As you watch Shaun White execute a trick on the half-pipe, or Ashley Wagner land a triple axel, or Lindsey Vonn race down the slope, you might ask yourself a question: what, exactly, separates me from these Olympic athletes?
Obviously, there’s the years of training and the fact that they’re extraordinarily fit, but there’s also something else — something mental. Something that lets them push their limits. To find out exactly what this is, we talked with Alex Hutchinson, author of "Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance."
Hutchinson says that the mind plays a big role in the body’s performance. Consider a marathon. If you look at large numbers of racers’ finish times, you’ll find that there are big spikes in the number of people completing the marathon before the three-hour mark, the four-hour mark, and the five-hour mark. People care a lot about finishing before these hour marks: it’s highly preferable to have a 3:59 time over a 4:01 time.
Hutchinson points out that in a marathon, everyone is giving all they have. “If you talk to someone who ran a 4:03 marathon, and you ask if they were trying hard at the end, they’re going to say, ‘Darn right, I was trying hard, I was giving everything I could.’”
But even if they felt like they were giving everything they could, they might be able to give just a little bit more. When there’s a big incentive, Hutchinson said, “you discover that 'Oh actually, there was another gear, but my brain was hiding it from me.'"
And there’s even more evidence of the mind’s importance over matter. Hutchinson points to a 2016 study in which cyclists were put in a 95-degree heat chamber and told to ride until they couldn’t possibly ride anymore. (Sounds like a fun study.) These cyclists were then given two weeks of training in “motivational self-talk,” learning to replace negative thoughts with positive ones; things like “you’re doing well.”
After this change in thinking, the athletes were able to increase their times significantly. It also allowed them to, on average, push their core temperature half a degree higher before quitting. Motivational self-talk might seem, as Hutchinson admits, a bit “woo-woo,” but our brains have a powerful influence on how much we can push our physical limits. But indeed, there are limits.
“It doesn’t matter how strong my mind is,” Hutchinson said, “I’m not going to go out and win the Tour de France this summer. It’s more a question about getting more out of yourself, rather than suddenly becoming Superman.”
And yes, there are genetics involved. But being able to push the limits of your endurance is a learned skill that no one is born with, according to Hutchinson. It requires becoming comfortable with pain.
“Athletes feel pain the same as the rest of us. They don’t have a dulled sense of pain,” Hutchinson said. “They’re just willing to tolerate it for longer.”
It's not just athletes who can benefit from these ideas about the connection between mind and body — anyone that’s interested in pushing their physical (or even mental) limits can benefit. Hutchinson feels that there’s actually some leeway between when our body gives us a warning sign, and when we actually hit a limit. That isn’t to say that you should go hurt yourself at the gym, but if you’re panting hard on the treadmill, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop.
“The feeling that it’s hard is a feeling, and getting comfortable with that feeling will allow you to tolerate it for a little bit longer,” Hutchinson said.