Mindful muscle control

October 16th 2018

By Linda Hill
Categories: Triathlon Training

Mindful muscle control

How do you get the most out of your muscles? With mindful thoughts!

We have previously written a blog about using your brain, not technology, as your primary training tool. Too many athletes no longer know what training feels like, only what the read-out displays.

Our “brain” blog was aimed at effort regulation / perception and its impact on training / racing. This time we will look at mind-muscle connection, how to train it and how it impacts each discipline.

Triathlon is an aerobic sport, but needs strength

Any distance triathlon is aerobic by nature. You need a well-trained and efficient aerobic system to get your through a race and to recover quick.

However, having an efficient neuromuscular system and strong muscles will drastically contribute to an all-round stronger outcome – and will also ensure a quicker recovery.

Even though triathlon is aerobic, meaning you need to develop and use the cardiovascular system (heart and lungs) to be able to race, strength is still required in the muscles.

One of our major training objectives when coaching our athletes is to offload the athlete’s cardiovascular system while loading up the skeletal system (limb / torso muscles). Building muscular strength (to complement the endurance which comes from low intensity training), enables the body to perform harder, faster and safer than just being aerobically fit.

We lay our athlete’s schedules out in a way that allows us to prescribe sport specific strength training each week without the need for extra rest. This means progressing on to the next session is not hindered – and gym membership is not necessary!

We don’t believe, and know from our athlete’s performances, that a dedicated Strength and Conditioning (S&C) routine in a gym is necessary. When done correctly (our job as coaches to mix the sessions correctly using the correct specific strength in sessions) sport specific strength work and with mindful muscle control (by our athletes) results are far superior to gym-based training.

 What is mindful muscle control?

Mind-muscle connection was (is) a concept largely used in the realms of bodybuilding, powerlifting, and other powersports.  It was a key component to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s training. Arnold once said he used to visualize his “biceps as great peaked mountains” and thought his muscles into growing.

Mindful muscle control / connection simply refers to “thinking” your muscles into action. “Thinking” them into contraction and relaxation to enable optimum muscle engagement. The more your muscles engage, the more force produced, the stronger you get (and the bigger the muscle grows) and the stronger your neuromuscular system becomes.

What science shows

In the years since Arnold’s intuitive concept, many studies have been performed to assess whether mental manipulation really helps to engage more muscle mass. With the use of Electromyography (EMG), which measure the electrical activity produced by skeletal muscles, it has been possible to record neuromuscular activation when exercising.

The brain is our central governer, our communication centre. To create movement, it passes messages along motor neurons to neuromuscular junctions in muscle fibres. “Increasing or decreasing the number of motor units active at any one time changes the amount of force produced by a muscle” 1. Basically, the more intense the message, more muscle fibres receive the message to fire and more force can be produced.







These studies, although conducted on athletes performing weight-based exercises, have concluded that muscle recruitment does increase 2. Interestingly, this is not the only benefit… it was observed that if the correct coaching cue was provided, an improvement of motor learning (developing movement patterns – e.g. swimming) can also occur. 3

Just because these studies were performed on weight training athletes doesn’t mean it doesn’t work for endurance athletes. Studies have shown that mind muscle control works more effectively when using a weight between 20 and 60% of the lifters 1 rep max (the maximum weight he/she can lift for 1 repetition). As endurance athletes, you will never need to push the body harder than these intensities.

Applying the science

Focusing on activating the muscles will help recruit more fibre, train the neuromuscular system (which is a system that also fatigues*) and will help engrain motor patterns.

*Often it is the neuromuscular system that fatigues before the muscles. Muscles can still have “energy in the tank”, but if you burn out your ability to pass messages, muscles don’t know to work!

Noting the benefit of mindful muscle control and its benefit on motor pattern development, one of the other reasons we don’t advocate S&C sessions is because of the “confusion” it places on the neuromuscular system.

If you want to become strong in triathlon, you need to develop specific movement patterns and strength within these movements. Adding more/different exercises and movements, especially when using weights, will overload the body’s ability to master the correct movement required to swim, bike and run faster – becoming a “jack of all trades, but master of none”!

Feel the burn and embrace it!

Specific strength training should be hard work. There should be a burn in the muscles at the time of training, aches may well occur in the following days, but don’t let this push you away from it.

Strength training MUST be performed at AEROBIC levels, this is very important! Otherwise it becomes a form of threshold training, middle ground, the grey zone.

Strength training performed correctly means the skeletal muscles, in the arms, torso or legs, will work and eventually burn. At the same point, the heart and breathing rate should be low.

Gradually, as the repetitions increase, there will be an increase in heart rate and breathing rate. The effort and intensity will “catch up” on you. However, this catch up should be controlled with rest and recovery, so every repeat is performed correctly.

The rest is therefore as important as the strength repeats. Skip the rest or work too hard in the recovery sections and you WILL fall into the grey zone – developing neither aerobic efficiency nor strength.

Mindful triathlon training

For a different outlook on your triathlon training, learn to be mindful of your muscle actions in each of the disciplines. Be “in-tune” with the muscles, learn that a burn is good and will make you stronger, faster, mechanically more efficient and more resilient.

Strength specific sets will be the easiest session to get a feel for the muscle’s engagement. Swimming with paddles, stomping and running hills / speed reps should already create a burn in the desired muscle groups. Eventually, when you learn what to sense and how to replicate it, you can transfer this to all sessions.

When you perform strength sets, focus on the key movements and muscle contraction needed.

Discipline impact

Note, there is a carry over of muscle usage from discipline to discipline. Each section of a triathlon WILL impact the next.

Looking at the mechanical side of racing:

  • Swim too hard while being under swim-trained and your arms / torso will be tired for the bike
  • Cycle too hard and blow your legs out (assuming you were able to use the upper body to create power)
  • You will then suffer on the run!


Give yourself variety in training by changing your focus to muscle engagement! Move away from focusing on time, pace, heart rate, power levels, etc, etc. Become one with your body control the things that move you – your muscles.

Don’t fear a little hard work, a burn and aches the day after! Your body will get stronger, you will get faster, movement patterns will develop quicker and you will become more robust.


  1. Neuroscience, Second Edition. Dale Purves, et al.
  1. Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training, March 2016 Calatayud J, Vinstrup J, et al.
  1. Attentional Focus for Maximizing Muscle Development: The Mind-Muscle Connection Brad J. Schoenfeld, PhD, CSCS, FNSCA and Bret Contreras, MA, CSCS
    Department of Health Sciences, Program of Exercise Science, City University of New York, Lehman College, New York, New York; and Sport Performance Research Institute, AUT University, Auckland, New Zealand