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How the Mind Limits Performance

Every week, four times a week, I head to the swimming pool to do some lengths. Over time, I’ve begun to recognize some of the regulars. I know when the fast swimmers will be there. And that I’ll swim faster on those days as well. This happens even though I’m the same swimmer as I was the day before when I didn’t swim as fast.

The same goes for when I was doing triathlons and running races. I would always go faster in a race than in training. And even faster still as the finish line would come into sight. This would happen whether it was a 5 km race or a marathon. And despite how I ran, I was always able to go faster at the end.

pushing past exercise fatigue

Pushing Past Fatigue

What’s amazing, is this is common to almost all of us. Including world class athletes. Even in people finishing an ultramarathon who just miles before may have looked like they were going to collapse. Some of it may be the added adrenaline of finishing, or the excitement the crowd brings. Or perhaps it’s knowing that it’s almost over and you can pull out the stops knowing your body isn’t going to blow up.

Indeed, our body may have a built-in fail-safe that prevents us from pushing too hard. I’ve conducted numerous maximal exercise stress tests, both on myself and others. Each time the person is asked to go until maximal fatigue. Those who are doing it for the first time get concerned they’ll get too tired and fall off the treadmill. However, that never happens. No matter how hard a person pushes, they’re always able to walk off the treadmill afterwards.

There’s also an effect of competition on perceived fatigue. When runners completed a 10 km time trial with other runners, they ran faster compared to running alone. At the same time, they actually felt better and less fatigued after the group run. Later, the same scientists reported racing against a virtual opponent didn’t have any impact on performance. It’s possible the virtual athlete, programmed to be 6% faster, may have been too fast, or we need real human competition to have an effect. Either way, being challenged by others allows us to tap into a higher gear.

believe in the unbelievable

Believing in the Unbelievable

Until 1954, it was believed running a mile under four minutes was physically impossible. Roger Banister, a medical student at the time, thought otherwise. On May 6, 1954, with the help of pacemakers running beside him, Roger Banister broke the four-minute barrier. In doing so, he proved it to be more of a mental than a physical barrier. Two months later, both Banister and John Landy went under four minutes racing against each other. Now, the world record sits at 3:43.13.

More relevant to the average person, is how the use of external rewards demonstrates how our mind controls performance. When university students were asked to lean against the wall in a seated position (no chair) for as long as they could, they were able to maintain that position longer the more money they were offered. And in some cases you can actually trick your body into doing something you may not think possible. For example, cyclists trained in motivational self-talk where able to exercise for longer.

Perhaps one of the best examples of mentally pushing past what might be thought of as physical limits, is free diving. Free divers can hold their breaths for upwards of ten minutes. For the average person it’s between 30 and 90 seconds. But it’s not a lack of oxygen that stops you. It’s the build up of carbon dioxide. Your body actually has ample oxygen supplies. Free divers train both their bodies and minds to go beyond what may seem physically impossible. The human body adapts but it’s the training of the mind that’s equally important as free divers use methods such as meditation, yoga and mindfulness to reach a higher level of internal focus.

the finish line

The Finish Line as a Performance Booster

It’s not just in a race the finish line gets us to go faster. Researchers compared walking speeds under two conditions. One group was told to focus on an object placed at the end of the walk. And the other was told to look around. Both groups walked the same distance and carried weights to increase the effort. Those participants focusing on the object at the end finished faster and felt less effort, compared to those who were told to look around.

This notion of walking faster when focusing on the finish has been termed by some as the Goal-Gradient Hypothesis. In the 1930’s psychologist Clark Hull reported mice ran faster through a maze the closer they got to the end (and the cheese reward). This is also observed in non-physical endeavours. Many of us will read faster the closer we come to the end of the book. People are more likely to sign up for organ donation when given a deadline compared to leaving it open ended. And we know that smokers who set a specific quit date are more likely to stop smoking than those who don’t.

I know I’m more focused on tasks with deadlines than I am on tasks without one. Likewise, in school most of us would wait until the last few days to complete an assignment. Even if the assignment was given weeks before. One could see this as common procrastination, but we see it in other behaviours that don’t come with deadlines. For example, as people get closer to a free coffee from a rewards program, they buy coffee more frequently to get those last few points.

move the finish line closer scrum sprints

Moving the Finish Line Closer

If we know we go faster as we get closer to the finish line, can we move the finish line closer? Or have more of them? Will going out for a walk or run and focusing on that tree up ahead make us faster? And then finding another tree or street sign to focus on after that? The research suggests it will.

This practice has been taken up by many industries in what are called scrum sprints. Commonly started at the beginning of each week, sprints involve short tasks to produce an outcome or completed product. It’s believed to result in more productivity rather than focusing on the bigger long-term goal. Kind of like focusing on the tree on your running route instead of the end of the run.

Many of us will do this already when we break long-term goals into short-term ones. For example, wanting to finish your first marathon is an admirable goal, which could take months to reach. It can be pretty daunting if you focus only on completing those 42 km. On the other hand, breaking it up into shorter goals, such as running 10 km and adding 5 km each month, can make it seem more achievable. And make you’re more likely to succeed.

So while it’s not clear on how or why our mind limits us, under certain conditions we’re able to perform at a level beyond what we usually do. From bringing the finish line closer, to improving our mental focus, to working with others, you can use these tricks to improve your performance.

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4 responses to “How the Mind Limits Performance”

  1. Found this interesting,good points

  2. Great content Scott – thanks for taking the time to collate this.

    1. Thanks Peter. Glad you liked it.

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