How Bad Do You Want It?
Mind over body is the subject of a fascinating book by Matt Fitzgerald, recommended by a colleague. It’s on the subject of the limiting factor in endurance performance being the brain and not the body. It’s based on the 1990s work by South African Professor Tim Noakes, who has more than once proposed controversial ideas in human performance science.
Noakes’ mooted the central governor theory, which proposes that the brain ‘protects’ the body from damage by reducing the neural recruitment of muscle fibres, so that exercise intensity cannot damage the heart muscle. Therefore if you can control your mind and push through the toughest of circumstances, your body will deliver extraordinary performances. This is best demonstrated to a layperson like me at the end of brutal events. Where does that seemingly impossible burst come from at the end of the race? The brain anticipates the end of the risk to the body and lets the handbrake off, knowing safety is in sight.
The book tells the stories of various people who have produced performances well beyond what they believed possible, where mind over body was a key factor. While highly entertaining and inspiring, I have a creeping doubt about the theory. Simply because a good story doesn’t necessarily equate to there being any scientific basis for the notion.
What Would Goggins Do?
I recently read the new book “Never Finished: Unshackle your mind and win the war within” by ex-Navy Seal and ultramarathon runner David Goggins. His life story and feats of overcoming obstacles and prevailing are jaw-dropping. He makes mind over body a way of life, again and again. I listened to the audiobook, and his gravelly voice was compelling. Even his voice sounds tough. Goggins’ whole mentality is to seek out impossible challenges and complete them, and overcome myriad injuries and health problems and press on. Is this central governor theory or an aberration in mindset? Maybe Goggins is simply wired differently, his anxiety and fear driving him to achieve the seemingly impossible.
The Buddhist Mind Over Body Approach
I’m fortunate enough to know people with a much more robust approach to suffering than I can summon up. An old friend who completed the Marathon de Sables with a broken rib, having suffered the injury on the eve of the race with an ill-advised drinking session with another competitor. He told me, “it’s amazing what the mind can will the body to do”. He was unwavering in his mind-over-body approach. After his ‘retirement’ due to a hip replacement, he found being a spectator boring, so laid his camera down and joined in and finished an ultra marathon. The last time we spoke, he was a Buddhist priest in a high-security prison. Like Goggins, he marches to a different beat.
Mind over body comes from a different place for me. I don’t think I’m mentally tough. Yet I don’t tend to give up, either. When I find, for example, a long Gran Fondo or sportive tough, my inner chatter starts. I feel that it’s my amygdala in play, exercising its fight-or-flight capability. I tune into this consciously and try to be rational about the process. My frontal cortex, the CEO of my brain, tries to rescue me from the amygdala by taking back control. I stress this isn’t a story of the process leading me to glorious event wins. My idea of a win is finishing. And there’s nothing wrong with that approach.
I’ve set my goals for 2023, and mind over body will definitely be needed. So my current reading and reflection is helpful. I will get this done.