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A Look At The Mind’s Role In Endurance Sports

Posted by: on February, 22 2016

Found on Competitor.com and written by Matt Fitzgerald

How Bad Do You Want It? A Closer Look at the Mind’s Role in Endurance Sports

Endurance athletes, by definition, endure. They endure long hours of training, the privations of a monastic lifestyle, and all manner of aches and pains. But what endurance athletes must endure above all is not actual effort, but perception of effort.

This is the phrase that scientists now use to refer to what athletes normally describe as “how hard” exercise feels in a given moment, and it represents the central concept of the psychobiological model of endurance performance. It is perceived effort, according to the latest science, that causes the mountain biker to hit the wall on the last hill of a race, and constrains endurance performance in all circumstances. The most important discovery of the brain revolution in endurance sports, and the most important truth you can know as an endurance athlete, is this: One cannot improve as an endurance athlete except by changing one’s relationship with perception of effort.

Even something as seemingly physical as training conforms to this principle. The training process increases an athlete’s physical capacity, but at the same time it changes her relationship with tired runner shadowperception of effort. The fitter the athlete becomes, the easier it feels for her to swim, bike, run, or whatever at any given speed, and that is why her performance improves. If the athlete’s physical capacity increased but her relationship with perception of effort did not change accordingly, her race times would not get any better because she would be psychologically unable to access that increased physical capacity.

In reality, the scenario I’ve just described could never happen.

Perceived effort is essentially the body’s resistance to the mind’s will. The fitter an athlete becomes, the less resistance the body puts up. Therefore increased physical capacity is always felt.

Not all endurance athletes are head cases, but given the nature of the sports in which they participate, all endurance athletes face psychological challenges, and all such challenges are either directly or indirectly related to perception of effort. If racing wasn’t hard as hell, athletes would not experience moments of self-doubt, or prerace apprehension, or post-race regret, or mental burnout, or intimidation. Even most training errors, such as overtraining, originate in the fear of suffering.

Psychologists use the term ‘coping’ to refer to a person’s behavioral, emotional, and cognitive responses to discomfort and stress. Endurance sports are largely about discomfort and stress; hence they are largely about coping. In a race, the job of the muscles is to perform. The job of the mind is to cope. But here’s the hitch: The muscles can only perform to the degree that the mind is able to cope. Endurance sports are therefore a game of “mind over muscle.”

To become the best athlete you can be, you need to become really good at coping with the characteristic forms of discomfort and stress that the endurance sports experience dishes out, beginning with perceived effort and extending to the many challenges that are secondary to it, such as fear of failure. You must discover, practice, and perfect the coping skills that conquer these challenges most effectively. My own term for a highly developed overall coping capacity in endurance sports is mental fitness.

The best source of knowledge concerning the most effective methods of coping with the challenges of endurance sports is the example set by elite endurance athletes. The methods that the greatest athletes rely on to overcome the toughest and most common mental barriers to better performance are practically by definition the most effective coping methods for all athletes. Champions are the ultimate role models for sports psychology no less than they are for training and nutrition. It is not possible to succeed at the highest level of any major endurance sport with a B+ mental game. No athlete, no matter how talented, can win on the international stage today without harnessing the full power of his mind to maximize both the amount of effort he is able to give and the amount of performance he gets out of his best effort.

To learn from the champions, it is not enough to be exposed to their stories of overcoming. We must also know how to interpret these examples. What is the essential nature of the challenges the most successful racers face and overcome? How do we understand the coping skills they use to master these challenges in a way that allows us to replicate them in our own experience? These are the questions we have to answer in order to benefit from the example set by the best of the best. The psychobiological model of endurance performance helps us here. By applying this new science to elite-athlete case studies we can tease out practical lessons that can then be applied to our own athletic journeys.

The job of How Bad Do You Want It? is to help you become your own sports psychologist— a competent and ever-improving practitioner of the new psychology of endurance sports.

In every race, something within each athlete (something we may now specify as perception of effort) poses a simple question: How bad do you want it? To realize your potential as an athlete, you must respond with some version of this answer: More. And then you have to prove it. It’s easy in principle, hard in practice—much harder than figuring out how to train, what to eat, and which shoes to wear.

Republished with permission of VeloPress from How Bad Do You Want It? Mastering the Psychology of Mind over Muscle by Matt Fitzgerald. Learn more at velopress.com/howbad.