Think back to the last hard work out or race that you have completed that you had to give a maximum effort. Now ask yourself the question, is it possible that I could’ve gone a little faster or further? We all have had days when our head isn’t in it. Whether it is a hard workout or a race. We have had setbacks that are not because our body wasn’t prepared but because our mental performance was lacking. As endurance athletes we get to spend a lot of time with ourselves. Countless hours are spent training the body to be in top physical shape. However, in most endurance events the most successful performances are because of a strong mental performance.
In this article we will focus on the perception of effort, the importance of being uncomfortable, and a few ways to increase your mental performance. The perception of how hard we are working is often correlated to how much are muscles “feel” that they are working. Perception of effort is one of the best ways to get in tune with your body. The most common way to gauge this is the rating of perceived exertion scale 0-10. 0 being a nice cold beer on a sunny day and 10 being close to the edge of puking up your nice cold beer. Each workout is a new opportunity to build this connection between how the body feels and how hard the mind perceived it worked. The better you can gauge your effort the better you will be at pacing and pushing yourself during endurance events.
All endurance athletes have a point when things start to feel uncomfortable. When this happens, our brain starts to take actions to prevent any detrimental damage to our bodies. This concept is referred to the central governor theory. This theory is based on the idea that our brains have a built-in mechanism to slow us down when things start to feel uncomfortable. However, many studies have found that this central governor starts to kick in far earlier than necessary to protect the body. The body is often capable of doing a lot more than the brain lets it do. Therefore, getting to the point of being uncomfortable is extremely important to build mental strength. Next time you are feeling uncomfortable in a hard workout or race take a moment to do a mental check in. Are you working at a maximum effort? Are your muscles still working efficiently? Are you breathing heavy? All of these questions allow your brain to perceive your effort as being below the point of damaging the body. So, get uncomfortable and find that extra effort that everyone is capable of producing.
A few ways to train your mind to get stronger are often practices of slowing things down. Many of these techniques can be practiced on a daily basis both during and outside of training. The first technique is to practice is visualization. Visualization can be used as a tool both before a big race or as a daily training practice. Close your eyes and start to think about all the actions that you will be completing in the race or during a workout. This process builds the connections between your brain and muscles without performing any movement. The better connected these pathways are, the less effort the brain will perceive the muscles are having to work. Another technique is performing meditation. The foundation of any meditation practice is to get more in tune with your body. By focusing on the present and slowing things down we allow a deep relaxation of the mind and body to occur. The next time you are feeling anxious about a big workout or race, try taking 10 minutes to slow things down and meditate. The last practice is actively thinking about relaxing muscles that are not essential to the movement you are performing. When we work hard, we tend to waste energy by grimacing facial muscles and death gripping with finger muscles. By actively relaxing the face and keeping the fingers relaxed we not only get more efficient but also create some feedback to the brain that it is okay to keep moving at this effort.
If you are interested in learning more about increasing your mental performance a couple good books include “Endure” by Alex Hutchinson and “How Bad Do You Want It” by Matt Fitzgerald.