According to the coach and author Matt Fitzgerald’s best-seller: “How Bad Do You Want It?“, wanting it more than anybody else means you’re willing to suffer more than anybody else, whether it’s physically, mentally, psychologically, or all of them. Your will to succeed must be stronger than your mounting desire to end the pain and suffering.
Simply put, it is the ability to endure whatever hardship it takes to succeed. In all walks of life, the best display of this ability is perhaps in sports, especially in endurance sports. Because in any endurance race, one thing is guaranteed to happen to every participant – pain and suffering. The capability for enduring pain and suffering is what separates winners from losers.
Endurance, by definition, is the struggle to continue against a mounting desire to stop. It captures both the physical and mental aspects of endurance. However, what endurance athletes must endure above all is not actual physical effort, but the perception of effort. It is the feeling of how hard you are pushing yourself to your limits. It is the primary source of pain and suffering that causes athletes to slow down or give up on any long endurance challenge.
In an interview with Professor Samuele Marcora, a leading expert on psychobiology in endurance performance, the Italian exercise physiologist pointed out that traditional physiological models assume that your muscles limit your capacity to maintain a given output (speed, power) for a prolonged period of time. But what limited the performance was in fact the perception of effort in combination with the athletes’ motivation. You slow down because you feel like you are unable to sustain the pace, not because you actually are unable to. In other words, perception of effort is the feeling of activity in the brain that stimulates muscle work; it is not the feeling of muscle work itself.
Power Of Perception
This perceived effort is what causes a marathon runner to hit the wall at the last mile of the race. Your body feels pain (thirsty, hot, fatigue) when you’re pushing your physical limits and sends a warning signal to your brain. Your brain starts telling you to slow down or stop and you start to feel a sense of effort – the struggle to continue against a mounting desire to stop – you feel like you have reached your limits and cannot continue anymore. Perceived effort is essentially the body’s resistance to the mind’s will.
However, this is just your perceived limits, not your absolute limits, your body is merely unwilling, not incapable, because your mind decides to quit long before your body does. That’s why we’re rarely running to death because our brain protects us against our own excess, almost always.
In this sense, all training is brain training, even if it does not specifically target the brain.
Hard physical limits do exist, of course, but no athlete ever reaches them because the purely psychological limit of perceived effort tolerance is always encountered first. Therefore, it is always the mind that dictates how close you get to your physical limits, and sometimes how far you may be able to push beyond those limits. So, when all else being equal, whoever is willing to push harder and suffer a bit more than everyone else wins the gold medal.
Some people referred to endurance racing as a game of mind over muscle, but it might be more accurate to call it a game of mind over brain and muscle.
Perceived Effort vs Fatigue
Perception of effort is an athlete’s sense of how hard she is working. It is distinct from pain, fatigue, proprioception, and other perceptions that athletes experience when racing, and it is the primary source of the discomfort that causes athletes to slow down or quit when they hit the wall in races. Athletes commonly label this feeling “fatigue”, but fatigue is a separate perception, and much weaker than effort. When you reach the finish line of a hard race and stop, you immediately feel a lot better even though stopping has no immediate effect on your fatigue level. Why do you feel better? Because your effort has ceased.
If you want to get a sense of what a very high level of perceived effort feels like in isolation from fatigue, find a steep hill and run up it as fast as you can. That feeling of trying as hard as you can that hits you immediately, before fatigue sets in, is the feeling of a very high level of perceived effort.
Now compare the experience of being a few strides into an all-out uphill sprint to that of being 1 mile from the finish line of a marathon. The two experiences are different in many ways. In the uphill sprint, your leg muscles are straining but not painful, whereas in the marathon they are more pained than strained. But there is something that the two experiences are the same: a powerful feeling of general resistance to your will to move, of being at your limit, which exists nowhere in particular yet also everywhere in your body (much like fatigue you experienced at rest when you have the flu).
Embrace The Pain
The perceived effort actually has two layers. The first layer is how the athlete feels. The second layer is how the athlete feels about how she feels. The first layer is strictly physiological, whereas the second is emotional, or affective. Crudely put, an athlete can have either a good attitude or a bad attitude about any given level of discomfort. If she has a good attitude, she will be less bothered by the feeling and will likely push harder. When athletes feel worse than expected during a race, they tend to develop a bad attitude about their discomfort, and as a result, they slow down even more than they need to.
A number of studies have compared the effects of two contrasting attitudes — acceptance and suppression — on pain perception. Some people have a natural tendency to look ahead to the repetition of a familiar pain stimulus with acceptance. They tell themselves, “This is going to hurt, but no worse than before.” Other people try to cope with the same situation through suppression, a form of denial. They tell themselves, in effect, “I really hope this doesn’t hurt as much as it did the last time.” Psychologists have generally found that, compared to suppression, acceptance reduces the unpleasantness of pain without reducing the pain itself. For this reason, it is a more effective coping skill.
In common language, this attitude of acceptance toward an impending disagreeable experience is called “bracing the pain.” Many of us use this coping skill instinctively – to expect the worst of an upcoming experience – in the hope to reduce the unpleasantness of everyday trials such as a trip to the dentist’s office.
You never know how much your next race is going to hurt. Perception of effort is mysterious. There is a temptation to hope that your next race won’t be one of those grinding affairs. This hope is a poor coping skill. Bracing the pain — always expecting your next race to be your hardest yet — is a much more mature and effective way to prepare mentally for competition.
Pain is inevitable, Suffering is a choice
Pain can be a bit of a catch-22: often the more you try to wish it away, the worse it becomes. According to modern psychology, therein lies the difference between pain and suffering. Pain is inevitable, everybody feels pain one way or another. But suffering is not, it occurs only when you choose to fight the pain. If you choose to embrace the pain instead, there would be no suffering, or at least much less suffering you would feel.
Consider the work of Steven Hayes, a well-known clinical psychologist and professor of psychology. He’s shown that the more you resist or try to avoid unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and sensations, the stronger and more frequent they become. “If you cannot open up to discomfort without suppression,” he writes, “it becomes impossible to face difficult problems in a healthy way.”
Hayes’s work is based on acceptance and commitment. When you’re in pain, be it physical or emotional, you need not make it worse by resisting it. It’s better to accept the pain and commit to accomplishing your goals, and often that means carrying the pain with you.
Instead of fighting pain you should acknowledge it and hold it in your awareness—even curiously explore and warmly embrace it. Treating pain in this manner almost always makes it easier to bear.
Letting Go And Gratitude
All athletes begin their races wanting to achieve their goals, but the desire to maximize performance and achieve a particular outcome creates a feeling of pressure. This is feeling of pressure compromises performance and ensures that the wanted outcome is not achieved. It is essentially a kind of ironic self-sabotage.
The recent revolution in brain science has revealed that it is not pressure itself that causes people to perform poorly in important competitions. Rather, it is self-consciousness. Research has shown that impaired performance in high-pressure athletic situations is associated with heightened activity in parts of the brain that are linked to self-awareness. What happens is that the athlete’s feeling of being under pressure directs her attention toward internal processes such as body movements and anxious thoughts, and this attentional shift undermines performance.
Simply put, self-consciousness increases perceived effort. Racing in a state of pressure-induced self-consciousness is like fire walking while giving your full attention to the painful heat in your feet rather than focusing on where you’re going. As an athlete, you’re much better off directing your attention externally, to the task at hand, which distracts you to some degree from your suffering, allowing you to push a little harder.
So how to do this? It comes from letting go. Counterintuitive though it may be, caring a little less about the result of a race produces better results. An athlete who believes in herself whether she succeeds or fails is able to put her goal out of mind and race at the moment, and to race at the moment – in a flow state – is to race better.
The lesson is to ensure that you race without expectations by letting go of your self-sabotaging goal obsession. Set free to focus on racing rather than winning. Although you still hope to win, the hope of winning is not occupying your thoughts in the final hours before the big event. That space was taken up instead by gratitude for the mere chance to try – such profound gratitude for the privilege and process of pursuing your goal and dream makes failure seem nothing to fear and success an almost inevitable outcome of a total embrace of the process.
No matter what goal and dream you are trying to pursue, whether you are an endurance athlete or not, the number one lesson to master mind over brain and body, to achieve anything significant in life is to embrace pain and suffering. And always remember, pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional, it only occurs when you try to fight it instead of accepting it.
The second lesson is success cannot be achieved through obsessive yearning toward one’s goals or through the elimination of all distractions. In fact, it requires the opposite: an empty mind and total immersion in the process by letting go of desired outcomes and fully focus on the task of the moment throughout the process.
The final lesson, and perhaps the most important one, is when it comes to how we respond to physical, emotional, or psychological pain, we always have a choice.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” —Viktor Frankl
In his influential book, “Man’s Search For Meaning“, Dr. Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor and later became a renowned psychologist, wrote that the only thing that the Nazis were unable to take away was his choice as to how to respond to the deprivation, degradation, and trauma to which he was subjected. He made a conscious decision to focus his energies on “owning” that small but all-important space between the stimulus (whatever was said or done to him) and his response to it. His ability to retain that degree of psycho-spiritual autonomy in the most horrific circumstances imaginable provides a remarkable example of interpersonal strength, grace and courage under extreme duress, the power of personal choice.
What you have pushed yourself the hardest and suffered the most would be among the most meaningful moments in your life. Everyone, athlete or not, who has pushed beyond his or her known limits of endurance in the quest for improvement understands these sentiments. There is no experience quite like that of driving yourself to the point of wanting to give up and then finding more and willing to suffer more than they have never known they could. In these encounters with painful reality, we find not only reasons to keep pushing but also ways to keep pushing – motivations (why) and coping skills (how) that they can go back and build on the next time they are tempted to slow down or quit.