Your Brain is the Conductor!


Posted by Coach Mark Sortino

As my wife and I were watching the Boise Philharmonic Orchestra (photo above, from their Facebook page) perform incredible musical pieces, I thought about all the individual artists playing their “part” that made the entire sound of the orchestra so wonderful. I watched as the conductor focused his attention on one section, then another, then to another and finally to the group at large. He repeated this “ballet” of movement throughout every piece. And this got me thinking: this is how the brain works while we train - or, how it should work!

There are so many options for our brain to focus on while we train. I will never say that each session should be the same. In fact, I will say this as clearly as possible: sometimes the brain just needs to “be” and not think about anything specific. Sometimes it needs to just wander, and that is heathy! However, more times than not, we should focus our brain on specific things during training that improves our neuromuscular pathways, attentiveness, coordination and skills in the discipline we’re training. So here are some rough guidelines on what you can think of and, by comparison, what I think of during training the three disciplines.


This is completely dependent on your skill, experience, and where your focus is with your own swim. My recommendation is that you focus on ONE thing at a time and typically no more than three during a training session. Some examples could be: high elbow, pressing back with flat palm past your waist, higher hand recovery, timed two beat kick, rotating from the hips, head position, etc. 

My focus: this past year it’s been rotating from the hips, timing that rotation with catch & kick, and higher elbows during the catch phase.


This depends more on what type of cycling you’re doing than anything else. Certainly off-road will be quite different that on the road with a road bike which is different still from a triathlon (TT) bike. Some common focus items I recommend are: constantly looking ahead, complete pedal strokes, balanced and nimble climbing, controlling effort level regardless of terrain or weather, awareness of cadence, “light hands, heavy feet”, controlling short bursts of power, etc.

My focus: I’ve been on the MTB most of the year, so it’s been balance, light hands, heavy feet and “flowing” (relaxing) down the trail.


Similar to swimming, this discipline is so individualized that I want to be careful in generalizing, but here goes. Some options to focus on are light feet, cadence, head position, relaxed shoulders and arms, breathing, hip engagement, pace control, etc.

My focus: It’s mostly focused on breathing and hip engagement for me. When I focus on those two items, everything else just “flows”.


In my mind, just like the conductor I watched, who focused on those 30 plus musicians in different ways and at different times, our brain should be doing the same thing, only with fewer items. For Elite athletes with exceptional proprioception and self-awareness, they can and should come close to the conductor and consciously focus on a dozen items at once. For the rest of us, KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) is a good rule of thumb. Remember, however, that sometimes we need to shut it down, wonder, smile and just go swim, bike and run.


Coach Mark Sortino is a USA Triathlon Level III Coach, USA Cycling Level II Coach, USAT Paratriathlon Certified Coach, F.I.S.T. certified bike fitter and certified USAT Race Director who is also the co-founder and CEO of Team MPI. Mark has been the Head Coach of Team USA Paratriathlon since 2012 and has coached Paralympic Triathletes and Cyclist, Ironman 70.3 and Ironman World Championship qualifiers along with National and World Champion ITU Paratriathletes. Mark is also a US Veteran having served 20 years in the US Navy as a Naval Flight Officer and is graduate of the US Naval Academy. Contact him at

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