It's all in your head (previously published in the Crag & Canyon)

It's all in your head (previously published in the Crag & Canyon)

The power of the brain cannot be underestimated! “Mind over Matter” is somewhat of a cliché,  but like most clichés, there’s some underlying truth to the statement. I find this an utterly fascinating topic, and one which I’m going to explore in my next few columns.

If you’ve ever watched a marathon, or run one yourself, you’ll no doubt have seen all the sprint finishes, particularly amongst the slower runners.  You yourself may have somehow found that extra gear in the final few metres and out kicked the runner along side you. I can guarantee that 2 or 3 miles back up the road, you didn’t think it was possible to dig any deeper, yet here you are, finish line in sight, able to eke out a bit more energy and kick things up a notch. That’s the power of the mind.

I’ve always been intrigued by the power of the brain. Seemingly at the flick of a switch, some athletes can turn things around. They can push just that little bit harder in their race; they can dial in that free throw or that serve on the court, at a crucial moment.  I’ve looked after a lot of elite athletes over the years, dozens of Olympians, and I can tell you that on the world stage everyone is at the top of their game physically; yet some athletes just seem to rise to the occasion. They have the mindset and belief that they are unbeatable. If it were all about physiology, then it would be very easy to predict the winner of any endurance based event, but the skier or the runner with the biggest VO2max doesn’t always win. Mindset exerts a powerful influence, and sports psychologists are figuring out how we can maximize our mental potential.

Elite performers use many different techniques. Visualisation is one commonly used technique. In a fascinating study at the University of Chicago in 1996, researchers had people shoot hoops on the basketball court. They recorded accuracy, then divided the shooters into three groups. The first group practiced taking free throws for an hour a day. The second group didn’t take any additional shots, but were instructed to spend time each day with their eyes closed, imagining they were draining shot after shot. They were visualizing hitting all of their free throws. The third group did nothing. Surprise, surprise, when they were retested 30 days later, the group that practised taking shots daily had improved - by an impressive 24%. The group who did nothing did not make any gains, perhaps unsurprisingly, but the second group that didn’t take any additional shots, but who imagined making free throws, had somehow improved their accuracy by 23%!

This isn’t to say that you should just day dream yourself into shape, rather that mental imagery can be an effective way to give yourself an extra competitive edge.

Skilled tasks are one thing, but the brain also seems to have a powerful effect on strength. You may have read stories of bystanders who are able to summon apparently superhuman strength when presented with victims trapped under cars. In 2015 a nineteen year old girl in Virginia was able to heave her father’s burning truck off him when it slipped off its jack and caught fire as he was working underneath it. This would be the equivalent of a world record deadlift, and has been labelled ‘hysterical strength’ by some. Somehow, when presented with an acute crisis, we are able to summon incredible reserves of strength. If only we were able to tap into these reserves at will, imagine what could be possible!

These are just a few real world examples of the potential power we can harness by fine tuning our minds. In my next column we’ll look at how two well-known Bow Valley ultra runners use the power of their brains to get them through tough times when racing, but remember that it’s not just the elites that benefit from these techniques! Whether you’re competing with the world’s best, or simply trying to get out the door to begin an exercise program, we can all benefit from this most powerful tool.