"I think I can, I think I can...". We've all heard the story of the Little Engine believing it could puff
right over that hill. We've all heard Henry Fords famous quote "Whether you think you can or you think you cant - you're right". But what if there was actually a scientific reason for why this works ?
Your brain's number one priority is self preservation. If it doesnt function your body dies. So above all else it prioritises it's own protection. Your brain knows what it needs (and doesnt need).
3. Avoid Trauma
As you can see running a sub 3 hour marathon doesnt appear in this list.
The brain subconsciously uses a number of pathways to enforce these priorities. Two that are of interest from an endurance and athletic performance are the Vagus and Golgi nerve Pathways.
The Vagus nerve is part of our parasympathetic nervous system which controls all organs except for the adrenal glands (which are part of the sympathetic nervous system - fight or flight). Specifically for us the vagus nerve lowers cardiac output. Ever wondered what actually controls Maximum Heart Rate (MHR) - that's the Vagus Nerve. When the brain senses (or more importantly 'believes') it is at risk it will decrease cardiac rate essentially slowing us down so that more oxygen and blood glucose is available to the brain rather than the muscles. Essentially our brain slows us down whether we like it or not.
Interesting your brain will also produce seratonin when your body works hard. The 'Runners High" isnt a reward - it is our brains way of trying to relax us so as not to work so hard.
The golgi nerve controls the maximum contractional force of a muscle. Every heard the stories of people who never went to the gym geting trapped under a car and suddenly lift an engine block off their chest ? They tear muscles doing it. In essence the brain is overriding the Golgi nerve.
As a personal trainer I used to see this a lot. A client would struggle to do 8 bench press reps and then quit. I'd say lets do 4 more - I'll lift the weight off you - you just lower it. That's is exactly what we would do - 4 more reps. Except I wasnt lifting it off them (sometimes I wouldnt even be touching the bar). The brain was placated, it didnt think it was at risk due to a bar being dropped on its blood supply, so your muscles could do the work. Ever tried standing in front of a bench -you really want to jump onto it but something stops you ? You squat down a bit but physically cant jump ? That's the brain stopping your muscles from contracting
It is pretty clear how this applies to endurance sports - in simple terms if our brain doesnt believe we can do something and thinks it is at risk it will slow us down and make us less powerful. Let me repeat that - in simple terms if our brain doesnt believe we can do something and thinks it is at risk it will slow us down and make us less powerful.
So how do you do this ? Is it as simple as just being like the Little Engine and saying "I think I can". No (although that doesn't hurt). Saying something doesn't mean you believe it and frankly your brain has no reason to trust you :). You need to convince your brain that it is 'safe'.
1. Pushing the limit past failure in a safe environment.
Interval and Repetition pace reps, HARD anaerobic efforts all serve to convince the brain that it can safely allow the heart to operate at a higher level (Vagus Nerve)
2. Forced Reps.
Like the fake spotter forcing reps will also help placate the brain. Negative reps, over-speed work on the bike, treadmill, pool all help convince the brain our muscles can work harder (Golgi Nerve).
Self belief is a hard thing to implement - so try trusting someone else. One common fact I see in high performers in business and sports is not a belief that they 'can' but more a lack of belief that they cant. They trust in the science - the PhD scholars for wattage, running pace etc and, as Nike says, "Just Do It". Their belief is in the science and 'logic'. What is interesting is that I see that high performers are the least likely to ask 'Why ?" for a particular set. 'Why' often indicates, either consciously or sub consciously, that doubt exists which is then used by the brain to validate protecting you.
I like the quote by the Spinervals guy (who also did a sub 9 ironman at Kona) - Troy Jacobsen when he says "You pass out before you die"
It is often said that endurance sports are 70% mentally. As you can see this is medically true - training the parasympathetic nerve path ways can improve our performance more than hours and hours of comfort zone training