January 2013 Archives

Completely Mental

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We all know that feeling. One minute you are walking along, minding your own business, thinking deep thoughts. The next minute you are running at full speed, heart pounding, adrenaline pumping. And it is only once you are actually in flight that you sort out what it is that startled you into action. Maybe it was the roar of a lion. Or the rattle of a snake. Or the stealthy footsteps of an unknown group of people (for surely unknown must mean hostile!). Something registered as threatening. Something primal. Something ancient. Whatever it is your mind and body will work together to get you away from there as quickly as possible. Adrenaline gets pumped into your bloodstream, your heart rate elevates, and away you go. But not for long. That feeling of imminent threat dissipates, and your brain tells you that you should slow down. We can't keep going at this pace. Sound familiar?

Despite thousands of years of human evolution and adaptation, our brains still seem to equate running with fear of imminent death. There must be some other mechanism that kicks in for hunting, but if you just go running your brain really doesn't seem to know what to make of this activity. Take a look at your heart rate at the start of a run. Mine spikes wildly (up to and beyond what is supposedly my maximum), then some switch gets thrown and my heart slows way down. This is when the conversation starts. This is when you realise that your brain is not in agreement with your endurance athlete training program.

Brain: We have to slow down. You can't keep this pace up much longer.
Me: Really?
Brain: Really. You're just wasting energy. We'll need to kill the next woolly mammoth days earlier than planned to make up for this wasted energy.
Me: But I feel fine. Legs? Check. Breath? Check. Heart rate? Check. Posture? Check. All systems go. And we've still got miles to run.
Brain: No no no. You are tired. You are exhausting your reserves. You must slow down. This is dangerous. This is reckless. Stop wasting energy.
Me: Oh please. Quit your primordial whining. I've got this.
And then, all of a sudden, the running gets easier. It's weird, really. You go from that slightly panicky out-of-control feeling to a nice, calm place. And you haven't slackened your pace. The miles just start to roll by. You weren't tired. You weren't near exhaustion. Your brain was lying to you. And this, as far as I have been able to figure, is what people mean when they say that speed is mostly mental.

Your brain, it turns out, is lazy. Your brain thinks that if you aren't hunting you shouldn't be burning calories. Your brain means well. It really is trying to protect you. But for those of us living in food-rich societies, with easy access to all sorts of high-tech calorie sources such as gels and bars, your brain can be quite old-fashioned with its concerns.

And herein lies a paradox. We are all told that we need to listen to our bodies. We need to be responsive to signals that we are pushing ourselves too hard. Receptive to indications that we might be doing ourselves damage. But how do we handle our brain lying to us? How do we know that that promised fatigue and collapse isn't going to happen? How do we know that pain is going to go away? How indeed.

The approach I have been developing is to respond to the brain's messages with skepticism. And to investigate a bit myself. I generally find that my brain will tell me that I am tiring, but when I ask about each separate part of my body (legs, arms, chest, heart) they are all fine. And the act of going through that checklist seems to quiet the alarm my brain has been sounding. Same with pain. You get some soreness in a knee, and your brain starts screaming that you have to stop now. But is it that bad? Question it. You might find that the pain has been there for miles and you have been ignoring it. In which case you can probably just keep right on ignoring it. Or you might find that when you start thinking about it you can't actually identify where the pain is. Hmm, it's right there, on the inside of the knee. Oh, wait. No. It's over there just at the bottom of the kneecap. Or wait, maybe it's actually my thigh muscle that is sore. Or, lightbulb!, it's just your brain trying to trick you into slowing down or stopping.

So, yes, listen to your body. Pay attention when you really are getting messages that you are injured, or past your limit. But don't just give up at the first sign of pain, or discomfort, or fatigue. Don't just let your lazy brain set the limits. Ask questions. Demand answers. And don't be afraid to tell your brain to get itself out of the stone age.
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This page is an archive of entries from January 2013 listed from newest to oldest.

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