Updated: Jan 13, 2021
We’ve all experienced that point in a race where our bodies begin to shut down and we can't go any faster. It is usually a result of either your legs burning so much that you can hardly stand up, you run out of fuel and you don’t have any energy left to burn, or you simply can't catch your breath. What is the origin of fatigue that us runners are so familiar with? We often point the finger to lactic acid or a low Vo2 Max being the main cause of our pace slowing down, but is that really what’s holding us back? The truth is, the first thing to limit your performance isn’t caused by high lactate levels, under fueling, or an insufficient Vo2 Max, but rather, your psychological limits.
We’ve all heard that running is more mental than it is physical, but what if there is some truth to this saying, and our brain is the first thing that’s holding us back from reaching that next personal best? The Central Governor Model theorized by exercise physiologist Tim Nokes explains how your brain uses pain as a safety mechanism telling you that you were getting too far from homeostasis. So as we run hard and get closer to our limits, our brain will start to shut our bodies down and cause them to feel more fatigued to help protect us. It does this by: flooding our bodies with more lactic acid and other by-products that correlate to fatigue, decreasing muscle fiber recruitment so we can’t generate as much force, and by filling your head with negative thoughts like “I need to slow down, I’m not even halfway and I’m already tired,” ultimately causing you to slow down to keep you from crossing the red line. As Alex Hutchinson explains it "This pain you feel during a race is basically the warning light on your car dashboard saying something is wrong and you need to slow down before something bad happens." (Endure. 2018).
Is it possible to override our brain's protective protocols to reach greater performance gains? Is that even a safe thing to do? We’ve all heard stories of a mother lifting a car to save her child who was trapped underneath, or something similar. In situations like these, your brain realizes the risk of severe muscular damage is worth the reward of saving your child. So, after your brain floods your body with adrenaline and decides to activate all of your muscle fibers, superhuman feats are possible because the alternative of losing your child is much worse. During a race, our brain does a similar risk vs. reward scenario, but ultimately, you subconsciously decide winning a medal; or setting a personal record isn’t worth organ failure. That’s why your middle mile of a 5k is typically the slowest. You start out fresh feeling good, then after the first mile you typically slow down because your brain doesn’t want any severe damage to take place, so it floods your legs with lactic acid, causing you to not be able to push any harder. Then once you see the finish line; and your .1 miles away, your brain decides you’re not in any danger and the discomfort will end soon, so it eases up on all the physiological factors that were limiting you, resulting in you having a finishing kick. We should all be thankful that our brain's main job is keeping us alive, and its main concern isn’t finishing 1st in your age group at a local road race.
We all know of some runners who are more “mentally tough” than others. They seem to enjoy the pain and suffering a hard race brings, and can push past their barriers and ignore pain better than most other athletes. Although this is what it seems, that mentally tough runner isn’t necessarily ignoring the pain; they are just coping with it differently. Pain is a signal that should be acknowledged, not ignored. Having an arsenal of different coping strategies to deal with the pain is much more productive; and will result in better race performances! Some of these common techniques used by the pros are daily meditation, repeating positive mantras to yourself during a race, and other ways to trick your brain into making you feel less tired than you actually are! During the sub 2-hour marathon attempt in 2017, Elliot Kipchoge was caught smiling almost every mile. It was later realized that he was rewiring his brain to feel less pain. When you’re running hard, it’s almost natural to tense your face, and have a slight frown. As we all know, frowning is associated with sadness, discomfort, and pain. So, without even realizing it, we are having physical cues that are convincing us we're more tired and in more pain than we actually are during runs. Studies also show that smiling during a run can improve your running economy by up to 2%! So, to trick your brain, simply smiling for a couple of seconds every few minutes during a run will help your perceived effort level feel a little less. People driving by seeing you smiling to yourself while you’re running may be convinced you belong in a straightjacket, but if it has performance enhancing benefits, it’s worth it to me!
We all do a great job of training our physical bodies, but I believe training our mental side is just as important! We now know that your mind is what regulates the limits of your endurance. So next time you’re in a race try to focus on the negative thoughts that pop up in your head. Don’t ignore them, but simply acknowledge they are there and then replace them with something positive such as “I feel great” or “I’m so thankful I was able to run today” or by smiling. When discomfort occurs, you must accept it as normal, and remember, if you weren’t in pain during a race, you’re not doing it right. Your inner monologue has such an influence on your physical performance, so practice optimizing it the best you can. With that being said, it is clear that your physiology and psychology are deeply intertwined and they should be thought of as working together, not opposing forces.