Fooling Your Overprotective Brain

By Dan Peterson

Of the roughly 45,000 brave souls who will line up for the start of the New York City Marathon in less than two weeks, there’s a good chance that at least a few will have doubts of crossing the finish line.  They have put in the training miles, eaten the right foods and picked out their playlist.  Yet, the biggest obstacle to a finisher’s medal is not their legs, but their brain.  Like an overprotective mother, the brain not only runs the show but also decides when enough is enough.  However, exercise science researchers now believe that it is possible to fool mother nature and tap into a reserve store of energy for better performance.

New York City Marathon

Somewhere in the New York masses on November 6th will be a short but determined first time marathoner who happens to have eight Olympic medals.  Apolo Ohno, world champion speed skater, will be racing not only in an upright position but for a little longer than his usual 1500 meters.  During his training, he has noticed the difference between the short thirty second repetitions on the ice and the long runs required for marathon endurance.  In a recent interview, he commented that after a 20 mile training run, “I was like a zombie. I couldn’t function. It was crazy.  I was like, ‘What is wrong with me?’”  One thing that all of his Olympic training has taught him is the power of the mind.  Last week, he tweeted, “The MIND is the most undertrained asset of any athlete. It is the biggest difference between separating those who r GREAT or inconsistent.”

Matt Fitzgerald, long-time running columnist and author, agrees with Ohno.  In his 2007 book Brain Training for Runners, he detailed the role of the brain in controlling our physical endurance.  Traditionally, fatigue used to be considered a breakdown of biochemical balances with the build-up of lactic acid or depletion of glycogen for fuel.  However, research in the 1980s showed that this breakdown did not always occur and that athletes were still able to push through at the end of a race even though they should have been physically exhausted.

A new theory of the brain as a “central governor” emerged.  Like a warning light in your car, the brain calculates the time to physical catastrophe or total exhaustion based on the current pace and feedback signals from the body.  When it feels you won’t make it to your desired finish line, it begins to lower muscle output and sends messages to your conscious brain that its time to quit.

Fitzgerald explains this process:

Knowing that your brain protects you from yourself, is it possible to train or even fool your brain so that you can keep pushing for that personal record?  Fitzgerald believes it is with consistent race-day pace training runs that help prove to your brain that your body is up for the task.

Now, researchers from Northumbria University have shown that a little deception can’t hurt either.  In a clever experiment, Professor Kevin Thompson, Head of Sport and Exercise Sciences, asked trained cyclists on stationary bikes to race against an avatar on a computer screen in front of them.  They could see their position relative to the avatar and were told to try and keep up with their virtual competitor to the finish line.  They were also informed that the avatar was moving at a speed equal to each of their personal best paces.  Knowing this, they believed that staying with the competitor was within their abilities.

In reality, the avatar was moving 1-5% faster than the cyclist’s fastest baseline time.  All cyclists in the test group were able to stay with their competition, which raised their own personal best at the same time.  A control group that was told that the avatar was moving faster than they had ever achieved were not as successful in keeping up.

“These findings demonstrate a metabolic reserve exists which, if it can be accessed, can release a performance improvement of between two and five per cent in terms of their average power output,” said Thompson. “At elite level sport, even an increase of one per cent in average speed can make the difference between somebody being placed in a race or not.”

The study is scheduled for publication in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

Professor Thompson added: “We believe a small deception of the brain can enhance performance. Despite the internal feedback to the brain being heightened by the extra power output being produced, the participants still believed it was possible to beat their opponent.”

So, while your own mother may not be so gullible, it just may be possible to fool Mother Nature.

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