The brain is an amazing and at the same time mysterious organ. It coordinates all the systems of the body to maintain homoeostasis. In doing so it balances the internal operating system against the external environment to ensure we, as a whole, survive. If we are low on energy we get hungry, if we need water we get thirsty and if we get hot we sweat. Similar to a mother with a large brood of children the brain controls its systems by keeping them in check. Allowing only a small amount of leeway for each of her children. In doing this, the brain does occasionally allow us to eat more than we need, sleep more or less than is ideal and at times push the limits of what the brain knows is acceptable. However, it will generally err on the side of caution. Based on this simple analogy we can infer that the brain's job is to keep all the systems safe and functioning as a sum of the whole, so we as an organism can live into old age.
The endurance athlete is the wild uncontrollable child that the brain struggles to deal with. Pushing the limits and at times placing our body in what the brain interprets as potential danger. Burning more fuel than is deemed necessary or pushing heart, lungs and muscles further than is needed by the body to live comfortably. The brain will try various ways to shut this recalcitrant endurance child down. The brain being the all knowing mother of the body, it is very good at using a wide range of methods to shut down what it considers to be dangerous behaviour. Your brain wants you to quit. Decreasing your pain threshold, increasing your thirst and hunger cravings, or holding back electrolytes to cause cramping. However, the most effective weapon in its arsenal is psychological warfare. The mind has the ability to convince you that sleeping in, eating more, pushing less and ultimately stopping will bring you more comfort than the feeling of euphoria generated through exercise.
So how can you beat the brain to push your body beyond the stringent safety limits imposed on you by an overzealous protector? The short answer is you can't beat it, per se... but you can distract the brain and gradually relax its safety limits. It is important to realise that you are in control of your mind (a separate entity to your brain, the organ). Through it you have the ability to partially arrest the relentless control placed upon your body by an overprotective brain.
In order to do this you need to develop your own arsenal of tricks. The easiest is to use a form of sensory displacement/replacement methodology. In this you displace negative thoughts from the current moment and replace them with positive thoughts from a previous experience. By using this technique you will essentially be using a capture/recapture technique where positive memories are captured from a previous time and place and, in those darker times of training/racing, you can recapture them. This will bring about an overall positive change in your mindset, distracting your brain. Examples may include replaying the experience of running triumphantly down a finishing chute, or non-racing experiences such as your wedding day or the birth of your children. You can also use physical triggers, such as placing a picture of loved ones on your bike to refocus you on the sacrifices of others for you to achieve your goal.
Taking this strategy further, you can incorporate sensory association, whereby you regularly pinch your fingers together with a light pressure (outside of training) and think of positive moments in your life. Then, in those darker times, you can repeat the action to bring back the sensory association and recapture a feeling of positivity.
As soon as you allow the brain to arrest control away from this process, then the brain will start to chip away at your resolve. It is the voice in your head screaming at you to stop. However, each time you successfully push beyond what the brain deems to be your body's boundaries, your limits will expand. Ultimately you need to ensure that you control the moment and in doing so maximise your potential.
By Sean Riley