Mind over matter: how true is it? Urban legends about performance in sport.

My work in the last twenty years has focussed on the relation between the mind and performance. I’ve worked with Olympic teams competing in endurance sports such as cross-country skiing, triathlon, and canoeing. I’ve also worked with top athletes competing in disciplines not represented at the Olympic Games such as ultramarathon and mountaineering. 

I believe most athletes share the wrong mindset when it comes to performance, especially amateur athletes. Even in mountain biking. Sometimes we see downright denial, or a misplaced faith in the power of mind over body, :”The mind can achieve everything, there are no limits!”. These attitudes are both false and misleading. Yes, your attitude and mindset does influence performance. That much is true. It cannot achieve everything; if you are not well trained, being motivated will allow you, to a certain extent, to finish the HERO. However, it won’t allow you to pedal for hours on end and produce more watts than what you’re capable of.

Let’s get things straight for once. The following may very well help you train better and prepare for the HERO Südtirol Dolomites. 

Here are some important tips:

  1. The limits of an endurance sport are not mental: they are metabolic. It’s the size of your engine which ultimately determines the top speed you obtain during the race. That’s a fact. Believing anything other than that means believing your mind can achieve the impossible.
  2. However, we never really compete reaching our full metabolic performance.  This occurs due to some factors which influence performance, minimising the real limits compared to the theoretical ones. These factors are mental ones. The most common ones relate to anxiety and emotiveness. Most athletes train harder than they should and then can’t give it their all during a race. It’s as though these people reach their metabolic limit during training, underperforming during a race. To understand how emotional factors influence performance, let’s not forget that every psychological element, even thoughts and emotions, have a physical repercussion. Let’s say I’m scared of ending with egg on my face during the HERO Südtirol Dolomties, or I’m scared of not meeting my friends’ expectations: these fears will have mental and physical repercussions. Anxiety produces catecholamine (adrenaline, anyone?), which will accelerate your heart frequency on par with how many watts you produce. Anxiety could also lead to a higher consumption of hepatic and muscle glycogen levels, leaving you deadbeat halfway through the race. 
  3. Another psychological factor which is key in allowing us to reach our metabolic limit is our athletic pain threshold.  There are some athletes with massive engines who can’t reach a certain workout intensity. It’s highly unlikely they’ll do so during a race. There may be some athletes with smaller or older engines whose pain threshold is higher. They may very well beat the others. Pain threshold can be used as a motivational tool. Many people think you are born with it. That is wrong, as you can learn and improve it. Most of my experience as a psychologist has related to finding methods to increase this aspect. Mind and training are two sides of the same coin. A strong motivation will led me to train as hard as I can to my metabolic limit. A weak mindset will only allow me to reach a fraction of my metabolic potential. Now more than ever we need to work on our motivation, because it is influenced by our way of living. In fact, today’s society tends to overprotect us from any kind of physical distress, reducing our pain threshold. At least, that’s what I argue in my last book, Interior resistance techniques.

The bottom line is that the mind is not invincible it can help you make a difference, even during the HERO. 

I’ll speak more about this aspect in the next episodes.




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