At the finish line of the Badwater Ultra-marathon through Death Valley, USA 135 mile running race

The mental effect of physical training and how your mind can trick you.

I was just listening to a conversation recently, a couple of guys talking about crossfit and how it seems that if you don’t do it for a couple of weeks and then get back into it, you haven’t really lost fitness in that short time but your perception of the difficulty and pain involved goes up tremendously making you feel like you have lost fitness which can have a negative impact on your motivation, “I trained so hard for months to get where I was and now after only two weeks or three weeks off I have lost it all” is often the mental sound track running in your head and then the following thought “What then is the point if you lose it so quickly.” 
This type of mental talk can lead to you giving up and not being consistent and believing you have lost it when really its physically still there just mentally not.

This got me thinking about how much of training is about not only physically getting used to the load i.e. the body being made physically stronger through the cycle of training, break down of muscles through that training then the body rebuilding itself, better and stronger in the recovery phase, but also mentally being used to the pain, effort and suffering involved.

Thankfully we have a very short term memory when it comes to pain. We actually forget how hard or painful something was, just ask a woman who has just given birth if they want to do it all again then ask them again in a few months time or for another example a first time marathon runner who has just crossed the line whether they want to do another, invariably its “No way” when a month later they are back into training for their next event. Our brain protects us from remembering just how hard it was and all we see are the wonderful moments, the achievement or the beautiful results following the old adage “Pain is temporary, glory is forever.”

We are also creatures of habit and ritual. Whatever we habitualize we find easier and easier mentally to cope with and when we break that habit for even a short period we lose to a great extent that certain comfort level we reached. That automatic routine we get into.

Training is most definitely affected by your mental aptitude for the effort, how much you get used to enduring the suffering and for how long and how intense in other words it is not just about the physical body.

The more you do it the more “normal” it seems, even if unpleasant and this is not just down to the fact your body is stronger but also to the fact your mind has realised you aren’t going to stop this activity or habit so it decides it had better get on with it. That is also why getting started and doing it consistently for the first three months in a training programme is the toughest, after that three things happens, you get physically addicted to the exercise, you are naturally getting stronger and fitter and feeling better, but more importantly it’s become a part of your identity and who you are and it has become a ritual your brain is used to getting through.

The more training pain you withstand the more you can withstand from a purely mental point of view.
When I ran through NZ doing 500km a week, my body seemed to break down the worst in the first two weeks, where everything that could go wrong did and my body was just screaming at me to stop but because I didn’t, the body seemed to slowly get used to that fact and decided to just get on with the job because, obviously no one was listening to the screaming so we better deal with it.

The mind can play tricks on us like that to try and stop us when it thinks we are in danger. The instinctive, primitive part of our brain wants just to get the most food for the least amount of effort, that is how through the millennia is was taught to survive. Don’t burn too much energy and eat and save as much as you can, putting it in laymans’ terms.

That meant the body and more importantly the mind developed a number of mechanisms to stop you doing too much. But if you override this instinctive part of your brain, this protective guardian and push through the barriers you find that anatomically the body can cope with far more than you think.

Another example of this is when you stretch. You are meant to hold a static stretch for at least 20 seconds and then push a little further. Why? Because in the first instance the body feels the strain on that muscle you are stretching and thinks it is in danger and so stops you by signalling pain but if you hold there the mind realises “hmm ok nothing bad has happened” and it relaxes its grip and you are able to push further into the stretch and it’s in this further stretch that you actually get to make gains in your flexibility. This central governor also acts during long ultra marathons when it thinks you are in danger of using up all your energy and endangering yourself and your survival. It tries to stop you recruiting your muscles, hence you get this stiff, jerky, short stepped gait its your body saying “STOP” but it isn’t necessary to stop and you can override this survival mechanism and I have done this many times throughout my running career so don’t give up at the first sign of resistance.

I wanted to share another example from my own experiments with my body:
I was used to years and years of just long, slow running and I largely neglected other forms of training and hence became extremely good at endurance but plateaued and never got any better or faster although maintained for years, an ability to run super long distances.

I hated speed work, high intensity training and resigned to being just an endurance athlete but then I decided to change my direction completely to see what would happen and did a lot of high intensity work outs using weights and body weight exercises and much more interval and speed work in general.

The really interesting phenomenon was that my older body (late forties) that had only known one type of training, changed dramatically and my general fitness improved greatly and I became much more agile, stronger and my tolerance to intense training pain and cardiovascular distress increased, however due to the limited distance running I was doing I found that mentally I couldn’t cope as well with the hours and hours of mental discipline required to run long distances. My body could still handle it without too much loss in actual endurance but more importantly my mind couldn’t handle it anymore. 
Training isn’t just about the body it’s as much about the mind and your ability to endure different types of stress, pain and suffering.

So then I thought back to a couple of conversations I had had with hard core crossfit enthusiasts who believed wholeheartedly that they could do massive ultra marathons of a 100 miles or more on cross fit training and only 20 to 30km of actual running a week and they gave examples of athletes who had done very well doing just that. 
Crossfit prides itself on producing all round athletes who are fit in every way and I could see this working on a purely physical training level where I had issue with it was mentally.

Crossfit is rather short but very intense by nature and trains many energy systems in one go including the ability to endure high levels of anaerobic pain and exhaustion in training but what it couldn’t prepare you for was the days of low level endurance training, the mental anguish of not being able to rest, sleep deprivation and being on your feet for hours and sometimes days continuously in often extreme conditions from heat to freezing cold, from mountains storms to desert sand storms to dangerous conditions in exotic, remote locations and being able to cope with danger from the environment and your physical limitations. 
The body I believed is prepared very well, overall on a regime of crossfit and a small amount of actual running but I doubt whether the mind can be prepared well enough for this very different type of challenge. I have seen athletes do well in 24 hour racing on similar regimes however, where its just on a track and no other skills are required.

I want to now test this hypothesis in my next challenge which is to run 300km over five days with three mates doing the Alps to ocean cycle trail. This challenge is to raise money and awareness for brittle bone disease and in particular a little boy with the condition Ryuki. (Run and roll for Ryuki with Neil Wagstaff, Haisley O’Leary and Samuel Gibson)
Due to personal and professional circumstances I won’t be able to invest the huge amount of training time I invested earlier during my career for this challenge so I will be relying on my mostly short, sharp, intense training to carry my body through this physical challenge but also relying on my old mindset to cope with the huge distances and time on the feet. This forced experiment will be very interesting for me to see if I can still do what I used to do on a quarter of the time I have to dedicate to it. Where I see problems coming is perhaps in injuries of tendons or ligaments that also aren’t used to the long distances and the skeletal system absorbing so much time running when its not used to it but mostly I see problems convincing my mind it can and has to do it and I know I will suffer far more for it mentally.

From these examples and experiments and offering these thoughts I wanted to instigate a discussion and further thought about just how much the mind plays tricks on us and how we can get the best results out of ourselves on the least amount of training and despite our conniving minds sabotaging us.

Food for thought.