When it comes to performance enhancement in endurance sports, we’ve all but exhausted traditional methods of physical training. That’s why an increasing number of experts believe that unlocking any remaining gains will come from innovation focused not on the body, but on the brain.
One of the foremost authorities in endurance sports, Matt Fitzgerald, doesn’t disagree. His most recent book, How Bad Do You Want It? Mastering the Psychology of Mind over Muscle, explores the emerging science on the psychological underpinnings of great performance. We caught up with Matt to discuss his forthcoming book and how athletes can push their bodies further by mastering their minds.
OUTSIDE: Why this topic?
FITZGERALD: I’ve been interested in the psychology of endurance performance since my first "long-distance" race: a mile run in the fifth grade. I came away from that experience convinced that suffering, and the mastery of suffering, were the essence of endurance racing. Years later, exercise scientists, sports psychologists, and neuroscientists continue to discover the many ways this is true.
The ability to suffer seems quite broad—does the book have a particular focus?
Yes. How Bad Do You Want It? is based on a new, "psychobiological" model of endurance performance which posits that perception of effort—or how hard exercise feels in a given moment—is the true limiter of performance. Endurance athletes can improve performance via two ways: by increasing the maximum level of perceived effort that can be tolerated, and by decreasing the level of effort perceived at any given intensity of exercise. There are no other ways to get fitter or faster.
Using the psychobiological model, the book empowers athletes to change their relationship to perception of effort in ways that improve performance.
[Note: the psychobiological model of endurance performance was pioneered by Dr. Samuele Marcora, one of the world’s foremost experts on fatigue and endurance performance. We covered some of his fascinating research on the mind-body connection in this article.]
In researching the book, what were some of the most interesting things you learned about how athletes can alter their mind to enhance performance?
- Consciously expecting to feel terrible in a race aids performance. This is because perception of effort during competition is influenced by expectations. If you feel worse than expected, your perception of effort will increase and your performance will suffer. By bracing for a hard time, however, you ensure that how you feel during the race is no worse than expected, thereby setting yourself up to get the most out of your body.
- Having the "wrong body" for an endurance sport—that is, having a body that is anthropometrically or physiologically not ideal—can be transformed from a disadvantage to an advantage through a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. Even if your body is non-optimal for a given sport, if you work hard, your brain gets creative and figures out the most efficient ways to move from point A to point B. The same phenomenon also explains why athletes can comeback better than ever after a major body-changing injury.
- “Choking” in endurance sports is caused by self-consciousness, or an excessively internal focus during races, which actually increases perception of effort. An athlete can avoid choking by releasing from their obsession with achieving a goal. Rather than focusing on a specific outcome or “not failing,” athletes should instead strive to be fully immersed in the moment and the task at hand.
- Endurance athletes perform better when they pursue a quantified goal versus race by feel. This is because perception of effort, which athletes use to judge the highest speed they can go from their current position to the finish line, is open to interpretation. Chasing incremental time goals (think: 2 seconds per mile faster than my PR) helps athletes be more certain and confident that they can achieve their goals, which in turn convinces an athlete to accept a slightly higher level of effort.
- Athletes get fitter and race more successfully when they train in groups and compete for teams. One reason for this is called “behavioral synchrony,” where working together in groups releases in the brain the feel-good neurochemical dopamine which reduces perception of effort.
What do you think is next on the horizon in the area of mind-body training for optimal performance?
I have high hopes for the new psychology of endurance performance, where everything an athlete does, from training to personal growth, is focused on the goal of changing his or her relationship with perceived effort in performance enhancing ways. It makes the whole athletic experience cohesive. All ropes are pulling in the same direction.
What are your thoughts on brain doping—things like using Adderall illicitly, shocking your brain with electrical waves, etc. Should this be a concern?
There are many effective ways to enhance endurance performance through direct stimulation of the brain. Some of these, such as caffeine, seem ethically acceptable to most of us. Others, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (i.e., shocking the brain), not so much. It's another area where the fine line between legitimate performance enhancement and cheating will have to be negotiated.