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Suck It Up! : The Science Behind Peak Physical Performance

Suck it up Princess!” – Randy Couture

The human body is the most remarkable machine ever made. It is capable of incredible feats of strength and endurance, is remarkably resilient, and is adaptable to almost any climate and condition. The body of the human is far more adaptable and resilient than that of any other animal because of the mind’s incredible capacity to receive feedback from the body and make decisions on how to respond. What makes this amazing machine so adaptable is the mind body connection and our ability to decide whether to continue or not. While we all may not be able to become ultramarathon runners, climb Mount Everest, or even complete a 10K, we are all capable of far more than we believe.

Here are some examples of the upper limits of human endurance:

⦁ Rainer Predl, an ultra-marathoner from Austria, came up with an incredibly special challenge. He resolved to break the record of the highest mileage on a treadmill within a 7 day period. With 853.46 km, he managed to set a new world record. Predl ran 168 hours during that week while making do with just 15 hours of sleep. And, in case you’re wondering, that’s over 530 miles!
⦁ A special form of ultra marathon is the 24-hour run where participants run as far as possible in a 24 hour period The male world record is 188.6 miles, set by Yiannis Kouros. Mami Kudo holds the female record of 156.7. The mileage is accumulated by running consecutive laps over a flat, three quarters of a mile course.
⦁ Dennis Kimetto of Kenya was the first to beat the 2:03 hours, finishing the 26.2 mile Berlin Marathon in 2:02:57 hours. This breaks down to over 26 consecutive miles of just over forward a half minutes each!
⦁ Wim Hof, a Dutch endurance athlete who is commonly referred to as “The Iceman,” completed a 26.2 mile marathon north of the Arctic circle wearing nothing but a pair of sandals and gym shorts. He’s also climbed 19,000 foot Mount Kilimanjaro in less than two days while wearing gym shorts as well as completing a full marathon in the Namib Desert-without any liquids.

Scientists have studied what separates these endurance athletes from their athletic peers as well as the rest of us mere mortals. What makes them different is not just their physiology, but the way that they process physical discomfort. They innately know that fatigue is a mental perception way before it becomes physical.

“Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”-Vince Lombardi

The human body is designed to survive. Fatigue, at least in its initial stages, is a warning that things might get worse and that continued effort could result in damage to the body. It allows doubt to enter the mind, is accompanied by negative self talk and and an “I can’t do this” mindset which results in a person quitting prematurely. It serves a protective purpose and the act of quitting at that point in time insures that the physical body will be protected from damage. Simply put, we get scared because it hurts, so we quit. The body usually quickly recovers and a second layer of doubt sets in. We begin to question our decision to quit in a “woulda, coulda, shoulda” manner which is usually accompanied by a layer of regret.

Athletes that are able to push through the fatigue are usually no more physically capable than those that they defeat. Athletes and coaches marvel at their ability to “suck it up” and push through this fatigue barrier. Athletics is full of folklore and clichés such as, “victory will go to the athlete who wants it the most,” you quit too soon because “you didn’t want it badly enough,” or that you didn’t have the “will to win.” These criticisms are an oversimplification of what is really going on. Athletes that have this ability to push on instinctively process feedback from the body differently than those who give up too soon. While preparation in talent are undoubtedly a prerequisite for success, there are things the rest of us need to know in order to get to that next level.

Knowing how your brain works when faced with fatigue that is interpreted as a threat to its survival is one of the first things to understand. The central governor theory is a proposed process in the brain that regulates exercise in regard to a neurally calculated safe exertion by the body. In particular, physical activity is controlled so that its intensity cannot threaten the body’s homeostasis by causing anoxic damage to the heart muscle. This process effects athletes on all levels from elite Olympians to weekend warriors. It is how the athlete interprets these sensations that makes the difference, assuming that the athlete has done the proper preparation and is physically fit. It is when proper preparation and proper mindset merge that peak performances will occur.

An experiment done in Great Britain with college rugby players illustrates the point. The athletes were riding a stationary bikes and were told to maintain a certain RPM output. When they were active perceive limit of exertion, they were encouraged to pump it up a bit for five more seconds, “just five more seconds.” They were told that after those five seconds they would get a slight break. Every athlete was able to increase their RPM output by at least 40%, despite the fact that they believed that they were already at their limit. Their logic became “I can push harder for just five more seconds.” This is something that a recreational athlete in a spinning class knows. When complicated tasks are broken down to minute periods of time, the human body is capable of much more than mere perception. If you have ever been an athlete in training, had a personal trainer, or even participated in a formal exercise class now and then, you’ve probably had this experience. A coach encourages you to “push” a little harder for a small period of time. You dug down and found a little more effort than you thought you had. Why? This is a small example of how the human body is capable of more than perceived effort.

Naturally, before one pushes themselves to these levels they have to be in good condition first place. Pushing an out of shape athlete to this level of exertion is potentially fatal. However, if you know that you have prepared yourself physically, then practicing this during workouts now and again can increase your mental toughness and extend your physical capabilities. In a solo sport such as running, weight lifting, or a combat sport an athlete must do this himself. In a team sport like football, there may be a motivated team mate that elevates everyone’s game. As athletes, we’ve all witnessed this and even experienced it firsthand. We often forget times when we’ve had more in the tank than we thought. Train with this in mind and you will find an ability to replicate this experience over and over in your day to day training. Over time, the work you put in will be far more fruitful if you train with this in mind.

When feeling discomfort while working through perceived exertion, try to get specific about what you are feeling. For example, hunger is a different perception than thirst, pain is different from fatigue, and being out of breath is different than exhaustion. Asking yourself “what exactly am I feeling?” and pushing on can enable you to ignore and potentially misinterpret a physiological signal that may cause you to quit prematurely. Under extreme physical exertion, the mind becomes confused and this confusion can trick our bodies into quitting before we really need to. These sensations are often temporary and if a person breaks it down into small and manageable inputs, they’re often capable of much more and, in some cases, able to push right through it. Getting a “second wind” is not a myth. Training with this in mind, no matter what you are training for, will greatly increase your capabilities and your results.

Here’s how you can teach yourself to “Suck It Up”:

Make damn sure you are physically fit enough. Training in this manner is an acquired capability. Sucking it up is only possible if an athlete has done basic training diligently.
Learn to distinguish the difference between pain and exertion. Many athletes talk about the difference between “good pain” coming from exertion and “bad pain” which comes from injury. There is definitely a difference. Learn to identify in your training.
Master your self talk when things get tough. What do you say to yourself on a regular basis when working out? Are you usually positive, or negative? Use your internal dialogue to motivate yourself, making that internal critic a positive internal coach. Talk to yourself with the intention of pumping yourself up, rather than psyching yourself out.
Train to control your breathing. Breath control is one of the most critical components to alleviating panic, mental overwhelm, and physical fatigue. Breathing deeply from your abdomen can enable you to take in much more oxygen, allowing your muscles greater movement.
Train to control muscle tension. Learn which muscles are required in the performance of your sport or physical activity. For example, if you are a sprinter tensing up your shoulders and neck is counterproductive to developing speed. If you are boxing or hitting a heavy bag, a tight fist is only necessary at the moment of impact. Too much tension in areas that are not required will wear you out very quickly. Study your physical activity with the intention of becoming more efficient with your motion.
Break things down when you are training. Telling yourself things like “three more reps,” “just one more lap,” or “10 seconds,” during training conditions you to push through sticking points and when done consistently makes you far more mentally tough.
Do a little research about the nutritional requirements of your sport or activity. Make sure that you are properly hydrated and fueled before you try to suck it up in your training. There’s a lot of solid research on this available on the Internet, but there’s also a lot of BS out there as well. Choose your sources wise.

There’s always been a controversy as to whether or not athletics and physical training are character building. While that’s a debate for another time, I think you can see the benefit of being able to push yourself physically and mentally in your everyday life. Stop admiring RandywTowerthose athletes who have this mystical ability to “suck it up” and become one yourself.

“Well Princess, what are you waiting for?”-Randy Couture


P. S. If you found this article helpful, you may benefit from some personalized mindbody coaching. Contact me at http://mindbodycoach.org/contact-us/ if interested in online mindbody coaching. Please check out my Products page through the link at the top of this post.. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and social media. Email me with questions at john@mindbodycoach.org

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