When you read books about leadership, athletes and Navy Seals, you understand that many things are possible with the right mindset. Hence “Endure: Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance”
Reaching the limits of endurance is a concept that seems yawningly obvious until you actually try to explain it. He defines endurance as “the struggle to continue against a mounting desire to stop.” And the mind plays a huge role. However, the brain’s role in endurance is, perhaps, the single most controversial topic in sports science.
Not dead, could have done more
He quotes a coach’s observation about a second-place Olympic marathoner jogging around the track waving his country’s flag. “Do you notice he’s not dead?” he asked. “It means he could have run faster.”
Studies have found that we can’t avoid pacing ourselves: your “maximum” force depends on how many reps you think you have left. It also turns out that, whether it is heat or cold, hunger or thirst, or muscles screaming with the supposed poison of “lactic acid,” what matters in many cases is how the brain interprets these distress signals.
Body and mind
With the rise of sophisticated techniques to measure and manipulate the brain, researchers are finally getting a glimpse of what’s happening in our neurons and synapses when we are pushed to our limits. They found that brain and body are fundamentally intertwined, and to understand what defines your limits under any particular set of circumstances you have to consider them both together.
The British military has funded studies of computer-based brain training protocols to enhance the endurance of its troops, with startling results. Even subliminal messages can help or hurt your endurance: a picture of a smiling face flashed in 16-millisecond bursts, boosts cycling performance by 12 per cent compared to frowning faces.
Frame of mind
Another British study in 2012 showed that cyclists in a heat chamber went 4 per cent faster when the thermometer was rigged to display a falsely low temperature (26 instead of 32 degrees Celsius). The right frame of mind, in other words, allows you to push beyond your usual temperature limits.
You are operating at 65%
The brain’s task is to protect you. It is a survival machine. Read “Solve for happy“. Which is why pacing instinct is not entirely voluntary: your brain forces you to slow down, long before you’re in real physiological distress. So the brain plays a role in defining the limits of endurance. Most of us can summon about 65 per cent of our theoretical maximum strength.
Switch of the safety switch
For example, the fact that people can dive to three hundred feet or hold their breath for nearly twelve minutes tells us that oxygen’s absolute limits aren’t quite as constrictive as they feel, that we are protected by layer upon layer of reflexive safety mechanisms.
Change the settings
Average strength increases of 26.5 per cent after hypnosis. So the question is how can you change the settings of your brain? Can you gain access to at least some of the emergency reserve of energy that your brain protects? There’s no doubt that some athletes are able to wring more out of their bodies than others, and those who finish with the most in reserve would dearly love to be able to reduce that margin of safety. But is this really a consequence of the brain’s subconscious decision to throttle back muscle recruitment or is it, as a rival brain-centred theory of endurance posits, simply a matter of how badly you want it?
The science of anticipatory regulation
They found that the importance of any underlying physiological signal depends in part on how your brain receives and interprets it. The science of “anticipatory regulation”: getting your brain to use the knowledge that is gathered consciously, like an impending dive or a looming finish line, to activate or deactivate safety mechanisms that are otherwise purely unconscious. Endurance as second stage thinking. Managing a cognitive trait called response inhibition, which involves overriding your initial instinct, as a key.
The other things
That does not mean that you can ignore simple things such as temperature, oxygen, lactate, calories, proteins, fat, dehydration, pain tolerance and mostly effort.
So how do you improve your response inhibition and effort?
- Manage perceived exertion
- Pain training (apparently pain is fundamentally a subjective, situation-dependent phenomenon)
- Train the brain to become more accustomed to mental fatigue
- Test your capabilities, whatever you’ve done before, you can do again plus a little more
- Create placebo effects
- Create lucky charms
- Apply acts of random kindness
- Use drugs
- Apply virtual reality (running against yourself)
- Training in resilience
- Training in non-judgmental self-awareness
- Training in mindfulness
Again performance and mindfulness meet
All the techniques you find in most self-help books. Mind techniques to become a better athlete (or CEO). Teaching athletes that they can do more than they think they can. Knowing that their fiercest opponent will be their own brain’s well-meaning protective circuitry. In short, there is more in there, if you’re willing to believe it.