Cycling Motivation: Is it Really Mind Over Matter?

Many things go wandering through between our ears over the course of a time trial. We do our best to ignore the constant chorus of pain and agony. One way to do that is to tell ourselves some stories, like maybe we're doing better than we actually are. But can lying to yourself really make you faster?

Bridging the Chasm

Over the past dozen years, perhaps the most interesting paradigm shift in exercise physiology is its open integration with the world of sport psychology. No longer two distinct and disconnected fields, more and more scientists on both sides of the great divide between the mind and the body are realizing that the chasm was actually "in the mind" rather than in reality.

Specifically, one of the hottest topics in exercise science is understanding the role of how physiological afferents (physical sensations like temperature, breathing rate, muscle strain, etc.) are integrated into an overall sensation of effort in the brain, and how this then becomes used by the body to determine how hard it can, or is willing, to work.

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In my own field of thermo-physiology, the basis of my studies have explored how much voluntary muscle recruitment we are capable of as we exercise, demonstrating that a rising core temperature decreases our voluntary muscle capacity.

Other studies show that marathon performances are worse across all ability levels as it gets warmer, even though our actual physiological capacity to sprint in the latter stages of a run show that we're nowhere near our physical capacity. So when does the brain begin to control our physiologic efforts?

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Stuck in a Groove

In the latest proposals for how the body fatigues and what factors go into it, scientists have identified another important mechanism or driving force called the "template" that the brain works from. While we may integrate physical sensations in real time, we all start with a pre-conceived plan for how we'll tackle a workout or a race (let's say a time trial to keep pack dynamics out of it).

The brain's template includes many factors. The first and probably most important criteria is simply prior experience. If you know and are convinced that your best ever 10K time trial is 15 minutes (40 kilometer per hour pace), subconsciously that's the rough effort that you will default towards at the start.

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