Mind Over Matter

After the flux of racing news and events in the last week or so, we thought we’d return to some simple training advice and one of the regulars on Ultra168, Mile 27’s Andy Dubois. Today we look at that old mental battle of mind over matter and how you deal with what our body feels versus what our brain tells us. It’s no secret that this is the extra 5 or 10% that those leading girls and guys tend to have. The ability to shut the mind off to a different place in that no matter how hard you might be hurting, there’s a way to deal with it. Here Andy discusses a few techniques and things you can consider if that next big hill looks a bit too steep to run up!

Does your body or your mind limit your race day performance?

We all know that dead feeling in our legs, the feeling of complete physical exhaustion. Mentally we could keep going but our body is saying no more. Or is it?

The latest thinking is that the mind controls fatigue much more than the body.

The role of motivation
One study(1) timed how long people could hold a wall sit for. Without fail when they were offered money they could hold the sit position for longer. The more money they were offered the longer they could hold the position for. How can muscle fatigue be the reason for the length of their wall sit when they were able to hold for longer when offered more money? Motivation must be a factor. The mind was able to override the fatigue from the legs in order to obtain something valuable, in this case money, and the more money offered the greater the motivation.

Is the hill really steep? Or could you run up it if you put your mind to it?
Is the hill really steep? Or could you run up it if you put your mind to it?

Rate of perceived exertion (RPE)
Is rate of perceived exertion based on physical or mental feedback? Researchers tested this by manipulating the clock during a 10km cycling time trail asking cyclists to perform three 10k time trials, one with a slowed down clock, one with a sped up clock and one with a normal clock(2). When the cyclists rode against the slowed down clock the workload in the last 5k was higher and significantly higher in the last km. Remember with a slow clock the cyclists would have felt they were going faster. The cyclists RPE was statistically similar for all three conditions (fast clock, slow clock, normal clock).

The authors argue that there is a psychological and physiological component to RPE. When the psychological component was reduced (due to the cyclists thinking they were riding faster) the physiological component was increased to maintain a rate of perceived exertion that the athlete felt was the hardest they could maintain until the end. Hence the increased workload as the time trial progressed.

Apply the mind
Apply the mind

Mental fatigue 
Exercising when mentally fatigued can reduce performance. In a timed cycle to exhaustion test(3) participants spent the preceding 90 minutes either performing a demanding cognitive task or watching emotionally neutral documentaries. Those that performed the cognitive task rated perception of effort to be higher and showed significantly reduced time to exhaustion.

What does this all mean and how can you use this in practice?

1. The more highly motivated you are the harder you can push yourself.
Think about why you are doing the race and why it’s important to you. Remember all the hard work you have put in. All the early mornings you’ve got up in the dark and gone for a run. All the social occasions you’ve missed or left early to make sure you can train the next day. The lost time with family, all the support you’ve had from friends and family. Really think about this and let it all sink in. Watch as many You Tube videos and race reports of the race as you can find. If that doesn’t get you motivated then nothing will! Call upon these thoughts when the going gets tough.

2. If you feel like you are running well then your rate of psychological perceived exertion is lower and the brain allows you to work harder.
Stop looking at your watch all the time. Knowing it took you 6 minutes to run the last kilometre isn’t going to help much. Connect in with how you are feeling and flood your brain with as many positive thoughts as possible. Even if you don’t feel that great find something positive to think about and it will feel easier and you may even be able to run faster. Practise doing this in training so come race day it comes easy to you.

3. Mentally rest before a big event.
Make sure in the week leading up to an event you expend as little mental energy as possible. Just do what you have to do at work, nothing more. Even better, if you can, take a few days off before a big race. If you do don’t spend it sight seeing. Feet up on couch and read book, sleep, watch a movie. Anything that involves little brain activity.


1) Money vs pain: Experimental study of a conflict in humans
M. Cabanac
Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behaviour
Volume 46, Issue 1, pages 37–44, July 1986
2) Deception by manipulating the clock calibration influences cycle ergometer endurance time in males
Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport
Volume 12, Issue 2, March 2009, Pages 332–337
R. Hugh Morton
3) Mental fatigue impairs physical performance in humans
Samuele M. Marcora , Walter Staiano , Victoria Manning
Journal of Applied Physiology 1 March 2009 Vol. 106
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