Dig Deep: You’re Stronger Than You Think

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Awhile back I was doing a HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) workout over on a nearby running/biking trail. Along the trail there’s a fairly steep hill that takes about a minute to sprint up at full speed. For my workout, I would charge up the hill as fast as I could, walk/jog back down, and repeat the sequence ten times. It puts you in a nice amount of pain.

Halfway through the last sprint in my set, my legs and lungs were crying for mercy. I felt sure my body could not possibly run a single more step. But just as I was about to slow down into a walk, a pair of lovely ladies crested over the top of the hill and came jogging towards me. In that moment, an involuntary pride response kicked in, and I somehow found another gear and continued to haul butt to the top of the hill.

A seemingly insignificant moment in my life, but it actually spurred a great deal of reflection. I had felt sure I was physically spent, but then found deeper reserves of strength left to tap. My mind had lied to me. What else, I wondered, might my mind be lying about?

As it turns out, a great deal. We all have deep wells of strength that we may never even know exist, as they are closely guarded by a brain that would rather loaf and maintain the status quo than take you to the next level. But don’t be fooled by this tight-fisted sentinel – you’re physically, mentally, and emotionally stronger than you think.

You’re Physically Stronger Than You Think

Athletes have always known there is a connection between one’s mind and one’s performance – that you can will yourself to keep going when the body grows fatigued. But recent studies have shown that the mind can have quite the opposite effect – slowing you down before you’re actually physically spent. In essence, the very fatigue your brain fights against was created by…your brain!

This fact was fascinatingly demonstrated in a study conducted by scientists from the University of Kent in England and the French Institute of Health and Medical Research. In the study, two groups of men spent 90 minutes sitting in a chair. The first group was asked to count flashing letters on a computer screen (a task proven to induce mental fatigue), while the second group watched a relaxing nature video. Then the men in both groups pedaled a specialized ergometer, while electrodes zapped their leg muscles in order to produce “maximum contractile force.” The more fatigued a muscle is, the less it will respond to these shocks.

The men in the first group who had done the letter counting task tired out 13% faster than those who had watched the movie, and they perceived the exercise as being much more difficult than the second group did.

Yet the muscles of both groups responded exactly the same way to the electrodes, producing just as much force from the shocks. The men in the first group, whose minds had been tuckered out by the counting task, felt more tired and gave up more easily, but their muscles were in fact just as fresh as the men who had simply watched the movie. As the researchers concluded, “our feelings do not always reflect our physiological state.”

In another study conducted at Northumbria University in England, cyclists were put on stationary bikes and told to pedal as fast as they could for about 2.5 miles. After several of these sessions, the cyclists had gotten a sense of what seemed to be the fastest pace they were capable of.

Then the researchers put a computer screen in front of them which displayed a virtual course and two avatars – one which would represent the current rate at which the participant was pedaling the stationary bike, and one which the cyclist would be “racing” against. In the first group, the cyclists were deceived and told that the avatar they would be “competing” against would be moving at the pace of their own previous best effort. In fact, the avatar would be going 2% faster than the cyclist’s personal record. In the second group, the participants were informed upfront about the competing avatar’s speedier pace.

Cyclists in the second group, doubting they could possibly go 2% faster than their previous best effort, gave up and simply matched their old PR.

But the deceived cyclists, believing that the competing avatar was simply going at their own best pace, and knowing they were capable of duplicating that pace, sped up to catch it, and thus unknowingly went 2% faster than they ever had before. (2% may not seem like much, but it can make a huge difference in a race environment.)

What’s going on in these studies? While the extent of an athlete’s capabilities has usually focused on things like muscles, heart, and lungs, it seems the mind also plays a crucial role in setting limits for one’s performance. Timothy Noakes, professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, calls this limit-setter the “central governor” of the brain. And this governor is conservative. It’s easily worried about you using up your body’s limited fuel, and so puts the brakes on your exertion long before you’ve reached your true physical limits. Yet you may never know that you’ve got more to give, as your brain is very adept at deceiving you into thinking that you can’t possibly go any faster or harder.

In other words, your brain is lazy, and a no good, yellow-bellied liar.

You’re Mentally Stronger Than You Think

Just as your brain can convince you that you’ve reached your physical limits when you really haven’t, it can also tell you you’re too tuckered out for mental tasks, when your noodle actually has more to give.

Some of the most fascinating studies on the link between the mind and physical exertion have shown that simply swishing a sugary drink in your mouth and then spitting it out without swallowing it can boost athletic performance by 2% (again, despite the small number, this represents a significant boost). Your body uses glucose for fuel during exercise, but the swish-n-spit effect occurs even when the muscles still have plenty of glucose left to burn, and even though the athlete hasn’t actually ingested any glucose! The sugary drink in the mouth tricks the brain’s anxious, bean-counting central governor into thinking that more fuel is on the way, leading it to relax its guard on your supply so you can continue to push yourself.

Researchers wondered if the swish-n-spit effect would also work when it came to sticking with purely mental tasks. As we’ve discussed before, your willpower is a finite resource that is depleted each time you exercise your self-control. If you use your willpower up on one task, you then have less of it for the next one. It used to be thought that this process of willpower depletion occurred because exercising self-control utilized glucose in the body, and the lower your glucose went, the less willpower you had at your disposal. For this reason, eating something was suggested as a way to replenish your willpower supply, and indeed studies showed that willpower-depleted individuals were able to exercise greater self-control after they had a snack, particularly something sweet.

But a recent study found that simply swishing a sugary drink in the mouth without swallowing it had the very same effect. Participants were first given a willpower-sapping task like working on impossible-to-solve math problems, reading a boring piece of writing, or avoiding a plate of cookies and eating radishes instead. With their mental fortitude sapped, they would then give up more easily when presented with another tedious task. However, when the participants swished their mouths with a sugary drink in between the self-control-requiring tasks, they stuck with them longer. Even though the participants hadn’t actually ingested any glucose, sensing sugar in the mouth was enough to trick the anxious, fuel-monitoring central governor into girding up their minds for another round of effort.

Just as with physical exertion, your brain lies to you about what you’re mentally capable of; it tells you your willpower is tapped out, when really there’s plenty of mental energy being held in reserve.

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