Mind over matter

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Yesterday was the Dunstable Downs Trail Challenge Marathon. Running 27.5 miles over local hilly trails gives you plenty of time to think. To be precise, four and a half hours of time to think. It was a tough course but like all events, as you move towards the latter stages, increasingly it becomes harder to drown out the voices in your mind telling you its difficult, that you need to walk a bit, that its too hot, that you should slow down. Why is that? Is this thinking normal and does it have any impact on actual performance?

In the past, we assumed that muscle fatigue caused our bodies to grind to a halt after intense exertion. But a growing number now believe that our brains hold the key, and that endurance really could be mind over matter. Some scientists, however, believe that it’s a conscious mechanism, relying on an individual's rate of perceived exertion that controls when you have to stop, which explains why athletes can push themselves to exhaustion, rest and then do it again. Studies have shown that athletes using both cognitive and physical training have a huge rate of improvement – as much as 120%, compared to 40% from those who only worked on their physical training.

That’s a huge difference and what its really telling us, when translated to the average mortal runner, is that you can do much better if you find a way to control the thoughts that tell you to stop and walk for a bit.

The person behind some of Britain's best sporting achievements, Dr Steve Peters, believes our brain can be seen as three independent areas capable of working together. Our 'human' side is logical, our 'chimp' is emotional – vital to survival but responsible for anxiety, nervousness and impulsive decisions. Lastly there's our 'computer', responsible for programmed thoughts and learned behaviour. For athletes at the top of their game, learning to control their inner chimp is vital.

Like the rest of the body, the brain can be trained especially in the run up to a big event or challenge. So what does that mean? We all know the voice that tells us to stop, the one that we try to make trade-offs with, such as “if I walk now, I’ll train harder tomorrow”, only now its got a name. The Chimp. The emotional, anxious response to a difficult situation is to panic and stop. The reasoned, considered retort is to remind yourself of all your training and experience and your fitness, and carry on.

Hearing the voice of reason over the voice of anxiety is what helps us push through barriers and achieve what we set out to in any aspect of our lives so why should sport be any different? The next time you get to that part of a difficult training session, or race, try to stay focused on reminding yourself of your fitness levels, of all the training you’ve done, how well prepared you are and most of all that you don’t need to listen to the chimp. This is partially why many people advocate some sort of personal mantra, that can be rolled out, repeated ad-infinitum during tough parts of a race.

People say ‘its all in the mind’ a lot, it’s a cliché in many ways, but if you’re at a stage where your PB’s have dried up, you’re at a physical plateau, you need to perhaps think about conditioning your brain as well as your body to make the break through.

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