Double Your Stamina
What if the ‘wall’ is all in your head? Discover why engaging mind over muscle could be the key to going higher, faster and further
Prioritise mind over muscle to smash through the “wall”.
At first, I figure it must be a grimace. Eliud Kipchoge, the reigning Olympic marathon champion, has been running for more than 90 minutes at a pace no human has ever sustained for this long, circling a nearly deserted Formula One racetrack in Monza, Italy. Ahead of him, a cluster of pacemakers forms a human shield to block the wind for him; cheering along the sidelines are the scientists who, backed by Nike’s millions, have spent the last few years trying to figure out every possible way to help Kipchoge become the first man to run a marathon in less than two hours. Now, with less than 30 minutes to go, it’s up to Kipchoge alone – and as he flashes past for another lap, it’s clear that he’s actually smiling broadly.
Pushing the limits of your endurance is hard. In fact, if you dig deep enough, you’ll eventually bump into what feels like an immoveable brick wall. That’s pretty much how 20th-century physiologists thought about human limits: as a straightforward consequence of the strength of your heart and the efficiency of your muscles. Either you can do it, or you can’t. But in recent years, scientists have been rethinking this view of endurance. They’ve wired up athletes with electric brain stimulation, tricked them with subliminal messages, and searched for telltale patterns in sophisticated brain scanners. And they’ve concluded that limits that feel physical and non-negotiable to us are, in the vast majority of cases, mediated by the brain. We don’t stop because our muscles are incapable of continuing; we stop because distress signals from those tired muscles convince our brains that we should stop. A semantic difference? Maybe, but one with important consequences.
In the build-up to Nike’s Breaking2 marathon last year, pundits focused on the technology. Would Nike’s new Vaporfly shoe, with its curved carbon-fibre plate in the sole,
ATHLETES LEARN TO DISTRACT THEMSELVES INSTEAD OF DWELLING ON PAIN
shave seconds from Kipchoge’s time? Would their specially-formulated sports drink keep him fuelled, and their sophisticated computer algorithm get his training program just right? But Kipchoge himself, exuding a Yoda-like serenity, insisted that the two-hour barrier was primarily a mental one. “The difference only is thinking,” he told reporters: “You think it’s impossible, I think it’s possible.”
At the track in Monza, I can’t help remembering these words as he pushes onward, still smiling, and records a stunning finish time of 2:00:25—not quite sub-two, but two and a half minutes faster than the world record, and more than enough to convince sceptics the barrier will fall sooner than expected. And the view among the pundits is that it’s Kipchoge’s mind, rather than his muscles, that sets him apart. Here’s a look at what the latest science tells us about how to push through your own barriers, Kipchogestyle, at the gym, in the water or on the trails.
CHANGE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH PAIN
At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Slovenian cross-country skier Petra Majdič slipped during her warm-up and fell three metres into a rock-strewn creek. The resulting pain made her shriek with every exhale – but after an ultrasound, an on-site doctor told her nothing was broken. So she skied through four excruciating rounds of the classic sprint that day, and nabbed a bronze medal. Only then did she head to hospital, where doctors found that she had actually broken four ribs. The stabbing pain she’d felt during the semis? That was one of the broken ribs puncturing her lung.
Athletes are famous for their ability to push through pain – but it’s not because they don’t feel it. Researchers have found that top athletes have roughly the same pain threshold as everyone else. Pinch them and they’ll squirm. But their pain tolerance, which determines how much of a pinch they’re willing to endure, is much higher. That’s a result of the psychological coping mechanisms they’ve developed from dealing with discomfort during years of hard workouts. They learn to distract themselves instead of dwelling on pain. And, most crucially, they learn to reframe pain as emotionally neutral information (“Just FYI, you can’t sustain this pace for much longer”) rather than a cause for panic (“Oh my god, your legs are going to fall off!”).
According to research from Oxford Brookes University, that’s one of the best reasons to incorporate high-intensity interval training into your routine, like ten all-out oneminute sprints with a minute of rest. There are lots of equally good ways to improve your physical fitness but only intense intervals, which force you to deal with discomfort, boost your pain tolerance. The more familiar you get with the feeling of pain, the less it will bother you, says record-setting American ultra-runner Josh Cox: “You have to welcome it – say, ‘Here you are, my friend.’”
Diane Van Deren’s record-setting traverse of the 1,600-kilometre Mountains-to-sea Trail in North Carolina, in 2012, involved running from dawn to near-dawn for more than three weeks, sleeping just one to three hours a night, barely pausing long enough to let her support crew duct-tape her blistered feet and cram food into her mouth. Fortunately, Van Deren had an advantage. Surgery to remove part of her brain that was triggering epileptic seizures had left her with poor memory and difficulty keeping track of time. “I could be out running for two weeks, but if someone told me it was day one of a race,” she once joked, “I’d be like, ‘Great, let’s get started!’”
For Van Deren, ignorance is bliss – because if she doesn’t realise how far she has already run, that knowledge can’t weigh her down. And it turns out that deception has similarly powerful effects in the lab. In one study, cyclists in a heat chamber pedalled faster>
when the thermometer on the wall was rigged to display a falsely low temperature. In another study, cyclists racing against a virtual-reality version of their own previous best performance were able to keep pace even when the avatar was secretly sped up by two per cent. (They couldn’t keep up when it was sped up by five per cent, though. The power of deception has its limits.)
Outside the lab (and without brain surgery), it’s not easy to trick yourself. But there is one surprisingly powerful form of self-deception that consistently works. If you take a mouthful of sports drink and swish it around in your mouth, you’ll activate oral sensors that tell your brain more fuel is on the way – even if you then spit the sports drink out. If you’re exercising for a few hours or more, you’ll probably find it gets harder to keep chugging down sports drinks. Use the rinse-and-spit technique to prevent your brain from shutting your muscles down prematurely.
DO A MENTAL TAPER
At the 1983 World’s Strongest Man competition, in Christchurch, New Zealand, a fresh-faced Canadian powerlifter named Tom Magee, later known as Megaman during a brief World Wrestling Federation career, deadlifted 535 kilograms of local cheddar cheese – still the heaviest deadlift on record. The key, Magee says, was the “mind-endocrine link,” which enabled him to flood his body with adrenaline. “These big lifts were done with extreme passion and emotion,” he says. “I could lift far more that way, but it took a lot out of me.”
In other words, Magee’s feats required peak mental as well as physical effort – a fact that many athletes neglect. Marathoners typically cut their mileage in half in the week leading up to an important race, to make sure their bodies are sufficiently recovered for a supreme effort. But accumulated mental fatigue can be just as debilitating. In a 2009 British study, simply sitting at a computer for 90 minutes doing a cognitive test reduced endurance in a subsequent cycling trial by 15 per cent. Another study found that suppressing strong emotions (the subjects had to keep a poker face while watching a video of a woman eating her own vomit) also sapped endurance. So if you’ve got an important workout or a big match coming up, give yourself a “mental taper” to make sure you’re fresh. You should be reading a good book or watching a movie the night before, not doing your taxes.
TRAIN YOUR BRAIN
When I ran my first marathon a few years ago, I spent almost as much training time sitting in front of a computer as I did logging kays outside. I was trying out a new “brain endurance training” program, developed by a researcher named Samuele Marcora. The idea was that by taxing my brain’s ability to stay focused, I’d gradually get better at sustaining the concentration required to hold my goal marathon pace for hours at a time. The result? My quads seized up after 35 kilometres, and I hobbled to the finish without getting a chance to really test my newfound mental reserves.
Still, Marcora’s brain endurance training protocol has been racking up some impressive results. In one study, subjects who did the computer tasks while pedalling stationary bikes for an hour improved their time to exhaustion by 126 per cent after 12 weeks. In comparison, those who did the physical training improved by just 42 per cent.
What these findings demonstrate is that you can up your mental endurance to improve your physical performance. Marcora’s advice is to train when your brain is tired – the mental equivalent of wearing a weighted vest. Long day at work? Up all night with a sick child? Don’t cancel your workout; instead, adjust your expectations and use the opportunity to build your brain endurance.
TALK TO YOURSELF
After Alberto Salazar struggled to a disappointing sixth-place finish in the US college athletics championships in 1978,
he returned home and posted a sign on his bedroom wall: “You will never be broken again.” It became his mantra – and Salazar became famous for an unyielding racing style that made him the fastest marathoner in the world and occasionally landed him in the medical tent after his races.
Did the words in his head really spur him on? According to a growing body of research, the answer is yes. The internal monologue in your head influences how your brain assesses the signals coming in from your muscles, heart and lungs. If you tell yourself that it feels hard, you’ll quit sooner. In a 2016 study, cyclists in a heat chamber boosted their time to exhaustion from 8 to 11 minutes after two weeks of “motivational self-talk,” learning to replace negative thoughts like “I’m boiling” with positive ones like “I’m ready for this”. Tellingly, they also pushed their core temperature half a degree higher. Changing the words in their heads allowed them to access a hidden reserve of endurance.
In a sense, that’s what Kipchoge was doing at Monza. By smiling, he was giving himself a form of physical self-talk, reassuring his brain that his body was fine. A study published last year found that when runners were told to smile, they ran more efficiently and burned two per cent less energy to sustain the same pace. But for Kipchoge, the science just confirms what he already knows. “I don’t run with my legs. I run with my heart and my mind. When you smile and you’re happy, you can trigger the mind to feel your legs.”
ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance (Harpercollins) is out now.
IF YOU TELL YOURSELF IT FEELS HARD, YOU’LL QUIT SOONER
Pain and gain: Salazar collapses after winning the Boston Marathon.
Smiling assasin: Kipchoge breaks the mental tape.