Altering perception of effort – Part 1

Your perception of effort is all in your mind. And your mind is a wussy, snivelling brat.

The days of no pain, no gain have been out of fashion for a while now, but no one has ever seriously suggested that you can train, and get better, without really pushing your body to its limits.
So let’s say you’re doing everything right.
You’re following your training plan, running enough but not too much, eating well, recovering properly and doing your strength exercises so you don’t get injured.
What more can you do?
According to today’s thinking, not much else. Ice baths or TENS machines, massages and Superfoods are all just 1% things. Yes, they’ll help, but if you want more bang for your buck you’re better off concentrating on an extra rep or two in training.
The problem is, most people think they are already pushing themselves as hard as possible during these kind of sessions. So squeezing out another rep just can’t be done.
But what if your mind is telling you lies? 

While current coaching advice has pretty much exhausted the options for pushing the envelope when it comes to physical training, the mind and it’s limiting factors is an area that has barely been touched.
Instead of assuming we know our limitations best, studies are showing that our mind actually lies to us to protect the body, and that it shuts down our efforts way before it needs to. As much as 50% too soon in some cases.

How Bad Do You Want I?  a new book by Matt Fitzgerald, sets out to prove that time and again our perception of exhaustion is not to be trusted – or heeded!
For example, studies have shown that dehydration – long thought to be deadly at its most extreme and severely detrimental to performance in almost all cases – doesn’t actually make much of a difference to our ability to run. It’s the perception of being thirsty that causes us to slow down.
Or more precisely, when our brain perceives we are thirsty it sees that as a threat and puts in chain a cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters to make us slow down. Yet if we get used to feeling thirsty and don’t recognize it as an alert of sorts, the brain also gets lulled into a false sense of security. End result? You can run longer, with less fluid, before your body will release the slow-down call out to your muscles.

Both mindfulness in training and training of the mind has been around for a while, but it has usually involved ideas such as visualization or positive thinking.
Imagining yourself winning the race or hitting that home run has been shown to work in some instances and with enough repetition – along with dedicated training of course – but this new form of mindset coaching concentrates more on using our mind to push past our apparent physical limits.
It posits we can teach ourselves to both ignore and change the degree to which we perceive effort.

As Fitzgerald writes: “Exhaustion occurs during real-world endurance competition not when the body encounters a hard physical limit such as total glycogen depletion but rather when the athlete experiences the maximum level of perceived effort he is willing or able to tolerate.… The inexorable slowing is not mechanistic, like a car running out of gas, but voluntary.”

Lucy Bartholomew, seen here at the Cape Town Trail Ultra 100k where she finished first female.
Lucy believes that smiling through the pain of a difficult race – and
practicing gratitude – is key to overcoming the limitations of a mind that may be telling you to  give up. (Source:

A recent New Yorker article, What is Fatigue,  details studies on what is going on when our brain tells our muscles to stop working. And they are finding, over and over again, that not only are our limits never truly reached but that:
“Considerations like heat, hydration, and muscle conditioning…are not unreal things, but their effect is mediated by perception of effort.” In other words, they don’t force you to slow down…they cause you to want to slow down—a semantic difference, perhaps, but a significant one when it comes to testing the outer margins of human capability.”

It’s obvious that the chance to unlock another 20-40% potential in our athletic ability has got coaches and athletes alike all hot under the collar, but for now the practical question has to be – how do we tap into this potential?
How do we judge where those psychological limits are?
Is that limit finite or can it be moved?
If it can be moved, how do we train our bodies to do that?

More on all that in my next post…

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