“A Pensar Morreu Un Burro”…..or, Thinking Died a Donkey

This quote is a favorite Portugese saying.  My husband has used this phrase to me over and over again, and I find it appropriate in coaching athletes.

Overthinking something can cause you to miss the experience, the feelings, or screwing up your body.

We all want to improve.  Fix a movement pattern, eat better, race better, or just be a better person.  This is important for self improvement not only in sport, but in life as well.  We do have a tendency though to over-think something though.  I’ve been there, and I’ve done that several times.  I am a more seasoned athlete now, and because of that I’ve started to learn how to really ‘feel’ how it’s supposed to be right.  There are times I close my eyes while I am moving a barbell, or performing a ground based exercise (not running or riding, but have done it swimming) to actually feel what I’m doing.

What I have discovered is that all movements have to begin with a GREAT starting position, because if you aren’t in that ‘place’ there is no way you can correct the imperfections while moving.  It would be like trying to change your trajectory of your urine while standing in front of a urinal….you are going to get splashed.  If your aim isn’t true then you end up in the bathroom drying your pants (How do I know this?  This is was the discussion we had this previous week at the pool).

Let’s take different aspects of specific sports, and see how the starting position affects everything:  Running, Biking, and Swimming.


What is correct starting position?  Feet directly under the hips.  Ears directly over the shoulders.  Body is straight as if being held up by a string attached to the top of your head.  You lean from the ankles for speed.  Anything that you change while running is going to be done under load.  There are some minor things that you can correct easily and will help, but for the most part stick with me here as the next examples are very common among athletes.

Common Over-Thinking Errors:  I started to think about landing on my forefoot; I wanted to lean more; I pulled my core in tighter; I pulled my shoulders back; I wanted to try a larger arm swing; I thought lifting my knees would make me faster.

When your foot lands when you run you are basically placing 2.5x your bodyweight of force into the ground.  Your body has to absorb the shock somewhere.  If you think about landing on your forefoot you can almost guarantee that you will be landing in front of your hips, and your heel won’t even touch the ground (which you need to release the calf/achilles).

If you pull in your core tighter you create a bracing effect that can limit your thoracic rotation which you need while running so that the accompanying hip extension can occur, and you’ll also limit the amount glute activation as well.

If you pull your shoulders back actively when you run you are also going to tighten the spine up quite a bit, and then again you’re head will be put in a different position, shutting down your glutes and activating your low back (Quadratus Laborum) versus your glutes for hip extension.

Larger arm swing will mean slower cadence (shortest angle of arm swing, faster cadence), which in turn means you will be placing even more load on the leg as you land at a slower rate, or you’re going to end up striking with the heel in front of you which brakes your forward momentum.  Lifting the knees does the same thing.

“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” ~Einstein  (author’s note…to much thinking….it was really Sir Isaac Newton who said this)


Correct position (we’re talking Tri bike’s here):  Knee axis over the pedal spindle, angle of knee ~30 degrees (give or take depending on athlete), aero-bars should be wide enough to allow comfort for 10 hours if necessary, height of stem (same rules apply), hip angle is dependent on the brand of bike and your personal geometry.  A good bike fitter can help you with this, but at the end of the day you also have to tweak something on your own to help it become more ‘you’.

Common Over-Thinking Errors:  I decided I was going to pull up on the pedals because this is what ‘x-y-z’ said;  I wanted to go really aero; I wanted more power so I raised my seat and pushed it forward more for a steeper angle;  I changed my cleat position because I thought I would get more power.

Just like running, the bike is all about angles in relationship to your body and it’s idiosyncrasy’s.  We all hold tension in our bodies in different places.  Unless you are willing to fix these tensions, you are going to have a hard time correcting your starting position.  This is why good bike fitters are worth their weight in gold because they can see you as a whole, but they can’t feel what you feel.  This is a different topic, but it is just important to state first.

Pulling up on the pedals.  How much do you love your hamstrings and calves?  How much do you want to run off the bike?

Going super aero….how much do you love your back/shoulders?

Raising your seat (or lowering, or pushing it fore or aft willy-nilly)?  How much do you love your knees?  Because changing the seat position can really mess you up faster than trying to run on your toes.

Cleat position?  Same thing as seat position, ask yourself how much you love your knees.  Because in cycling the first thing to really be affected is the knees, then the hips, then the back/neck/shoulders.

You should be able to fall asleep in your current bike position, feel yourself pedal smoothly and easily, know how the power feels in your legs as you go through each revolution of the pedal.  In fact, cycling with your eyes closed WHILE ON THE TRAINER is a really good way to find out where you’re leaking power, which leg is working more, which shoulder is more tense, etc.


Correct position:  Body in a straight line, feet don’t separate more than about 8 inches while kicking, hand enter the water in line with the shoulders, the shoulders and hips move in unison, head is held in a position just like running.  There is a relaxed tension in running, swimming and biking.  But most people don’t allow for that experience.

Common Over-Thinking Errors:  I focused on bringing my elbows up really high; the lifeguard told me I needed to reach more; My stroke rate was too slow; I was told to look in my armpit when I breath; I was told to hold my fingers close together;  I was told to do a figure-8 with my stroke.  The list is endless.

Elbows up high (nice thought).  In reality you just want your elbow higher than your hand during recovery.  What is the definition of higher?  Anywhere from 1″ higher to 90 degrees higher than the hand.  But here is what happens when you start thinking about this is that I commonly see people bring their elbows so high up that they actually are bringing the arm up behind their body, too close to their body, which then causes the opposing arm to totally lose the ‘catch’ and they jack up their shoulder.  Arm recover is all about ‘RECOVERY’.  There should be NO effort in taking your hand out of the water, picking up the elbow, then plopping the hand back in the water in front of your shoulder.

Reaching:  If you actively reach you will NEVER get a good feel for the water.  Extension of the arm comes from range of motion in the shoulder joint.  Reaching disengages the lats (your main drivers besides your hips – which by they way – they are CONNECTED by a ton of fascia and muscle), thus forcing you to use that little shoulder joint for swimming.

Stroke Rate:  It takes skill and time to increase your stroke rate, you have to be really strong and efficient at a slow rate before you start messing around with the speed of your pull.  Most people lack the strength to do this, and once they start to speed up their stroke?  They lose the catch in the water.  Let’s just say they will be spinning their wheels, going no where fast, with lots of wasted energy.  SPEND TIME GOING SUPER SLOW.

Looking in armpit:  Head moves one way, the body follows.  Stand up, take an arm and put it in the air (like you’re raising your hand ‘Teacher, pick me’), now look in your armpit and see what happens to your body.  FEEL IT.

Holding tension in my hands?  That just makes me create more tension in my arms, lats, core.  Try it.  Stand up, hold your hand tightly next to your hip, now bring your hand straight up in front of you and raise the arm (think ‘Heil Hitler’) until you feel the tension in your arm.  Next, relax the hand and do the same movement.  Notice the range of motion improvement.  Holding tension in the hands just means you’re holding tension.  No one gets a prize for holding the most tension.

Figure 8 stroke:  This is 1960’s swim coaching at it’s best.  The fastest way between two points?  A straight line.  The minute you change your hand pitch is when you get into trouble.  In other words, you lose your ‘feel’ for the water, lose your catch, lose your pull,  and lose your mojo.

TRIATHLON:  Eliminating tension while swimming, biking, and running will result in more speed with less effort.

In other words….too much thinking died a donkey.