. When you remove the tape or finish the group run, evaluate your numbers and reflect on how you felt. Over time, your pacing should get more consistent, and more importantly, you’ll become more comfortable with race day uncertainty.
Hastening recovery is a multi-million dollar industry. (Think compression, foam rollers, supplements, and even bed sheets.) However, Magness’s low-tech recovery regimen may be just as powerful, and it doesn’t cost a thing. “Hanging out with friends is one of the most effective recovery protocols there is,” explains Magness.
“I really liked the idea of mindfulness-based meditation because I thought it could quickly transition an athlete from the stress of a workout to the recovery phase,” Magness says. “But I soon learned meditation takes a lot of practice, and for beginners, meditation can be stressful in and of itself.”
Magness started experimenting with other ways to facilitate recovery, like calming and relaxing music, but discovered what was most helpful—based on measuring heart rate variability, a common indicator of recovery—was creating a laid back social environment immediately after hard workouts. “Going from a high-stress workout to a desensitized period of just joking around together decreases tension way faster than anything else we’ve tried,” says Magness. “So now, it has kind of become part of our program to force fun social interactions after intense workouts.”
Magness recommends following your hardest workouts with fun group hangouts. If you can't do that, at least don't schedule grueling training sessions before high-stress meetings in the office. And while the efficacy of ice-baths is up for debate, Magness is certain that “hanging out with the guys is a lot less stressful than jumping in freezing water right after a workout.”
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