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How To Actually Train Your Mind To Become A Better Runner

Alex Hutchinson
February 12, 2018
Alex Hutchinson
Written by
Photo by Jovo Jovanovic
February 12, 2018

Yes, self-confidence can make you try harder—but it can also work in more subtle ways. Telling runners they look relaxed makes them burn measurably less energy to sustain the same pace. Giving rugby players a postgame debriefing that focuses on what they did right rather than what they did wrong has effects that continue to linger a full week later, when the positive-feedback group will have higher testosterone levels and perform better in the next game. Even doing a good deed—or simply imagining yourself doing a good deed—can enhance your endurance by reinforcing your sense of agency.

You most likely can do more than you think.

When I was visiting Tim Noakes in Cape Town, I asked him what his theories about the brain’s role in endurance could tell us about training. If there’s a central governor, can you hone it? He answered me with an anecdote. During his days as a rower for the South African Universities team in the early 1970s, the crew regularly did a workout of six times 500 meters as hard as possible. "And one afternoon, we did our sixth and turned around to row back to the boathouse, and the coach says, ‘No, go to the start again. You’re doing another one.’ So we did another 500. And he said go back. And we did another four. And you know, no one would have believed that we could do that if you’d asked us." That lesson, he recalled, stuck with him—first as an athlete and later as a scientist: "You have to teach athletes, somewhere in their careers, that they can do more than they think they can."

The brain rules the body.

This epiphany has a lot in common with what Amby Burfoot, a former Boston Marathon champion and longtime Runner’s World editor, once described as the "absolute, no-doubt-in-the-world best running workout you can do." Burfoot was writing about a Yale University study in which the appetite hormones of a group of volunteers plunged after drinking what they were told was an "indulgent" high-calorie milkshake but didn’t budge when they drank a "sensible" low-calorie shake—even though the two drinks were actually identical. The brain rules the body, Burfoot concluded, which is why his super-workout consisted of 5 times a mile as hard as possible, followed by your coach telling you to do another at the same pace. "From this workout, you’ll learn forever that you’re capable of much more than you think," he wrote. "It’s the most powerful lesson you can possibly learn in running." To Burfoot, the real point is more general: strong belief in oneself.

Is the mind the new frontier of movement? We here at mbg believe in the effect of positive thinking to power us through our lives, especially when it comes to approaching fitness in a much more holistic way. Here's to the future of fitness following a more intentional and mindful path, without necessarily comprising on a good sweat.

Based on excerpts from Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Copyright ©2018 by Alex Hutchinson. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Alex Hutchinson author page.
Alex Hutchinson

Alex Hutchinson, Ph.D. is a columnist for Outside magazine and was a longtime columnist for Runner’s World. He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker online, pens the biweekly Jockology column in the Toronto Globe and Mail, and writes for the New York Times. FiveThirtyEight recently named him one of their "favorite running science geeks." He was a two-time finalist in the 1,500-meter at the Canadian Olympic Trials and represented Canada internationally in track, cross country, road racing, and mountain running competitions. He holds a Ph.D. in physics from Cambridge and has worked as a researcher for the U.S. National Security Agency. He lives in Toronto, Canada.