Found on RunningTimes.com and written by Mackenzie Lobby
We’ve all heard the old adage about running being 90% mental. Turns out it might be true, and scientifically proven to boot. Tim Noakes, M.D., author of Lore of Running, has long argued that it is the brain that allows or limits endurance performance rather than the body. His “central governor” theory postulates that “the brain is there to look after you and to make sure whatever you do, you do it safely,” as he puts it.
Noakes says that the brain holds us back from pushing past a certain point. “There’s a control mechanism to make sure that you reach the finish line not in a completely, utterly wilted state,” he claims. “You always have a little reserve.” Or as some would interpret this, you can always push a little harder.
While past running research was preoccupied with the physiological side of endurance performance, a small group of researchers recently set their sights on examining the role of the brain. Not only does this research emphasize the idea of mind over matter, it also demonstrates that the brain can be trained to allow the body to physically handle more. After considering the research, we went in search of examples of competitive runners who have figured out ways to overcome the limits our brains put on our bodies. They offer sound advice on methods to coach your mind, not just your muscles.
Confusing Mental Fatigue and Physical Fatigue
Consider the following scenario. You’ve had a long, hard day. Your kids are nagging you, your boss is riding you, and there’s a sink full of dirty dishes and a mile-high pile of bills waiting for you at home. Managing to get in a run, much less a track workout or tempo session, seems like a monumental task.
Researchers at Bangor University in the UK set out to examine why it is that mental fatigue can lead to the perception of physical fatigue during exercise. Dr. Samuele M. Marcora and colleagues compared two groups. While both groups were to complete a high-intensity cycling exercise, one group was given a challenging, but sedentary, 90-minute computer test beforehand. The other watched “emotionally neutral documentaries” for 90 minutes.
While physiological responses to the exercise did not differ between the two groups, the perception of physical effort was much higher in the mentally fatigued group (the ones who did the computer test). The perception of physical fatigue translated into those participants reaching their maximal level of perceived exertion, and thus giving up, much sooner.
Researchers confirmed that VO2 max, cycling economy, and anaerobic threshold were not influenced by the mental task. Most interesting, they note that “overall, it seems that exercise performance is ultimately limited by perception of effort rather than cardiorespiratory and musculoenergetic factors.” Therefore, the brain gave up and subsequently sent signals to the body to also cease, even though the body showed no physical signs of complete exhaustion.
Tricking the Mind to Allow More from the Body
This sort of research tells us that the brain is the boss. It orders the body what to do and what not to do. Another way to interpret this is, that if we can find a way to coax the brain out of cowering in the face of stress, our bodies will subsequently follow. A study out of the University of Birmingham, England, demonstrated that it is possible to, in a sense, fool the mind into allowing the body to work harder.
These researchers showed that cyclists who swished a carbohydrate drink containing either glucose or maltodextrin disguised with an artificial sweetener during a workout were able to ride harder and longer than those who swished water disguised with an artificial sweetener. This was despite the fact that none of the participants actually swallowed either of the liquids, nor did they know if they were swishing the carbohydrate solution or plain water. In addition, the two groups rated the level of difficulty to be the same, even though the carbohydrate drink group worked harder.
A functional MRI demonstrated that certain areas of the brain lit up when the carbohydrate drink was swished, those areas being connected to emotion, motivation, and reward. It was as if the carbohydrate-sensitive receptors in the mouth communicated with the brain, which then sent a signal to the body to tell it that it would be getting more calories and thus could work harder, regardless of the fact that no calories were actually consumed. This demonstrated that it is possible to trick the brain to allow the body to go further and faster.
We often assume that a decrease in performance is the result of physical fatigue—that less oxygen reaches the muscles, lactic acid builds up, and our legs tire. This doesn’t, however, explain instances when you feel you have nothing left, but then manage a surge on the backstretch or rally in the last mile of a marathon. If your muscles were truly shot, that last push would be impossible.
What it comes down to is training, or tricking, the brain to allow the body to go harder. The brain can be taught to give the body more leeway by incrementally pushing past that perceived maximal level of exertion in training. The same way you train your body, you must also train your mind. Noakes suggests, “If you want to be competitive, you have to learn how to deal with the discomfort. A lot of the heavy, good physical training is about training the brain to cope with discomfort.”
There are plenty of examples of people who have figured out ways to shelve distractions, life responsibilities, and the run-off mental fatigue in order to run and race well. In chatting with several accomplished runners who are or were billed with overcoming much greater roadblocks than the average elite, a number of tricks of the trade surface.
Since we don’t all have the luxury to be able to devote our entire lives to our training the way many of the pros do, we must find ways around the stresses of everyday life. This means making running a priority. Noakes asks, “What are you going to give up? You can’t just keep adding. The brain doesn’t have infinite reserves.”
Bob Kempainen, who ran the 1992 and 1996 Olympic marathons, has a reputation for being one of the most mentally tough runners of our time. By decompressing his rigorous medical school program to six years instead of four, Kempainen was able to simultaneously train for both Olympics and complete medical school.
He explains, however, that other aspects of his life were put on the back burner: “You have to put up with going out to train when you’re tired or when you’ve got things pulling you in different directions, whether it’s social opportunities or passing on a promotion because it would be more work hours. There’s always something that you have to give up. You have to be pretty committed to the sport.”
Getting into the Routine
Once you’ve moved your training up to the top of the priority list, making it a part of your daily routine can help combat unmotivating messages the brain throws at you. Chris Raabe, winner of the 2009 Grandma’s Marathon and a religious 150-mile-a-week runner, knows this well. On top of that heavy mileage, he is also a full-time patent examiner for the Patent Office in Washington D.C.
He explains, “If training is a focus that you have, it’s important to eliminate the distractions as much as possible and make sure that your training is a part of your routine. If you ask me what I’m going to be doing at 5 a.m. on a Wednesday two months from now, I can tell you I’m going to be going out for a run. It’s something that I’ve decided I am doing at this time.”
It is this unquestioning devotion that runners such as Raabe display that seems to be the key to living the double life as a competitive runner and a mere mortal. He says, “if I’ve had a rough day, for me, it’s just what I do. I don’t really think about it. Mental fatigue doesn’t come in quite as much because I’m not thinking about it. It’s just, this is what I do at this time.”
Sheri Piers echoes these sentiments. Piers, 38. is a full-time superwoman, juggling a career as a nurse practitioner, coaching a high school boys cross country team, and tending to her five children, not to mention running upwards of 120 miles a week. The 11th place finisher (2:37.04) in April’s Boston Marathon shows that it is possible to talk the brain into letting the body go further and faster even when the brain waves the white flag.
Like Raabe, she says, “It becomes something you have to get done. The alarm goes off and you get up. I just do it. It’s part of a routine. It doesn’t matter if it’s 20 degrees below. I’m going out running. It’s just the way it is. It’s not even a question.”
Raabe agrees that if you are running once a day, putting it on the front end of your routine is usually best. “You avoid problems. Automatically that’s the first thing you do when you get up.”
Piers has a similar routine: “We get up at 4:00am and get the workout in before the kids wake up because we have to. If we want to do it, that’s what we have to do.”
Practice Makes Perfect
Indeed, no one effortlessly falls into this type of schedule without a little practice, but it does seem to get easier with time. Raabe suggests, “The more you are exposed to a stress, the lower your response is to that stress.”
Noakes adds that when you willfully subject yourself to stress, such as training and working every day, “you become better able to cope with all the stresses in your life.” He adds, “Training increases your self-belief and your confidence in what you can do.”
With practice, you become more convinced of your ability to handle mental stress. Piers explains matter-of-factly, “if you believe you can do it, you just do it.”
These runners have truly put the research into practice. We know that the mind has great influence over the body. Lucky for us, academicians have also discovered that the mind can be manipulated and trained to send specific signals to the body. The ticket to success appears to come with structure and focus. No one said it would be easy. But that’s certainly not why we’re distance runners.
Mackenzie Lobbyhas a master’s in kinesiology, sports and exercise psychology. She writes and runs in Minneapolis, Minn.