Men's Health (South Africa) - - CONTENTS -

The new psy­chol­ogy be­hind peak per­for­mance.

KARL MELTZER HAD RUN NEARLY 2 100 KILO­ME­TRES ON THE AP­PALACHIAN TRAIL be­fore he thought about giv­ing up. He was in a maple for­est near McAfee Knob in Vir­ginia. He’d camped on the trail the night be­fore but woke up ex­hausted, dread­ing an­other 80km slog. He’d al­ready run al­most two marathons a day for 32 days. He’d scam­pered over the White Moun­tains of New Hamp­shire and chop-stepped through the rock gar­dens of Penn­syl­va­nia. “It was one of those morn­ings when my body just wasn’t work­ing,” he says. “I had no energy left.” He set off alone any­way, be­fore dawn. If he was go­ing to break the AT speed record, run­ning 3 500km in un­der 46 days, he couldn’t rest. Not even for a morn­ing. He didn’t get far. Af­ter a few kilo­me­tres, ex­haus­tion over­whelmed him. He lay down in the dirt and fell asleep. It wasn’t a long nap – “Maybe 20 min­utes?” Meltzer says – but it gave him the strength to make it a few more kays to his

sup­port van, where he had a sleep­ing bag and mat­tress. He woke up three hours later, still feel­ing weak. He was sick of eat­ing peanut but­ter and jam sand­wiches from his bum bag and deal­ing with ticks. Meltzer lay there in his hot van, think­ing of the hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres he still had to run. For the first time, he be­gan to doubt whether he could make it. “When your mus­cles are junk is when you start won­der­ing, ‘Why am I do­ing this? What’s the point?’” Although he did pull off two more sec­tions of 11km and 16km each that af­ter­noon, fu­elled by half a litre of ice cream and some fried chicken, he collapsed in bed be­fore 7pm. It was his worst day on the trail.

The next morn­ing wasn’t much bet­ter. “I was in such a shitty mood,” Meltzer says. “And it’s like 5am, and I’m a cou­ple of kays in, and I’m just not feel­ing it.” Meltzer had failed to break the AT record twice; maybe he just couldn’t do it at all. Maybe, at 48, he was too old. Maybe he wasn’t tough enough. “I’m think­ing all these neg­a­tive thoughts, how I’m su­per-fa­tigued and I still had so far to go,” Meltzer says. “Hon­estly, go­ing on didn’t seem pos­si­ble.”

BACK IN THE EARLY 1920S, THE BRI­TISH phys­i­ol­o­gist and No­bel lau­re­ate Archibald Hill and his col­leagues be­gan run­ning around a grass track while ex­hal­ing into rub­berised can­vas bags strapped to their backs. The ob­jec­tive was to mea­sure the oxy­gen con­sumed at var­i­ous speeds. It was at this point that Hill, a se­ri­ous mid­dle-dis­tance run­ner, found that run­ning cre­ates an “oxy­gen debt” as mus­cles de­mand far more oxy­gen than your lungs can pro­vide. Although your body tries to erase this debt – that’s why res­pi­ra­tion and heart rate in­crease – it’s never enough. When you run fast, you’re deny­ing your body the air it needs to cre­ate energy.

Hill’s in­sight was that this oxy­gen debt had far-reach­ing con­se­quences. Based on some pre­vi­ous ex­per­i­ments on frog legs by Fred­er­ick Hop­kins (an­other No­bel lau­re­ate) and phys­i­ol­o­gist Wal­ter Fletcher, Hill con­cluded that mus­cles forced to gen­er­ate energy with­out suf­fi­cient oxy­gen pro­duced a toxic byprod­uct: lac­tic acid. If the mus­cles continued to con­tract, then the acid ac­cu­mu­lated in the cells, caus­ing a dis­tinct burn­ing sen­sa­tion.

This chem­istry set a hard limit on per­for­mance. It doesn’t mat­ter how de­ter­mined you are to keep go­ing; the acid always wins. In his No­bel speech, Hill made this clear: “Ul­ti­mately, the mus­cle is a chem­i­cal mech­a­nism,” he said. “If we were aware of all the chem­i­cal events, we should know all that was nec­es­sary about the ma­chine which we are study­ing.”

It’s hard to over­state the in­flu­ence of Hill’s sci­ence. It was writ­ten into count­less text­books, a chem­i­cal ex­pla­na­tion for ath­letic per­for­mance. Over time, lac­tic acid be­came a scape­goat for gym rats, ex­er­cise buffs, and Olympic an­nounc­ers. When your body gives out or your mus­cles ache the day af­ter a work­out, this com­pound is typ­i­cally cited. Lac­tic acid is what stole your energy, mak­ing your body stop when your mind wanted it to go on.

This is what Meltzer seemed to be up against on his 33rd morn­ing on the AT. Although he’d won more 160km trail races than any other run­ner in the world, he couldn’t out­run the laws of chem­istry. Af­ter thou­sands of kilo­me­tres with­out a day off, his mus­cles must have been acidic jelly. It’s no won­der he found him­self nap­ping in the dirt.

But here’s the thing: Karl Meltzer didn’t stop. He didn’t care about a hard chem­i­cal cap. He just kept go­ing.

IFIRST MET DR HOLDEN MACRAE, A PRO­FES­SOR of sports medicine at Pep­per­dine Univer­sity, at a shop­ping mall in Mal­ibu, Cal­i­for­nia. MacRae is 61, but his sinewy body is tes­ta­ment to his life­long in­ter­est in ath­letic per­for­mance. When MacRae talks about his re­search, which has trans­formed the sci­ence of energy, he in­evitably brings it back to his own moun­tain bik­ing. “That’s part of the test,” he says. “Can I use these ideas to un­der­stand and maybe im­prove my own per­for­mance?”

When MacRae started out as a sci­en­tist, con­duct­ing ex­per­i­ments on ath­letes in the lab of Pro­fes­sor Tim Noakes at the Univer­sity of Cape Town, the sci­ence of hu­man energy seemed mostly set­tled. Peak per­for­mance was about staving off in­ad­e­quate oxy­gen de­liv­ery and avoid­ing the build-up of acid for as long as pos­si­ble. That’s why train­ers were ob­sessed with such stats as VO2 max, a mea­sure of the max­i­mum amount of oxy­gen that can be con­sumed and utilised by an ath­lete. Ac­cord­ing to this model, en­durance freaks like Lance Arm­strong – with his VO2 max of 84, about 46% higher than nor­mal – owed their suc­cess to their highly ef­fi­cient car­dio­vas­cu­lar systems. They didn’t run out of energy, be­cause their mus­cles didn’t run out of oxy­gen.

It didn’t take long for MacRae to re­al­ize that the ex­ist­ing par­a­digm was ter­ri­bly over­sim­pli­fied. Take the so-called lac­tate thresh­old, that chem­i­cal point past which lac­tic acid lev­els in­crease rapidly and mus­cles shut down. MacRae con­cluded that the thresh­old was largely a sta­tis­ti­cal il­lu­sion, a byprod­uct of sci­en­tists fail­ing to col­lect enough blood sam­ples dur­ing dif­fi­cult work­outs. “The the­ory had been that once you get past 2 to 4 mil­limoles of lac­tate, you’re go­ing to feel re­ally fa­tigued,” he says, cit­ing a stan­dard blood mea­sure of lac­tic acid. “But what we found is that if you ac­tu­ally mea­sure lac­tate lev­els in peo­ple com­pet­ing in half marathons or long bike races, their lac­tate lev­els can get up around 6 or 7 mil­limoles and their per­for­mance is not de­graded. If you’re say­ing that they’re stop­ping due to the lac­tate ac­cu­mu­la­tion, then those lev­els should lead to con­trac­tile fail­ure [in the mus­cles]. But that’s not what we saw at all. They were still go­ing strong.”

How was this pos­si­ble? One of the first clues came from the re­search of Håkan Westerblad at Swe­den’s Karolin­ska In­sti­tute. In the mid-1990s, Westerblad be­gan us­ing mouse mus­cle to repli­cate those frog-leg stud­ies that led Hop­kins and Hill to blame lac­tic acid for mus­cle fail­ure. Westerblad made one other cru­cial change to the pro­to­col. In­stead of do­ing the stud­ies at room tem­per­a­ture, he con­ducted them at the ro­dents’ body tem­per­a­ture, which is about 25 de­grees higher. This change made all the dif­fer­ence: The mus­cles now continued to func­tion even when they were sat­u­rated with acid. More re­cently, sci­en­tists have shown that lac­tic acid can ac­tu­ally ben­e­fit fa­tigued mus­cles, mak­ing it eas­ier for cells to con­tract. The chem­i­cal that once stole our energy is now be­ing de­scribed in sci­en­tific lit­er­a­ture as a per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drug.

Per­haps the great­est refu­ta­tion of Hill’s chem­i­cal model didn’t even re­quire a lab. In many com­pe­ti­tions, ath­letes of­ten ex­pe­ri­ence a phe­nom­e­non known as the end spurt, a speed burst near the fin­ish line when they’re most fa­tigued. Such spurts are a defin­ing fea­ture of many great per­for­mances, whether it’s LeBron James chas­ing down An­dre Iguo­dala in game 7 of the NBA Fi­nals, or Mo Farah, whose last 100-me­tre push in the 10 000-me­tre fi­nal at the Rio Olympics was four-and-a-bit sec­onds faster than his first 100. For the chem­i­cal model, these spurts are a para­dox,

since fa­tigued ath­letes should have lit­tle energy left. The body should be fall­ing apart, not speed­ing up.

These phe­nom­ena led MacRae and Dr Noakes and their fel­low rene­gades to con­clude that the sci­ence of ath­letic per­for­mance was all wrong. “For nearly 100 years, peo­ple have been told that they get tired be­cause their mus­cles get tired,” Dr Noakes wrote. “That’s in all the text­books on ex­er­cise phys­i­ol­ogy and ath­letic coach­ing. Stu­dents ev­ery­where around the world are still be­ing taught this. But it’s not true.” This raises the ob­vi­ous ques­tion: if the acid in your mus­cles isn’t slow­ing you down, then why do you think you’ve run out of energy? What’s hold­ing you back?

For MacRae, the an­swer is sim­ple. “What stops you is up here,” he says as he taps his head. “It’s all be­tween the ears.” Take the end spurt: ac­cord­ing to MacRae, this is proof that ath­letes have a tremen­dous re­serve ca­pac­ity. “Most of the time, peo­ple don’t tap into this re­serve,” he says. “We’re scared of the challenge. If you re­ally want to un­der­stand top ath­letes, you have to study that re­serve. You have to ask your­self: how do I tap into that? How do I hack my brain so I can per­form at the highest level?”

This is the dilemma Karl Meltzer was wrestling with in that Vir­ginia for­est. It didn’t mat­ter how many kilo­joules he con­sumed or how much Red Bull he chugged; he still had no energy. But then he started think­ing about his fam­ily, how his wife and his fa­ther had been sup­port­ing him on the trail, and he re­al­ized that he needed to change his at­ti­tude. “I just told my­self, ‘Karl, you’ve got to turn off that neg­a­tiv­ity switch,’” he says. “‘You came out here to be suc­cess­ful. Shut up and do it.’ That was what I needed to hear. I knew then that I didn’t need to stop.” Meltzer ended up run­ning more than 80 kilo­me­tres that day, fin­ish­ing the last kays in the dark, the bob­bing light of his head­lamp show­ing the way.

TI­MOTHY NOAKES, NOW AN EMER­I­TUS pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Cape Town, be­came cu­ri­ous about hu­man energy dur­ing med­i­cal school, when he de­cided to run the 86km Com­rades Marathon. On his third at­tempt, Dr. Noakes ran into a phys­i­o­log­i­cal wall: he was 21km from the fin­ish when his mus­cles re­belled, ut­terly “de­pleted of energy, their con­nec­tive tis­sues com­ing apart.” He as­sumed he would drop out of the race. But then some­thing strange hap­pened: he kept run­ning, en­er­gised by the spec­ta­tors along the road. Their cheers pulled him through.

This ex­pe­ri­ence led Dr Noakes to be­come in­ter­ested in the psy­cho­log­i­cal side of energy. When he was suf­fer­ing through those last kilo­me­tres, it wasn’t a sug­ary drink that saved him, or a brief rest to suck up some oxy­gen. Rather, it was the sight of those other peo­ple. This was a run that chem­istry could not ex­plain.

It took decades of re­search, but Dr Noakes would even­tu­ally de­velop a the­ory of energy reg­u­la­tion that he calls the “cen­tral gover­nor”. In essence, the cen­tral gover­nor is a soft­ware script in your brain that con­trols your phys­i­cal per­for­mance, gen­er­at­ing a feel­ing of fa­tigue to pre­serve your body. While Hill thought hu­man energy lev­els were re­duc­ible to the laws of chem­istry, Dr Noakes ar­gued that the re­al­ity is more com­pli­cated; and that your sense of energy is a sub­jec­tive men­tal con­struct based on count­less vari­ables, from skin tem­per­a­ture to the cheers of the crowd. “I am not say­ing that what takes place phys­i­o­log­i­cally in the mus­cles is ir­rel­e­vant,” Dr Noakes wrote. “What I am say­ing is that what takes place phys­i­o­log­i­cally in the mus­cles is not what causes fa­tigue.”

As ev­i­dence, Dr Noakes cites his stud­ies of cy­clists dur­ing a 100-kilo­me­tre time trial. When the cy­clists were in the midst of a sprint, Dr Noakes found a steady de­crease in elec­tri­cal ac­tiv­ity in their quadri­ceps mus­cles. This sug­gests that the brain was re­duc­ing the over­all num­ber of mus­cle fi­bres it was try­ing to ac­ti­vate; the cen­tral gover­nor was sys­tem­at­i­cally shut­ting down the body. While the cy­clists thought their legs were run­ning out of energy, the re­al­ity was that they had stopped ask­ing their quads to con­tract.

The big challenge for an ath­lete, then, is to re­pro­gram the cen­tral gover­nor, to train the mind to get more out of the body. As Dr Noakes points out, in the fi­nal stages of a marathon only a third of mus­cle fi­bres in the leg are ac­tive. Plus, lev­els of ATP – the mol­e­cule used to trans­port energy within cells – al­most never fall be­low 60 to 80% of their rest­ing value. This sug­gests that we still have plenty of energy left. The cen­tral gover­nor is just too clever to use it.

The good news is that sci­en­tists have come up with tricks and treat­ments you can use to re­li­ably in­crease your sense of energy and per­form at higher lev­els. Some are sim­ple, such as cool­ing your skin dur­ing ex­er­cise. (Your brain mea­sures ex­er­tion by mon­i­tor­ing changes in body tem­per­a­ture, so a cooler body leads to lower lev­els of per­ceived ef­fort.) Oth­ers are mis­chievous, and in­volve giv­ing ath­letes false in­for­ma­tion about their per­for­mance by slow­ing down the clock, doc­tor­ing the odome­ter, or get­ting them to com­pete against a “pre­vi­ous” per­for­mance that was sub­tly im­proved.

Your brain can also be in­flu­enced by mo­ti­va­tional cues. In one re­cent study, re­searchers at Ban­gor Univer­sity asked peo­ple to pedal to ex­haus­tion, go­ing at 65% of peak power for as long as they could. While the study par­tic­i­pants were sweat­ing, the sci­en­tists ex­posed them to ei­ther a smil­ing face or a frown­ing face for 16 mil­lisec­onds – far too brief for con­scious aware­ness. De­spite the fact that the cy­clists couldn’t dis­cern the face – let alone its ex­pres­sion – the ones ex­posed to the smile stayed on the bike for 178 sec­onds longer, or 12% of the to­tal time. The smil­ing face made ex­er­cise feel eas­ier, so those cy­clists were able to go a few ex­tra laps.

And then there are the chem­i­cal fixes. Giv­ing ath­letes ac­etaminophen be­fore a race makes them go faster – this mild pain re­liever numbs the cen­tral gover­nor. A va­ri­ety of stim­u­lants, from am­phet­a­mine to caf­feine, have a sim­i­lar ef­fect. Be­cause energy is a state of mind, wak­ing up your brain can make you less sen­si­tive to the tired state of your body. (Un­for­tu­nately, the op­po­site is also true: do­ing a te­dious cog­ni­tive task be­fore a work­out can dra­mat­i­cally im­pair en­durance.)

In­ter­est­ingly, many of these treat­ments also work as place­bos. In other words, coaches don’t need to dose ath­letes with stim­u­lants or painkillers to im­prove their per­for­mance; merely con­vinc­ing them that they did so is enough. In one study, rins­ing en­durance cy­clists’ mouths with a sug­ary bev­er­age helped them go faster dur­ing a time trial, even though they didn’t swal­low any. Sub­se­quent re­search showed that the rinse turned on the brain’s re­ward re­gions, thus trick­ing it into be­liev­ing that kilo­joules had been in­gested.

The ques­tion, of course, is how you can trans­late this

re­search into per­for­mance. It’s one thing to know that energy is largely a state of mind. It’s some­thing else en­tirely to not feel so tired you need to stop. Karl Meltzer doesn’t have all the an­swers. “I’ve been say­ing it’s all in your head for 20 years,” he says. “Doesn’t mean I un­der­stand it, though.”

THEY CALL IT THE BEAST. FOR NEW CADETS at West Point Mil­i­tary Academy, the Beast is ba­sic train­ing, that ar­du­ous in­tro­duc­tion to mil­i­tary life. A typ­i­cal day dur­ing the Beast be­gins in the dark, with a zero dark thirty wake-up, fol­lowed by 90 min­utes of run­ning and cal­is­then­ics. Then it’s a shower and a quick break­fast fol­lowed by a morn­ing of class­room lec­tures. Af­ter lunch it’s train­ing time, when cadets learn to as­sem­ble and fire their M4s, march in for­ma­tion, and com­plete dif­fi­cult ob­sta­cle cour­ses. Evening is for home­work, and some­thing called “mass ath­let­ics”. It’s lights out around mid­night.

This chal­leng­ing rou­tine goes on for six weeks, cul­mi­nat­ing in what’s known as the Grad­u­ate March Back, a 19km slog in the Au­gust heat with a heavy pack. “Ba­sic train­ing is de­signed to stress the cadets,” says West Point’s Mike Matthews, a pro­fes­sor of en­gi­neer­ing psy­chol­ogy. “We have six weeks to turn them into sol­diers. That means teach­ing them that they’re tougher than they think.”

It’s easy to over­look the re­mark­able na­ture of this trans­for­ma­tion. Be­fore these cadets showed up at West Point, they were typ­i­cal American teenagers. They slept in, played video games, and strug­gled to do 50 push-ups. But in just over a month, the academy re­sets their cen­tral gover­nors. The cadets are able to han­dle tests of en­durance that only a few weeks be­fore would have been unimag­in­able.

The Army does this by con­sis­tently em­pha­sis­ing the men­tal side of per­for­mance. The hard­est parts of the Beast – like the long marches, or sleep­ing alone in the woods in a wet uni­form – are framed as tests of will and grit. Nate Zinsser, di­rec­tor of West Point’s per­for­mance psy­chol­ogy pro­gramme, is tasked with train­ing cadets in the psy­cho­log­i­cal prin­ci­ples of elite per­for­mance. “Peo­ple think it’s all about do­ing more at the gym,” Zinsser says. “But the hard­est part is of­ten chang­ing the way you think about your­self. When the crap hits the fan, what ends up lim­it­ing you is usu­ally not your body. It’s that voice in your head telling you that you can’t do it.”

Zinsser tells the story of Dan Browne, the first West Point cadet to run a sub-four-minute mile. To pre­pare for the race, Zinsser got Browne to do a re­lax­ation ex­er­cise, fol­lowed by a guided vi­su­al­i­sa­tion in which he ran the en­tire mile in his head. “I wanted him to think about how he would re­act when his legs got heavy and fa­tigue set in,” Zinsser says. “Is he go­ing to tell him­self he’s in trou­ble? Or is he go­ing to say, ‘I can do this, I can do this, I just need to hang on.’” In the imag­i­na­tion ex­er­cise, Browne ran a 3:58 mile. Two days later, when he stepped onto the ac­tual track, he ran the ex­act same time.

What can the rest of us learn from West Point? First off is the im­por­tance of mak­ing ex­er­cise so­cial. It doesn’t mat­ter if it’s CrossFit or a run­ning club – you’re much more likely to push your lim­its when you’re sur­rounded by other sweaty peo­ple. That’s be­cause your cen­tral gover­nor isn’t just mon­i­tor­ing the chem­istry and me­chan­ics of the mus­cles – it’s also keep­ing track of the ath­letes around you.

The sec­ond les­son in­volves chang­ing the way cadets think about fa­tigue. “If these cadets get six hours of sleep, that’s a mirac­u­lous ac­com­plish­ment,” Zinsser says. “And it’s easy to feel that ex­haus­tion and just say, ‘I’m done.’” But West Point teaches cadets how to push past the ex­haus­tion and thus wring more out of their bod­ies. “I can lec­ture them about the psy­chol­ogy, how their thoughts de­ter­mine what their mus­cles are ca­pa­ble of,” he says. “But it’s bet­ter for them to ex­pe­ri­ence it for them­selves. They need their own nar­ra­tive of, ‘I went through hell but I made it.’”

MELTZER’S LAST DAY ON THE TRAIL BE­GAN as usual, with a mug of cof­fee and cream, chugged in the dark. He’d al­ready been on the trail for 45 days; he didn’t want to sleep in his van again. The only prob­lem was that the fin­ish line was 136km away. It took him 23 hours of straight trail run­ning, but he ran those last kilo­me­tres in an end spurt for the ages, com­ing down Springer Moun­tain at 3:38am. He broke the record set by Scott Jurek by nearly half a day. Meltzer cel­e­brated with a cold pizza and a warm beer. When I ask him why he wanted to run the trail faster than any­one else, I was hop­ing for some thoughts on the na­ture of hu­man possibility. But Meltzer is no philoso­pher. “The bot­tom line is, I do these things be­cause I want to talk about them later,” he says. “The faster you go, the sooner it’s all over.”

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