It’s all in your head…
No seriously, it probably is. We all talk about ‘mental strength’ being the key to athletic performance, and as it turns out, new research indicates that the mind really is the key to improved performance. The research tells us that fatigue is grounded in perception, and that our mind is regulating our work output because it ‘perceives’ that we are approaching a performance limit, even though we may be far from it. We’re learning that physiology and psychology are not too far off from one another, and this relationship further reinforces the notion that ‘the mind is primary.’
For example. let’s compare our body to an automobile engine. Assuming you had an endless stretch of straight and flat road, you could bury your foot down and run that car all out and drain the entire fuel tank. Assuming it was geared properly, you could hold its top speed for an extended period of time, then it would come to an immediate halt when the tank emptied – all out, then nothing. The same would happen if you held half throttle – you would go at roughly 50% of the max speed, then the car would come to an immediate stop when the tank emptied. Does that happen with our bodies? Can you sprint all out, deplete all your energy stores, then collapse? Of course not – you go hard, then start to slow down as you fatigue. The difference between a human body and a car is that we have a brain; a brain whose primary function is our self-preservation.
Because our brain is more interested in keeping us alive than breaking any records, it will curtail our force output (effort) as it starts to sense that we’re working at a level we can’t sustain. The brain monitors our body temperature, lactate levels, breathing, and many other indicators, and when it believes that we are approaching a level of work that may be unhealthy, we get reigned in. The key word here is the ‘may.’ We all know that in most cases, especially if you’re relatively untrained, you can push yourself much harder than your brain will allow. We see it in cases where parents are suddenly able to perform enormous feats of strength or speed to save a child. In the parent example, the brain will not fire all of the muscle’s motor units in regular activity for fear that the force would damage the bones or connective tissue. However, if a parent has to save a child, the brain turns off the safeguards in the interest of preserving offspring. And before you know it, a 105 lbs. mom is lifting a 500 lbs boulder off of her injured child. She didn’t suddenly get stronger – the potential was always there, but the brain wouldn’t let her use it for fear of injuring the body.
So what does this mean for your training? At this point, it just means you need to be aware. You need to be aware that the next time you feel like you need to slow down, you may have a little more in you. Or the next time you tell yourself you can’t pull 405 lbs, you may just need to tell your mind to STFU and lift it. Or maybe you already do these things, and you now have the reassurance that you were right when you told yourself you could go harder than you thought. The bottom line is that there is still much to learn regarding our brains relation to our physical performance, and we’re just starting to scratch the surface on some new training techniques.