How your perceptions influence reality

            The last time I mentioned dating in my blog, I got the most hits in my blogs history thanks to my spiel about breaking up with a girl because she did crossfit. So I figured I should use that same tactic again, to attract more visitors who don’t find my scientific treatise on various studies as interesting as my love life.

I’m just kidding…well sort of…in this blog I want to switch gears slightly from the normal training based ones, and look at something that relates in a very real but somewhat roundabout way. Bare with me and I promise I’ll connect it all back to running and training, or at least do my best to try to…

            How we perceive the world around us directly influences everything we do. Whether we frame a challenge as positive or negative can directly manipulate and influence the outcome of that challenge. If we see ourselves as someone who has little willpower, we’ll likely have a self-fulfilling prophecy and suffer in the willpower department. And it goes beyond how we see ourselves, but also how we perceive objects, other people, and how they perceive us. All of this wonderful feedback from the periphery of the world helps to decipher what decisions we make, actions we take, and bias we hold on to so tightly. Before getting into a philosophical diatribe on the human mind and the way the world works, let’s start with a story about myself.

Slacker? Nerd? Jock? Scientists? The many perceptions of me

My (much) younger sister just graduated High School, which makes me feel really old. But at her graduation party, I got in a conversation with a family friend who had a daughter who went to HS with me. It was really interesting, because it gave a brief glimpse into how others perceived me.

She talked about how her daughter would come home from HS and tell her about how I fell asleep in class (I’m blaming this one on 80+mpw in HS...) or didn’t study for a test or didn’t read the latest books (which was true…and weird because I read a ton now) and yet would still do well in the class or on the next test.  That kind of summed up how I was perceived in HS. I was this kid who ran a ton, cared about running, and people knew was moderately smart, but were surprised I was in the top 10% of my class and all that jazz, because I didn’t give off the perception of being super smart compared to my classmates around me.

On a similar note, when I ran into a friend who was on the CC team at Rice with me my freshman and sophomore year, they started talking to me about my book and how they had no idea I knew so much about the science of running. Without belaboring the point, I essentially listened to them talk for 5 minutes about how they had no clue I was “that smart.” Why? Because at Rice, a school that likes to tout itself as an Ivy of the South, so it attracts similar perceived people, I was kind of painted as the kind of smart kid who ran really fast and only cared about running. Which, was an accurate portrayal at that point in my life. I really didn’t care about academics as much as I should have. But that perception stuck. So in her mind, her perception of me was still that of the kid who only ran a lot and really didn’t care about anything else.

I could sit here and psychoanalyze the situation and give you reasons why I went with this “smart but slacker” perception in HS. I’d tell you that if you look at my brother’s class rank of 14, mine of like 35, and my sister’s of 3 (all out of classes of about 750-800 kids), I was the lowest. And how my older brother had laid down the expectations of our family being smart, so perhaps I rebelled against that, latched onto my athletic side (which my brother didn’t have…), and did enough to get by and “not disappoint” on the academic side.  That would be my amateur psychological take,  but…

What’s the point of all of this?

Because now, whether rightly or wrongly, the perception has mostly switched in the running world I’m in now. Thanks probably to my blog and book and all of that, I get labeled as this smart science geek who knows a bunch about science and running. I’m the smart kid who reads the books, probably spends too much time studying and researching. I’m the guy who would probably be annoyed by the “slacker who doesn’t care about academics” even though that was people’s perception of me not terribly long ago.

But it doesn’t end there. One last quick comparison to show that it isn’t just time that matters. I’m lucky enough to ride this line between research scientists and coaches. I get to talk to each group of individuals and it always gives me an interesting lesson on perspective. When I talk to coaches, I get labeled as a “science” coach. (I realize this is my fault because my blog/book are called “The Science of Running”). And it often comes as a negative connotation. They think I’m all about the science and don’t know how to do the “art” of coaching. While if you read this blog and watched me coach, you’d realize it’s way more art than science. The perception holds, to coaches, I’m a “science” coach.

On the other hand, when I talk to exercise scientists, I’m too much coach and not enough scientists. I’m seen as this guy who doesn’t follow exactly what the research tells us and instead brings too much art and history into the training practices. My perception in this world is that of a coach, not a scientist.

So what we’re left with is a lesson in two different views of me. Two different perceptions at the exact same time, presenting the same thoughts, ideas, and data to each separate group. The difference is that their inherent bias and experiences influence their perception of me.  Sure, I contribute to me being labeled one way or another, but the reality is these groups perceptions changed based on their experience and what box they can stick me into to.

The lesson is, as people we like to stick people in neat little categories. It’s human nature to categorize based on pattern recognition. It’s a whole lot easier and less time consuming to stick people in a few little categories then to remember every single person we meet and what they’re exact personality and likeness entail. And while these categories might give you a reasonable sense of the person or object, the reality is it’s skewed by our experiences, bias, and most of all our perceptions. It’s the reason why without even thinking about it or the thought reaching conscious perception, that we may be more or less likely to say “Hi” to someone based on the way they are dressed, how they look, the smell they put off, how they are slouched or walking, or whatever it is. We are built to see cues, categorize, and create a perception.

 We create that perception.

I probably am a slacker in some senses, a nerd in others, and an athlete in another.  

Unveiling the distorted view of ourselves:
Which brings me back to dating. Well, sort of.

It’s not often that we get a brutally honest perception of how others see us. Often times, it’s much better that we don’t and that we get to keep that sweet idea of who we are in our own little head. But, if we can step outside of our emotional selves for just a second, it can be a very eye opening experience.

Enter the dating app, Tinder.

Now for those of you who don’t know what Tinder is, it’s a simple app where it shows you other singles pictures within a close proximity (25mi or so) and you essentially click/swipe “like” or “not”. If both of you end up swiping “like”, it matches you up and you have a match. Sure there’s a place where you can write a few sentences about how awesome you are, but let’s be real, it’s the perception of the picture that matters. It’s the first gut instinct of whoever is looking at that one picture of you and deciding “could I date him/her or not” or one of many other questions along similar but more nefarious lines. Being oblivious to most social things now a days, one day my single roommate was doing the swipe yes/no thing and intrigued I asked him what the heck it was, and the first thing that popped into my head wasn’t using it for dates…

 Now, let’s be honest, this is a brutal and almost barbaric assessment, and when you delve deep into the psychological ramifications/process of “dating” via this method, it’s pretty bleak. Which is why I would never use it for that, but…

As a social experiment, it’s pretty flipping awesome (soo maybe I am a science geek?). Think about it. If you game the system, you get an instant, brutal and we’ll assume honest (because why else would guys/girls actually use it) reaction of what people’s perceptions of you are based on a picture.

And while this could be dangerous, in the right light, it’s pretty intriguing. So what should you do? Simple. Put up a few pictures of you being you, representing your normal self. No make-up fakeness for the ladies or spray on tan for the guys. Just you doing normal you stuff.  Then swipe “yes” on EVERY single picture. Why? Because if you swipe “yes” on every single person then you will know everyone who swiped yes on you.

What you’re left with is an interesting amalgamation of people who “liked” you or had a perception of liking your picture. If you scroll through your “matches” you get an inside look at patterns of people who “like” that picture of you. Whatever

Next, have some fun with it. Put up that shirtless running picture of your soaking wet 130lb runner’s body and see if it attracts different people (it will…), or put on tons of makeup if you’re a women, or do something ridiculous in the picture.  Then repeat the experiment. (For an interesting twist for those who travel, my suggestion is to try a new thing in each city you visit and track the differences). Whatever it is, you can run your own little social science experiment to see how the perceptions you create via your photos influence people’s perceptions of you.

As I said, this can enlighten, depress, or just plain weird you out. So only suggested for those science geeks who are intrigued by analyzing perceptions. Now that you are either freaked out, scared, or perplexed by the random nonsensical ideas and experiments I get in my head, let’s move on.

The Perception of our Future Self
Back to reality and let us see if we can tie this mishmash of stories, dating apps, and ludicrousness back to something worthwhile.

What’s the point? The point is that perception governs reality. How you are perceived, how you perceive others, what you perceive tasks as, all matters. The way the human mind works is that we categorize. The brain is a pattern recognizing pro, so we like to find patterns and stick people, places, and things into these patterns.

There’s the mismatch though of how we perceive that person or thing and how well it fits into that category. It turns out that mismatch matters.

When we’re looking at perception of ourselves, for example, we can look to research on how we see ourselves now, versus the future. In cognitive psychology, the study of future self relies on how well our vision of our present self overlaps with our vision of our future self.
What we’re left with in this little graphic isn’t just an intriguing picture. We see varying degrees of mismatch between how we perceive ourselves now versus what we think we will be in the future.

The interesting thing is that we mostly suck at it. Most people see our future self as an idolized version of our present self. We think we’ll have more time, money, happiness, etc. in the future because our mind likes to conveniently think about the good things while ignoring the smaller issues in our life.

In fact, fMRI research has shown that the way the brain actually thinks about our future self is as if we are looking at a stranger.  (Mitchell et al. 2011)

What is intriguing though is that this degree of mismatch tends to correlate with a wide variety of activites. So the more overlap (lower mismatch), the more likely a person is to save more money, not go into debt, and delay gratification. The less overlap, and the more we see our future self as a stranger, the more we risk that strangers future. So we are more likely to not save money, give in to temptation, show lower ethics, and so forth.

Why? Well it makes sense that if we perceive us as our future self, we’ll be more willing to help that future person out. If we perceive them as a stranger, like fMRI research shows, well, who wants to help a stranger out when you could help yourself out now?

To the brain, It all makes logical sense.

So what?
Instead of trying to give a point by point-on how it all matters, let me end with a few stories, since it seems to one of those kinds of blogs.

In my college heyday I use to average about 110mpw for weeks and months on end. It became my norm. Now I run 60-70mpw most weeks and it feels like I’m doing absolutely nothing but jogging around. For a large majority of  runners, even some professional, 60+mpw seems like a lot. The difference is that because my body was adjusted to much higher training loads both physically and mentally, I still perceive 60 as nothing. So it’s not a chore to do. It’s the same with Josh Mcdougal who after years of 130+mpw, can slip back into running 100+mpw after a 5 year layoff without any mental issues in doing it. He’s still got that perception that 100 is normal.

Similarly, I’ve had athletes who went to Africa, for example Sara Hall, and the biggest difference wasn’t the training at high altitude or anything like that, but the change in perspective. The seeing the world’s best grind it out, have good and bad days, struggle but still have confidence, run amazing workouts, and all of that good stuff. It’s perspective that changes. It’s not some amazing training secret.

You see it in high school running all of the time. Did I run 4:01 in HS because I was way more talented than any other HS kid in the nation? Nope. I ran 4:01 because at the time with Alan Webb, Ryan Hall, and Don Sage all around there, it didn’t seem that fast anymore. It was kind of a norm that could be achievable. The same thing is happening on the women’s side in HS right now with some ridiculously fast HS girl milers.

It’s why I sometimes suggest athletes to do a relatively big block of training, whether it’s intense or high volume, just to change perception. If you run 100 miles in a week, survive, and don’t feel like death, all of the sudden life gets easier. It’s like my old teammate, friend, and former World XC qualifier, Marcel Hewamudalige says now, “I figure if I could put in 100+mpw for month after month, then working 60+hour weeks for a bit, isn’t that hard.”

Sometimes, we have to do things to change what our perception of normal is. If we shift the top end up, all of the sudden normal doesn’t feel that bad.

If all you know as your max is 60mpw and 2 workouts and a 90min long run a week, and you average 50-55mpw with a similar week, then your perception is that you’re always pushing your max effort. You’re riding the line and there’s not much gap between what you’re perceived max is and you’re norm is. If on the other hand, you’ve done 85mpw with a 120min long run before, and survived with at least a neutral or somewhat positive outlook on it, then all of the sudden we have a gap. And those 55mpw weeks aren’t pushing the boundaries day in and day out. And If I had to venture a guess, I’d say your chances of overtraining are way down.

Am I saying go do a crash training week or two? No. Whether it’s running or life, find something that changes perspective.

You need to find the degree of mismatch and overlap that you need. In running, often times we need more of a mismatch to show us that more is possible and that we aren’t redlining it all the time in training, workouts, and racing. In life and perceiving yourself we often need the opposite. We need to know that we will be different in the future, but not so much that we gamble away our present for a future that won’t come.

Find your mismatch between what you perceive of your life, running, job, friends, or whatever it is.


  1. Very interesting. Phil Maffetone used to tell beginning marathoners to do long runs of 20 to 26 miles then do a lot of walking at the end. The perspective changes - for some mysterious reason 26.2 doesn't feel at long anymore, and the marathon becomes easier (because we don't emotionally "fight" it? Who knows?).

    I've found it's much easier to increase mileage enjoyable if I don't slog, but run the ones that count (not easy recovery runs) at 80% to 85% of MHR. Energy has a huge effect on enjoyment (and of course progress). Again - a perspective change. Jogging 60 MPW is unbearably dreary.

  2. Something which is probably related to how perception influences reality and also very surprising (if we think a bit about it!) is how, when we reach a higher level of performance, it becames just a new norm (even if it was difficult to reach that level or after a prolonged break and a decrease in fitness). I'm sure there is a key psychological role there.

  3. Amazing insight, thanks


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